NASA tests 3D printed aluminum rocket nozzle

When it comes to the current era of space exploration, one of the most important trends is how new technologies and processes reduce the cost of sending crews and payloads into space. Beyond the commercial space industry and the development of recoverable and reusable rockets, space agencies are also finding new ways to make space more accessible and affordable. This includes NASA, which recently developed and tested an aluminum rocket engine nozzle. The reaction to the fourth industrial revolution is additive manufacturing (RAMFIRE) procedure.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, has ushered in a revolution in manufacturing. Unlike traditional mechanical manufacturing, which shapes things from raw materials and throws away what’s not used, 3D printing creates ordered components from the ground up. This manufacturing process does not generate any waste and is very quick, cost-effective and efficient compared to traditional methods. Although once limited to modeling and prototyping, the technology’s applications have expanded significantly in recent years — including in the aerospace industry.

The aluminum nozzle was developed by NASA Notice of Joint Opportunity In association with a leading AM company 3D element. Based in Erie, Colorado, Elementum specializes in 3D metal alloy additive manufacturing research, material and mold process development, and scaled-manufacturing methods. In 2020, the company was selected as part of Notice of Joint Opportunity To produce a weldable type of aluminum that is heat-resistant for use in rocket engines, this leads to an aluminum variant. A6061-RAM2.

Compared to other metals, aluminum has a low density and can enable high-strength, lightweight components. However, in typical production, a single rocket nozzle may require thousands of individually assembled parts. This makes aluminum impractical, as it has low tolerance to extreme heat and cracks during welding. RAMFIRE process funded under NASA Directorate of Space Technology Mission (STMD), by manufacturing aluminum components as a single piece, requires far fewer bonds and significantly reduces production time.

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In addition, the nozzles are designed with small internal channels that are cool enough to prevent the nozzle from melting. Meanwhile, the RAMFIRE 3D printer and process was developed by another business partner, RPM Innovations (RPMI). This South Dakota-based company specializes in Directed Energy Deposition (DED), where layers of powder composites are deposited and bonded using lasers. When combined with Elementum 3D’s special aluminum powder, the resulting process is called Laser Powder-Enabled Energy Deposition (LP-DED).

Earlier this summer, two RAMFIRE nodes completed a series of thermal-fire tests at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Eastern Test Area in Huntsville, Alabama. Nodes performed well using liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH).2), as well as LOX and liquid methane fuel configurations, and at pressures in excess of 5690 kilopascals (825 psi)—higher than expected for launches. The nodes successfully completed 22 initial tests, fired for nearly 10 minutes, demonstrating that they can operate in the most demanding deep-space environments. Paul Gradl, RAMFIRE principal investigator at NASA Marshall, said at NASA Press release:

„Industry partnerships with specialized manufacturing vendors help improve the supply base and make additive manufacturing accessible to NASA missions and the broader commercial and aerospace industry. This test series marks a significant milestone for the nozzle. After putting the nozzle through the paces of the demanding hot-fire test series, the thermals for a lunar lander-sized engine , we have demonstrated that the node can withstand structural and compressive loads.

The Terran 1’s liftoff was the first rocket produced entirely using 3D-printed parts. Credit: Relativistic Space/Michael Baylor

NASA also demonstrated the performance of 3D printed components in March 2023. relative location The Teron 1 rocket test-launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The test rocket was the first to be manufactured including 3D-printed parts Nine machines Made of an innovative compound called Glenn Research Copper (GRCop). These engines were developed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center under the agency’s game-changing development program, and were able to withstand temperatures of 3,315 °C (6,000 °F) – 40% higher than traditional copper alloys.

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In addition to rocket nozzles and engines, RAMFIRE also manufactures a 91-centimeter (36-inch) diameter aerospike nozzle that includes components for cryogenic fuel applications. These discoveries are important to NASA Moon to Mars The plan, which includes Project Artemis and the development of the lunar infrastructure necessary to return astronauts to the Moon and launch crewed missions to Mars. Inherent in this program is the ability to send large payloads to the Moon, Mars and other deep places.

By making lightweight rocket components capable of withstanding high structural loads and extreme temperatures, NASA is one step closer to returning (and staying) to the Moon and putting boots on the Martian soil. said John Vickers, STMD Principal Technologist for Advanced Manufacturing:

„Mass is critical to NASA’s future deep space missions. Projects such as advanced additive manufacturing with advanced materials, and new propulsion systems will help build the infrastructure needed for in-space manufacturing and NASA’s ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

read more: NASA

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