A NASA team is one step closer to building a 100 percent 3D-printed rocket engine. While they have been exploring additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, for the past three years, engine parts were previously only tested on their own. Now, engineers have put the parts together and successfully test fired them at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, proving that 3D printing is a realistic option for manufacturing future rocket engines.
“We manufactured and then tested about 75 percent of the parts needed to build a 3-D printed rocket engine,” said Elizabeth Robertson, the project manager. “By testing the turbopumps, injectors and valves together, we’ve shown that it would be possible to build a 3-D printed engine for multiple purposes such as landers, in-space propulsion or rocket engine upper stages.”
To test the parts, they connected them together on a test bench. “In engineering lingo, this is called a breadboard engine,” explained NASA propulsion engineer Nick Case. “What matters is that the parts work the same way as they do in a conventional engine and perform under the extreme temperatures and pressures found inside a rocket engine.”
The NASA team used a specialized 3D printer to make the parts. The printer uses lasers to fuse together layers of metal powder. Compared to traditional methods, 3D printing is less expensive, faster, and it produces sturdier parts. The injector, for example, had over 200 fewer parts than traditionally manufactured injectors, and it incorporated new features that were only possible because of the flexibility that 3D printing provides.