This NASA rocket is, bewilderingly, mainly built from 3D-printed parts. And yet pumped full of liquid hydrogen and oxygen it spews flame and generates an insane 9072kg of thrust.
NASA has been developing 3D-printed rocket engines for a while now. But in its latest test, it’s pieced together a rocket engine where 75 per cent of the components are 3D-printed — the highest proportion yet.
In these videos, you can see the team from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama putting it through its paces. That saw the engine burning fuel at temperatures above 3315C, while the fuel pumps supplying liquid hydrogen were as cold as -240C. With the pump running at 90,000 revolutions per minute, the engine generated over 9072kg of thrust. One of the runs even lasted a full ten seconds.
The benefits of 3D printing rocket engine components are fairly simple. First, it’s easier to build complex shapes using the laser-sintering processes used at NASA, meaning that components that could take years to build by hand can be made in a matter of months. It also allows the engineers to reduce the total number of components, by building parts as single items when it would previously have been impossible to do so.
The concern is that the 3D-printed parts might be more delicate than their traditional counterparts. But the the hostile conditions experienced during these sorts of test show that they’d be able to cope with the kinds of stresses imposed during a real-life launch. “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,” explained NASA’s Elizabeth Robertson in a press release.