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NASA recently tested its largest 3D printed rocket engine component in a live firing, where the rocket engine generated 20,000 pounds of thrust in its test stand. The 3D printed component is an injector that channels liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen into the combustion chamber. The injector was built using a process called selective laser melting to fuse together layers of nickel-chromium alloy powder. The design of the injector is similar to that used in the RS-25 engine, which will power NASA's space launch system (SLS) rocket for human missions to an asteroid and mars.
Early data indicate the injector worked flawlessly. It generated 10 times more thrust than any other injector made with aerospace 3d printing. Pressures up to 1,400 pounds per square inch and temperatures of almost 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit were reached. Further inspections are planned to see how the part performed compared to a traditionally built injector.
NASA says it was a learning experience to find out what it takes to design, manufacture, and test, large 3D printed parts. They say the technology can be used to make any of SLS's engines or any rocket components being made by private industry. Thanks to the 3D process, a component normally requiring 115 parts was built with just two parts. This component reduction will hugely reduce the cost of assembly, since fewer parts means less assembly is required. The reason fewer parts are needed is that 3D printing can incorporate complex geometries into a part that can't be done using conventional methods.
The design of the printed component was essentially a modified version of a proven component design. Some modifications were made so that the injector could be built with a 3D printer. Other rocket components can be similarly redesigned and then fabricated with a 3D printer and thus achieve similar cost savings in manufacture. Cost reduction is important given NASA's budget cuts in recent years.
NASA's goal in its work with 3D printing of rocket engine parts is to develop a set of guidelines that manufacturers and contractors can follow so that they know they can make a good part. NASA says they are not qualifying the design of any particular part, but are qualifying the fabrication process.