In the recent times, NASA has certainly dabbled with varied contrivances and notions, ranging from the credible modular robotic vehicles to the fantastical Venus-exploring blimps. But this time around, the focus was on practicality – with the design in question entailing a 3D-printed rocket engine turbopump. This rocket turbopump was designed by the engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama (in collaboration with outside vendors). And, the best part is, now the 3D-printed component has been successfully tested, thus alluding to the potential application of the technology in 3D-printed demonstrator engines for rockets.
When it comes to the sheer attributes of the 3D-printed turbopump, the component can account for more than 90,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), and generate more than 2,000 horsepower – which is double than that of a NASCAR race car. As the rigorous testing phase (with its 15 full-power scenarios) proved – these enviable figures allow the pump to deliver 1,200 gallons of cryogenic liquid hydrogen per minute. According to the NASA engineers, that is more than enough to boost an upper stage rocket engine that carries 35,000 lbs of thrust.
As for the design scope of this rocket engine turbopump, the Marshall engineers created the fuel pump and its related parts. On the other hand, the specialist suppliers contrived the 3D printing side of things by laser additive printing. In this process, the printer deploys a powder of metal alloy in a thin layer. This layer is fused by a computer-regulated laser beam, which in turn produces cross-sections from the powder – and the process is repeated until the entire component is crafted. When translated to an advantage, the resultant 3-D printed turbopump has 45 percent fewer parts than conventional pumps manufactured by regular welding and assembling procedures.
Lastly, concerning the success of the ‘harsh’ full-power testing, the 3D-printed rocket turbopump was able to deliver the fuel at a temperature of -400 degrees F (-240 degrees C), when exposed to temperatures higher than 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit (3,315 degrees Celsius). As Nick Case, a propulsion engineer and systems lead for the turbopump work, said –
Our team designed and tested the fuel pump and other parts, such as injectors and valves, for the additive manufactured demonstrator engine in just two years. If we used traditional manufacturing processes, it would have taken us double that time. Using a completely new manufacturing technique allowed NASA to design components for an additively manufactured demonstration engine in a whole new way.
Moreover, the good news is – NASA is also willing to share their progress and schematics in this 3D-printing field with other American companies that are designing and developing spaceflight engines of the future.
Video Credit: NASA/MSFC