3D printing has helped NASA do the undoable, again. They have just successfully tested the most complex rocket engine parts ever designed by the agency and printed with additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, on a test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA engineers pushed the limits of technology by designing a rocket engine injector – a highly complex part that sends propellant into the engine – with design features that took advantage of 3-D printing. To make the parts, the design was entered into the 3-D printer’s computer. The printer then built each part by layering metal powder and fusing it together with a laser, a process known as selective laser melting. You follow, good!
This additive manufacturing process allowed rocket designers to create an injector with 40 individual spray elements, all printed as a single component rather than manufactured individually. The part was similar in size to injectors that power small rocket engines and similar in design to injectors for large engines, such as the RS-25 engine that will power NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars.
“We wanted to go a step beyond just testing an injector and demonstrate how 3-D printing could revolutionize rocket designs for increased system performance,” said Chris Singer, director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate. “The parts performed exceptionally well during the tests.”
By using traditional manufacturing methods, 163 individual parts would be made and then assembled. But with 3-D printing technology, only two parts were required, saving time and money and allowing engineers to build parts that enhance rocket engine performance and are less prone to failure.
It seems almost a weekly occurrence now where we learn of another advancement in technology, made possible through 3D printing. With this new rocket, the sky is no longer the limit for 3D printing.