Thursday NASA announced that it had successfully tested a rocket engine injector made with 3D printed parts. A rocket engine injector is a crucial component that feed propellant into the engine where it is ignited. The injector was similar in size to production injectors that power smaller rockets and similar in design to the injector that powers the RS-25 engine that will be used on the heavy lift Space Launch System.
Using conventional manufacturing technique, an injector of this type would be comprised of 153 individual parts which would then be assembled. Using the 3D printing technique, also called additive manufacturing, the injector that NASA tested was made of just two parts. This saves both time and money and allows engineers to rapidly prototype new injector designs that will be more durable and more efficient than current models.
Additive manufacturing with metal uses powdered metal that is fed through a dispenser that also includes an oxygen acetylene torch to melt it as it comes out. The part being built is created layer by layer until the part is completed. The 3D printer renders the part directly from a computer aided design (CAD) file. All an engineer has to do to change the design is to work with the CAD file before rendering the revised part. Thus the time it takes to develop a rocket engine or any other kinds of space hardware will be diminished.
Experiments being conducted at NASA and private companies such as SpaceX in 3D printing hold the promise of revolutionizing how rocket engines are built. The technology will allow for cheaper, more efficient engines that will also be lighter, a consideration when trying to launch things out of Earth’s gravity well. The Space Launch System, NASA’s most complex and expensive rocket project since the space shuttle, will directly benefit from the emerging technology.