The very first 3D printed rocket engine by NASA is coming closer to reality as the space agency prints one piece at a time.
Scientists believe that 3D printing is the technology of the future when it comes to space exploration, making it safer and even more affordable. The 3D printed pieces and engines will be tested using methane-key propellants and liquid oxygen since the production of the two elements might be possible on Mars
Elizabeth Robertson, the project manages in charge with 3D printing the first additively manufactured rocket engine claims that up to this moment her team has printed and tested almost 75 percent of the parts needed for the first 3D printed rocket engine to become a reality.
The team tested together valves, injectors and turbopumps demonstrating that the 3D printed engine can have multiple uses, from landers to in-space propulsion.
The printing and the individual testing of the parts took about three years. In order to test them together they connected the pieces to work as they would in a real engine. The next step is to test their performance in a real engine environment, at extreme temperature and pressures.
The turbopump works at 90,000 rotations per minute and produces more than 20,000 pounds of thrust. It has enough power for a Mars lander.
The 3D printed parts were tested in seven different tests that simulated the conditions of extreme environments they would have to face in a rocket engine which burns fuel at a temperature higher than 6,000 Fahrenheit degrees (3,315 Celsius degrees) to produce thrust.
The turbopump is the part responsible for the delivery of the fuel, which comes as liquid hydrogen cooled under 400 Fahrenheit degrees (-240 Celsius). To simulate this, the tests were performed using liquid oxygen and cryogenic liquid hydrogen.
The process of making the parts is simple in comparison. The design of each part is entered in a computer connected to a 3D printer. The printer starts building the part by fusing metal powder using a laser. This process is called the selective laser melting. The technique of 3D printing made it possible for the turbopump – one of the most complex parts – to require 45 percent fewer parts than turbopumps made with traditional techniques.
Scientists agree that using 3D printing is a revolutionary process which opens new opportunities for the design of space elements and which allows geometries that would have never been possible using traditional methods.
Image source: pixabay