It seems the sky’s the limit when it comes to 3D printing, with NASA’s latest announcement that they have successfully tested rocket engine parts that were produced using the infamous additive manufacturing process.
NASA engineers designed an extremely complex rocket part—an injector that sends propellant into the engine—and plugged the blueprint into a computer hooked up to a 3D printer. The printer then made the injector parts by adding layers of metal powder and melting it with a laser.
Conventional manufacturing techniques would have required the production and assembly of 163 individual parts, whereas 3D printing cut this down to just two. This not only shaves off a significant amount of time and money, but also produces superior parts that boost performance and are less likely to fail.
“We wanted to go a step beyond testing an injector and demonstrate how 3D printing could revolutionize rocket designs for increased system performance,” director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate Chris Singer said in a news release.
The printed part is smaller but similar in design to the injector that will be used in NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, the world’s most powerful deep space rocket that will hopefully send humans to Mars in the 2020s.
NASA scientists successfully tested two 3D printed injectors for five seconds each, producing 20,000 pounds (9,000 kg) of thrust. Their unique design allows oxygen and hydrogen to first swirl together before combusting at 1,400 pounds (635 kg) per square inch.
In-house 3D printing is advantageous to traditional manufacturing techniques because it allows scientists to rapidly churn out modifications if required, dramatically speeding up the entire testing process. The ultimate goal is to use additive manufacturing to produce cheaper but more reliable parts for future engines, which will hopefully facilitate deep space missions.