Aug.28, 2013

Earlier this month, NASA announced it has finished hot fire testing a rocket engine injector made through additive manufacturing. It is claimed the technology may lead to more efficient manufacturing of rocket engines. On Tuesday NASA revealed the largest 3D printed rocket engine component NASA has tested generated a record 20,000 pounds of thrust last week.

This test is a milestone for one of many important advances the agency is making to reduce the cost of space hardware, said the space agency.

Image: NASA/MSFC/David Olive

The injector delivers propellants to power an engine and provides the thrust necessary to send rockets to space. During the injector test, liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen passed through the component into a combustion chamber and produced 10 times more thrust than any injector previously fabricated using 3D printing.

The component was manufactured using a sophisticated form of 3D printing: selective laser melting. NASA scientists took the design of an existing injector and modified the design so the injector could be made with a 3-D printer.

The selective laser melting method built up layers of nickel-chromium alloy powder to make the complex, subscale injector with its 28 elements for channeling and mixing propellants. The part was similar in size to injectors that power small rocket engines. It was similar in design to injectors for large engines, such as the RS-25 engine that will power NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for deep space human missions to an asteroid and Mars.

One of the keys to reducing the cost of rocket parts is minimizing the number of components. This injector had only two parts, whereas a similar injector tested earlier had 115 parts. Fewer parts require less assembly effort, which means complex parts made with 3-D printing have the potential for significant cost savings.

"We took the design of an existing injector that we already tested and modified the design so the injector could be made with a 3-D printer," explained Brad Bullard, the propulsion engineer responsible for the injector design. It should be noted that the test was conducted at pressures up to 1,400 pounds per square inch in a vacuum and at almost 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This technology can be applied to any of SLS's engines, or to rocket components being built by private industry." said Greg Barnett, the lead engineer for the project.

The injector was made by Directed Manufacturing Inc., of Austin, Texas, but NASA owns the injector design. NASA will make the test and materials data available to all U.S. companies through the Materials and Processes Information System database managed by Marshall's materials and processes laboratory.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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