NASA's 3D Printing Rocket Engine Prototype Passes New Fire Tests

Posted: Dec 19 2015, 7:24pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News

NASA's 3D Printing Rocket Engine Prototype Passes New Fire Tests
Engineers prepare a 3-D printed breadboard engine made up of 75 percent of the parts needed to build a rocket engine for a test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Credits: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given
  • NASA 3D printing rocket engine prototype passes new fire tests!

The latest trial by NASA has been blasting 20,000 pounds of thrusts.

For years NASA has been working on a new 3D-printing rocket engine. NASA even tested a variety of different pieces successfully before. The latest trial for NASA has all the parts assembled together. A series of tests have been carried out on the prototype rocket engine.

The new prototype engine by NASA has 75 percent 3D-printed parts. The engine went through a whole series of fire tests and passed with flying colors.

The tests were started on the prototype in October 2015. The engine has been found to blast about 20,000 pounds of thrust. The promising results mean the engine could be used in rockets very soon.

“We manufactured and then tested about 75 percent of the parts needed to build a 3-D printed rocket engine,” said Elizabeth Robertson, the project manager for the additively manufactured demonstrator engine at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“By testing the turbopumps, injectors and valves together, we’ve shown that it would be possible to build a 3-D printed engine for multiple purposes such as landers, in-space propulsion or rocket engine upper stages.”

3D-printed engines are easier and quicker to make. According to NASA engine parts take just a month or two to finish up with 3D-printing. Otherwise the engine would take about a year with traditional manufacturing. Big complex pieces can be assembled as a single unit with 3D-printing.

“In engineering lingo, this is called a breadboard engine,” explained Nick Case, the testing lead for the effort.

“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 (rpm) 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.”

NASA will be using a process called selective laser melting to come up with the parts. NASA uses layering metal powder and then melting it all together with a laser. The metal goes through 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Work still needs to be done on the prototype engine. Shrinkage needs to take place before the engine could be used in an actual rocket. The current engine is just a ‘breadboard engine’ an impractically large setup. The setup is designed to give engineers the maximum access to all the parts.

“These NASA tests drive down the costs and risks associated with using additive manufacturing, which is a relatively new process for making aerospace quality parts,” said Robertson.

“Vendors who had never worked with NASA learned how to make parts robust enough for rocket engines. What we’ve learned through this project can now be shared with American companies and our partners.”

“This new manufacturing process really opened the design space and allowed for part geometries that would be impossible with traditional machining or casting methods,” said David Eddleman, one Marshall’s propulsion designers.

“For the valve designs on this engine, we used more efficient structures in the piece parts that resulted in optimized performance.”

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