3D printers are solving some of the most intricate problems in manufacturing. They have been used to print drugs, glass and even chocolate! Now, NASA is putting the 3D printer through its paces. The agency has been testing whether 3D-printed rocket engine parts can withstand the epic pressure and heat associated with a launch into space.
So far, the researchers have not seen any difference between their 3D-printed parts and parts manufactured using more traditional means. The rocket components were blasted for a total of 46 seconds with a scorching temperature of 3,300°C (6,000°F) over a series of 11 mainstage hot-fire tests. The 3D parts faced the burning liquid oxygen and scorching gaseous hydrogen without breaking a sweat.
Sandra Elam Greene, who oversaw the tests, said that the "two separate 3-D printed injectors operated beautifully during all hot-fire tests."
One of the first tests of a 3D-printed rocket injector. NASA's Marshall Center.
This development is a step in the right direction for rocket manufacturing as building engine parts is currently very expensive. The use of 3D-printed parts would be more affordable and could reduce space budgets, as well as slash the time it takes to make the parts. Currently, a traditionally made rocket injector takes six months and $10,000 to make. However, this 3D-printed injector took three weeks from printing to testing, with a halved budget of $5,000.
"Rocket engines are complex, with hundreds of individual components that many suppliers typically build and assemble, so testing an engine component built with a new process helps verify that it might be an affordable way to make future rockets," said Chris Singer, director of the Marshall Center's Engineering Directorate. "The additive manufacturing process has the potential to reduce the time and cost associated with making complex parts by an order of magnitude."
3D-printed rocket injector straight out of the printer (left) and after polishing (right). NASA/MFC.
While this tool will be fantastic on Earth, NASA has even higher aspirations for their 3D printers – 400 kilometers (248 miles) high to be precise. NASA is working with the company Made In Space to create a printer that hopefully will be used on the International Space Station (ISS) by next year.
This tool would give astronauts the ability to produce objects that would otherwise require skilled engineers. More importantly, they can just download spare parts instead of waiting for them to be sent up on the next resupply mission.