Sep 14, 2015 | By Benedict

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s interest in 3D printing technology is showing no signs of slowing down. Less than a month ago, NASA were reported to be interested in Aurora Labs’ ultra-fast metal 3D printer. Now, engineers at NASA have been conducting tests on 3D-printed rocket engine parts, comparing their stability to equivalent parts made by traditional welding and forging. 

Recent testing at Huntsville

The Saturn V rocket

The F-1 engine, which propelled the Saturn V rocket which is used by NASA between 1966 and 1973, is not currently in operation. However, engineers were able to test the gas generator, a 1960’s era part of the F-1 engine, in 2013 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Now, a replica of this part, made with additive manufacturing, has been tested on the same stand in the same location. This has enabled engineers to directly compare the stability and effectiveness of the 3-D printed component to that of the original. 

"This test gave NASA the rare opportunity to test a 3-D printed rocket engine part, an engine part for which we have lots of data, including a test done three years ago with modern instrumentation," said test requestor Chris Protz. "This adds to the database we are creating by testing injectors, turbo pumps and other 3-D printed rocket engine parts of interest to both NASA and industry."

The gas generator of the F-1 engine supplies power to a fuel pump which delivers propellant to the engine. The new 3D-printed generator, built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer based in California, produces around 30,000 pounds of thrust. Instruments on the stand at Huntsville were used to measure performance and combustion properties of both the original generator and the new version made using additive manufacturing techniques.

Given the relative newness of 3D printing as a method of engineering, all 3D-printed components must be subjected to extremely rigorous testing before engineers can be confident in their suitability and reliability for use in human-carrying launch vehicles. It may still be some time before components such as the generator are sufficiently trusted over proven components made using traditional means.

Tests such as this one are being conducted for the benefit of future projects such as NASA’s new Space Launch System, which could potentially utilise various 3D-printed components. The first version of the Space Launch System rocket, known as Block 1, will be capable of launching 70 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. Block 1 will be powered by twin boosters and four RS-25 engines, whilst Block 1B, the planned next model, will potentially be able to launch up to 105 metric tons. The second generation, Block 2, will utilise two advanced solid or liquid propellant boosters to allow for an unprecedented 130 metric ton lift capacity. This will enable missions to Mars and other distant parts of the solar system.

Construction at NASA's Space Launch System, Images from NASA

Sam Stephens, SLS Advanced Development Task Lead at Marshall, where the SLS Program is managed, said that “NASA is exploring many technologies to enhance the Space Launch System as it evolves for use in a variety of missions. If it proves to be a viable option, additive manufacturing may help us build future propulsion systems. With this testing, NASA is helping the community and the nation’s aerospace companies stay at the forefront of advanced technologies.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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