Sep 23, 2016 | By Benedict

Aerojet Rocketdyne, the American rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer, is using 3D printing to create the American-built AR1 rocket engine, commissioned to replace the Russian-built RD-180 by 2019. 3D printing is being used to prototype preburner element designs.

As the U.S. seeks to eliminate its dependence on Russian-built rocket components for space launches, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 has been earmarked as a possible successor to Russia’s RD-180, which U.S. Congress has said must be taken out of use by 2019 due to political disputes between the two nations. 3D printing, an increasingly used technology in the aerospace sector, has been used in the development of several areas of AR1, including its preburner, a key component of staged combustion cycle rocket engines. A preburner is used to combust propellant, with the resulting gases used to power the engine’s turbines and pumps before being consumed in the main combustion chamber.

Team Lead for the AR1 Preburner is Nate Scholten, who has been working on the project for almost two years. According to Scholten, use of additive manufacturing technology has been crucial as his team looks to meet its strict deadlines. Since it could take up to six months to produce a single element injector using traditional manufacturing processes, and over a year to produce a full-scale preburner injector, 3D printing has enabled Aerojet Rocketdyne to drastically reduce these development times, as well as costs, reeling off prototypes one after the other for immediate testing.

“It is rewarding to be a part of the team that is using additive manufacturing technology to help the AR1 program make advancements in product development like we have never seen before,” said Scholten. “The beauty of 3D printing is that we have been able to go from completed design, to manufacturing to test of a single element injector in one month, and a subscale injector in just three months.”

Over the last year and a half, Scholten’s preburner team has carried out over 150 hot fire tests on single element injectors and four subscale injectors, all of which were fabricated using 3D printing at facilities in Sacramento, California; Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama; and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. To conduct testing on this scale in such a short timeframe without the use of additive manufacturing would have been near-impossible.

While 3D printing is being used to prototype and test AR1 components, Aerojet Rocketdyne is also using the technology to create end-use parts, transitioning the technology from a development setting to a production setting. While the company will need to meet stringent technical and quality requirements demand by the National Security Space in order to have 3D printed parts used in the AR1 or other rockets, the rate at which the technology is improving shows great promise.

“3D manufacturing has matured significantly over the past few years,” said Nick Mule, Engineering Process and Tool Development lead for additive manufacturing at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “It is exciting to be involved with a technology that is developing in such a fast paced environment. It’s not very often that a technology comes into the market that can make such a vast reduction in the cost associated with producing hardware for large scale liquid rocket engines.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne recently conducted hot-fire testing of a multi-element preburner injector for the AR1 rocket engine.

Aerojet Rocketdyne believes that the completed AR1 will be used to support critical NASA, DOD, and Intelligence Community missions. Results of its 3D printing activities will be on display at Stennis Space Center over the next few months, as the company seeks to build on testing that has already been carried out there.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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