NASA engineers are currently building a 3D-printed rocket engine, and so far have managed to develop parts that are fully functional.
So far, approximately three-quarters of all the components have been created, and experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have already conducted tests which prove that the revolutionary jet engine might actually work just as effectively as a traditional one.
Research was carried out at the Marshall Space Flight Center from Huntsville, Alabama, and was led by project manager Elizabeth Robertson.
The layers of material created through 3D printing were made out of metal powder, and were successfully blended through a technique called selective laser melting.
Producing components this way sped up the entire process, valves whose manufacturing would’ve normally required a year being ready in just a matter of months.
Moreover, costs were diminished, since the number of parts was greatly reduced, while intricacy and complexity remained just as high. The injector for instance consisted in around a couple of hundred fewer elements, while the turbo pump also had just 55% of its usual constituents.
The propellants that were used consisted in cryogenic fuel, such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
After assembling the building blocks of the rocket engine, a set of 7 experiments were performed in order to assess the effectiveness of the system comprising valves, propellant pumps and injectors which carry fuel to the combustion chamber.
As revealed by Nick Case, the leader of the project’s testing team, during the trial it was determined that the turbo pump can reach 90,000 revolutions per minute, and the “breadboard engine” made up of 3D parts is capable of producing a flame with a thrust amounting to a staggering 20,000 pounds.
The most extensive simulation lasted around 10 seconds, and the engine’s sturdiness was assessed in exceptionally harsh conditions, the equipment proving it can withstand temperatures ranging from -400 degrees Fahrenheit (-240 degrees Celsius) to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit (3,315 degrees Celsius).
Thus, the researchers’ fears that the fabric of the reaction engine would be overly fragile compared to traditional construction materials were alleviated, since the propulsion system was found to be safe enough to become part of an actual rocket launch.
Therefore, it is now believed that such an engine could definitely be used for space missions throughout our solar system, 3D printing appearing as a viable technology for ensuring the propulsion of spacecraft.
It could also help generate sufficient power for a Mars lander, or it could be effectively incorporated in multistage rockets, these launch vehicles having the advantage of reaching much higher altitudes and velocities in the final phases.
For now, NASA experts are planning to incorporate other 3D printed units in the rocket engine, such as a nozzle, a combustor and a propellant pump, and will be attempting to use methane and liquid oxygen as fuels instead, because these elements could be developed even during missions on the Red Planet.
Researchers will also continue to evaluate the reliability and potential risks associated with additive manufacturing.
This type of technique, through which equipment is built based on a digital 3D model which is re-created in successive cross-sections or layers, has become increasingly popular nowadays, especially in aeronautics and the medical sector, and its true potential remains uncharted.
Image Source: NASA