August 27, 2013
By Jim Moore
A rocket fuel injector fabricated with 3-D printing technology passed the test Aug. 22, as the engine fired and produced a record 20,000 pounds of thrust.
NASA announced in a news release that the injector was the largest 3-D printed rocket engine component tested yet, and marks a significant advance toward using the innovative technology to reduce the cost of building spacecraft.
The aviation industry has also begun to embrace 3-D printing, with aircraft makers including Piper and Cirrus using the technology to make models and test components. MakerPlane hopes to incorporate 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) to build much of an open-source aircraft kit, allowing users to download plans and create them with machines that resemble overgrown inkjet printers, able to create three-dimensional parts by building layers of molten materials that solidify as they cool.
NASA said 3-D printing allowed engineers to fabricate the rocket fuel injector using fewer parts – just two, compared to 115 parts needed for previous models – and still withstand a test that included pressures of 1,400 psi and temperatures up to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"We took the design of an existing injector that we already tested and modified the design so the injector could be made with a 3-D printer," said Brad Bullard, the propulsion engineer responsible for the injector design, in a news release. "We will be able to directly compare test data for both the traditionally assembled injector and the 3-D printed injector to see if there's any difference in performance."
NASA hopes that 3-D printing will eventually lead to a dramatic reduction in the cost of making spacecraft components.
AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.
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