NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne have recently completed a series of “hot-fire” tests on a rocket engine that utilized additive manufacturing, or “3D printing,” parts. The component in question, a liquid-oxygen, gaseous hydrogen rocket injector assembly, was carried out at NASA’s Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC). It is hoped that with the successful completion of these tests this emerging technology can seize a more pivotal role in space flight. NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne made the announcement about the test firings in a series of releases issued July 11.
The tests were conducted under a Space Act Agreement designed to develop and validate the various elements and procedures required to begin use of what is known as Selective Laser Melting, or “SLM.” As this process could lead to the production of crucial engine components, the requirements are stringent. Those working on the project feel that the technology could prove vital for space exploration efforts.
“The injector is the heart of a rocket engine and represents a large portion of the resulting cost of these systems. Today, we have the results of a fully additive manufactured rocket injector with a demonstration in a relevant environment,” said Tyler Hickman, the lead engineer on the project at GRC.
NASA GRC and Aerojet Rocketdyne worked alongside the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory located at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Utilizing a high-pressure facility allowed for information that helped guide researchers concerning spray patterns involved with producing additively manufactured injector components.
“This project combined new additive design/analysis tools and manufacturing processes to make a component with legacy engine performance characteristics, paving the road to implement these technologies in these engine products,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Program Manager for Additive Manufacturing Jeff Haynes. “This is a significant advancement in the application of additive manufacturing to rocket engines. Additive manufacturing has the ability to produce complex parts at a fraction of the time and cost, if applied through a rigorous risk-based process.”
As one might imagine, testing out something as relatively new as a 3D-printed rocket engine part requires safety and reliability concerns to be addressed. Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne designed the injector. A release issued by the company has stated that this reduced the lead time from what might have been longer than a year to less than four months. The company has estimated that this might have produced a potential cost savings of more than 70 percent, compared to a traditional manufacturing process.
For its part, NASA views this technology could prove important to the future of space exploration.
“NASA recognizes that on Earth and potentially in space, additive manufacturing can be game-changing for new mission opportunities, significantly reducing production time and cost by ‘printing’ tools, engine parts, or even entire spacecraft,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology. “3-D manufacturing offers opportunities to optimize the fit, form, and delivery systems of materials that will enable our space missions while directly benefiting American businesses here on Earth.”
The additive manufacturing technology development is part of the space agency’s Game Changing Technology Program located in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. This program has been initiated in the hopes it can lead to systems that can aid in future space missions.
“Hot-fire testing the injector as part of a rocket engine is a significant accomplishment in maturing additive manufacturing for use in rocket engines,” said Carol Tolbert, who manages the Manufacturing Innovation Project at Glenn. “These successful tests let us know that we are ready to move on to demonstrate the feasibility of developing full-size, additively manufactured parts.”
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