Thought current 3D printing was only good for creating cute plastic versions of teapot lids, key rings and other curios? Think again. Choreographed high-power lasers or electron beams can fuse and sculpt metal powders into high-performance machine parts. Now NASA has proved that even rocket motors can be made this way.
Engineers led by Tyler Hickman in the Game Changing Technology Program at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, worked together with rocket-motor maker Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California. They wondered if additive layer manufacturing â€“ the engineer’s name for 3D printing â€“ could make a precision part called a rocket injector in less time than the year it takes using conventional methods.
Detail are scant because rocket motor designs are covered by US laws that prevent them from being “exported” â€“ revealed to non-Americans. But the result can be seen in the image above. Fed liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen, the injector performed perfectly in a series of tests, says Aerojet’s programme manager Jeff Haynes.
Better still, it took only four months to make the injector using 3D printing, and costs were cut by 70 per cent.
NASA is not the only organisation trying to take 3D printing into space, however: a public competition is under way to create a crowdsourced design for an open-source, 3D-printable rocket engine that commercial space-flight operators will be able to use.