SpaceX builds rocket thruster with 3D printer
3D printing has moved beyond being a novelty for children. It has brought innovations in the semiconductor industry, finding uses in prototyping, and, very recently, in fabricating a working rocket thruster.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has 3D printed the world's first production rocket thruster to be qualified for space flight, certified Friday. According to SpaceX, 3D printing can drastically cut the cost and time of manufacturing finished parts for space vehicles and by implication for any vehicle. Will Google's next driverless car be 3D printed?
The world's first rocket thruster to be fabricated on a 3-D printer was certified by SpaceX today. Source: SpaceX
Called the SuperDraco thruster, eight will power the Dragon spacecraft for both the launch escape-from-gravity system as well as for coordinated Earth landings—Flash Gordon-style. The Draco engines were originally designed only for manoeuvring the spacecraft in orbit and to assist during re-entry. The upgraded SuperDracos now produce 7,257.47kg of thrust plus the deep throttle capability that gives astronauts the ability to make pinpoint landings.
The SuperDraco engine is 3D printed using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS)—originally developed by EOS GmbH in Munich, Germany—using a high-performance superalloy called Inconel—a carbon-laced nickel-chromium alloy trademarked by Special Metals Corp. in New Hartford, NY.
The SuperDraco will further lower the cost of launching SpaceX spacecraft by supplying the escapee-form-gravity propulsion which was previously provided by a separate rocket that was jettisoned after launch. The system is also safer since one of the eight SuperDraco's can fail without endangering the mission. The SuperDraco's have also been repositioned to ensure that in the case of an emergency during launch they can provide 54,431.08kg of axial thrust, enough to land the spacecraft safely.
The first use of a SuperDraco-powered spacecraft will be in a pad-abort-test later in 2014 as a part of NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative.
The qualification testing program for the SuperDraco took place over the last month at SpaceX's Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The program included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures. Source: SpaceX
- R. Colin Johnson