Jan 18, 2016 | By Kira

Last week we reported on the US Air Force awarding a record-breaking $241 million in combined contracts to leading aerospace and defense companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK to develop next generation, American-made launch vehicles and rocket engines, with metal additive manufacturing set to play an important role in the design and development processes. Orbital ATK won the biggest share of the money, taking home $47 from the US Air Force and contributing $31 million of its own to develop three highly advanced rocket propulsion system technologies.

It seems as though the Air Force made an excellent decision in where to spend that dough, because Virginia-based Orbital ATK today announced that it has successfully tested a 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Not only did analysis confirm that the unit either met or exceeded all of the test requirements, but the 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor also proved capable of withstanding one of the longest duration propulsion wind tunnel tests ever recorded for a unit of its kind.

According to Orbital ATK, this successful propulsion system component would have been impossible to pull off without the benefits of metal 3D printing technology. It was manufactured via Powder Bed Fusion (PBF), also known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a metal additive manufacturing technique in which a high-power laser is used to sinter metal powders one layer at a time, building up complex, solid 3D metal structures.

“Additive manufacturing opens up new possibilities for our designers and engineers,” said Pat Nolan, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Missile Products division of the Defense Systems Group. “This combustor is a great example of a component that was impossible to build just a few years ago. This successful test will encourage our engineers to continue to explore new designs and use these innovative tools to lower costs and decrease manufacturing time.”

Essentially, metal 3D printing techniques such as PBF allow for complex geometries and assemblies that previously would have required multiple components, to be simplified into a single, cost-effective assembly, without compromising on strength or structure. At the same time, since the object is built layer-by-layer, advanced design features and components can be integrated directly into the design.

The 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor, also known as a scramjet combustor, is one of the most challenging-to-make parts of the propulsion system as it must house and maintain stable combustion within an extremely volatile environment. In order to truly test Orbital ATK’s 3D printed model, it was subjected to a variety of high-temperature hypersonic flight conditions over the course of 20 days, including one of the longest duration propulsion wind tunnel tests on record—yet that proved to be no problem for the metal 3D printed part.

As part of the $47 million contract awarded by the US Air Force, Orbital ATK will develop the GEM 63XL strap-on solid rocket motor, the Common Booster Segment solid rocket motor and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin’s BE-3U upper stage engine.

“All the best features of solid motors, including operational reliability, high lift-off thrust, shorter development schedules and, importantly, affordability have improved over time with the advancement of new technologies,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s propulsion systems division. “This means we can offer the Air Force a low technical risk and very cost-competitive American-made propulsion alternative.”

PFB/metal 3D printing is just one of several manufacturing methods being explored by Orbital ATK as it endeavors to develop these advanced rocket propulsion systems and technologies, however as the 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor proves, it is certainly one of the most promising and exciting, and we’ll be paying close attention to see what metal 3D printed parts Orbital ATK tests out next.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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