NASA’s latest rocket engine might not be something you can whip up at home on your own 3D printer, but a staggering 75 percent of the components were created with 3D printing technology. That might sound like a recipe for catastrophic failure, but the 3D-printed engine roared to life with about 20,000 pounds of thrust in a recent test.
Additive manufacturing, which is a fancy name for 3D printing, is still in its infancy, but NASA has actually been working with the technology for years. According to Popular Mechanics, the agency has been working towards 3D-printed engines since at least early 2013.
“Additive manufacturing is this new technology that really gives us an endless set of possibilities for the products we manufacture at NASA for our terrestrial launch vehicle and our in-space applications,” John Vickers, from NASA’s Materials and Processes Laboratory, told Popular Mechanics at that time.
Since then, NASA has used 3D printing to rapidly prototype and manufacture various rocket engine components, and a 3D printer was also sent up to the International Space Station. As previously reported by Inquisitr, astronauts have been using the technology to print tools and replacement parts on the fly since 2014.
Although NASA has tested individual 3D-printed engine components separately, this latest test marks the first time that so many were assembled together and fired off as a unit.
The components were created via an additive manufacturing process known as selective laser smelting. Unlike the commercially available 3D printers you can currently buy, which use spools of plastic, this process uses a laser to fuse together layers of metal powder. So if you were hoping to throw together a rocket engine in your garage, your RepRap or Makerbot isn’t going to be up to the task.
According to NASA, the 3D-printed engine is more of a proof of concept, to show that the individual 3D-printed components can work together, than a real, functioning rocket engine. This is why the engine doesn’t look like what you might expect a rocket engine to look like, even though it is capable of generating a staggering 20,000 pounds of thrust.
“In engineering lingo, this is called a breadboard engine,” Nick Case, the testing lead for the 3D-printed rocket engine project, explained via news release from NASA. “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 turbopump got its ‘heartbeat’ racing at more than 90,000 revolutions per minute, and the end result is the flame you see coming out of the thrust chamber to produce over 20,000 pounds of thrust, and an engine like this could produce enough power for an upper stage of a rocket or a Mars lander.”
The implication is that this technology could be instrumental in building the next generation of launch vehicles, a Mars lander designed to carry human astronauts, and all sorts of other vital components. According to NASA, 3D printing technology also allows large, complex components to be created with fewer individual parts. For instance, the turbopump in the 3D-printed engine has 45 percent fewer component parts, and the injector uses 200 less component parts than a traditional injector.
The possibilities on display with this 3D-printed rocket engine don’t end on Earth, either. As evidenced by astronauts already using 3D printers on the International Space Station, the possibilities go into orbit, and beyond. Although Popular Mechanics points out that some components, like gaskets, can’t be printed with current technology, astronauts on a future mission to Mars could print all manner of replacement parts and components without having to rely on an Earth-bound supply chain.
[Screengrab via YouTube]