3D printed rockets ready to take off

If Terran1’s launch this summer from Cape Canaveral is successful, Relativity Space will be the first aerospace manufacturing company to send a fully 3D-printed rocket into space. Soon after, a California startup called Launcher will deploy its Orbiter satellite platform powered by 3D-printed rocket engines after being blasted into space by a SpaceX.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of 3D printing – also called additive manufacturing – on the space industry. No other technology has allowed so many companies to enter this industry and deliver vehicles, engines and rockets in such a short time at such low costs. And now, the number of startup rocket makers is about to explode, as more and more commercially available 3D printers prove themselves up to the task of producing space-worthy components.

For example, British aerospace company Orbex hopes its 3D-printed rockets, made with German manufacturer EOS’ latest metal 3D printer, will take off from Scotland by the end of the year. And in the United States, fledgling rocket engine maker Ursa Major is now taking orders for its new Arroway propulsion engine designed to replace the now unavailable Russian-made propulsion sources. It is also 3D printed using available metal 3D printers.

“I don’t think our business would exist without 3D printing,” says Jake Bowles, director of manufacturing and advanced materials at Ursa Major, who spent five years at SpaceX. “Our evolution was strongly linked to the existence and maturity of 3D printing.”

Ursa Major set out to bring an engine to market at a much faster rate than before, in months, not years, which was only possible through prototyping and manufacturing with 3D printers, Bowles says.

While Relativity Space and others have developed proprietary 3D printing technology for their rockets, Bowles says using new commercial 3D printers has allowed Ursa Major to control costs and quickly iterate on designs, without having to stumble over the initial technology development required with local 3D printers. .

“Our team is constantly evaluating new 3D printing companies that come up with innovations because there is a lot of competition for a share of the aerospace and space launch market,” explains Bowles. The global aerospace 3D printing market size is expected to reach $9.27 billion by 2030, according to Strategic Market Research.

Companies are racing to offer the most powerful, flexible and cheapest options for businesses, like Amazon
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who seek to put satellites into orbit to provide global broadband, capture high-resolution images of activity on earth, and even create private space station hotels for the ultra-rich.

3D printing is fueling the race to commercialize space

With additive manufacturing technology reducing launch costs by up to 95% compared to NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the door is open to more services from orbit, leading to fierce competition among rocket manufacturers . Launcher’s corporate slogan reads like a Walmart ad: “Anywhere in space for the lowest cost.”

Reducing millions of dollars in the cost of satellite deployment recently enabled Launcher to secure funding from the US Space Force to further develop its 3D-printed E-2 high-performance liquid rocket engine for the Launcher Light launch vehicle, which is expected to fly in 2024. US Space Force said: “The launch vehicle’s E-2 liquid rocket engine has the potential to significantly reduce the price of delivering small satellites into orbit on small dedicated launch vehicles, which is a key capability. and a priority for the Space Force.”

To reduce costs and speed up production, Launcher also uses 3D printers from EOS as well as the Californian company Velo3D.

“Rocket engine turbopump parts typically require casting, forging, and welding,” says Max Haot, Launcher Founder and CEO. “The tooling required for these processes increases development cost and reduces flexibility between design iterations. The ability to 3D print our turbopump, including Inconel cased rotating impellers, using Velo3D’s zero-degree technology, now makes this possible at lower cost and with increased innovation through iteration between each prototype.

With traditional aerospace manufacturing methods, it’s common to hear about nine to 12 month lead times and huge tooling expenditures to build and test, something like an oxygen-rich staged combustion engine. pump-powered, says Eduardo Rondon, a senior thruster analyst at Ursa Major, another SpaceX veteran. “Additive manufacturing allows us to put a new design on the test bench, decide to make a change, work on an alternative architecture, print it and have it on the bench in a matter of weeks.”

Orbex 3D prints its rockets on the same type of printer as Launcher, EOS’ AMCM M4K-4 metal printing platform, released in 2021. The company has also used metal 3D printers from German company SLM Solutions .

3D printing isn’t just for startups

3D printing has a long history in space since SpaceX unveiled its 3D printed SuperDraco rocket engine in 2013.

Aerospace giant Aerojet Rocketdyne
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redesigned its Bantam rocket engine family in 2017 to take full advantage of additive manufacturing capabilities that reduce total design and manufacturing time from over a year to months while reducing cost by approximately 65% ​​per compared to conventional manufacturing methods.

“These engines, which would normally consist of over 100 parts, are built from just three major additively manufactured components: the injector assembly, the combustion chamber, and a monolithic throat and nozzle section,” explains the company.

Rocket Lab, another pioneer in commercial satellite launches, first launched its lightweight 3D-printed rocket engine, the Rutherford, in 2017. Its combustion chamber, injectors, pumps and main thruster valves are all 3D printed and have already powered 27 launches, including this week’s.

On Tuesday, Rocket Lab’s Rutherford Engine powered the company’s Electron rocket from New Zealand with a NASA payload bound for the moon.

Despite the fact that NASA and seasoned launch veterans have tested, validated, and incorporated additive manufacturing into their programs for years, today’s commercial 3D printing technology and advanced metal alloy materials have matured so quickly that companies like Launcher, Ursa Major, and Orbex can get from prototype to launch in less time for less money.

“We started from day one designing around 3D printing and taking advantage of the functionality it offers,” says Bowels. “It has allowed us to develop in-house know-how on how to optimize designs for 3D printing, which we can then apply to new engines that we need to develop and sell to meet market demand. And by already knowing how to do that, we can get to market faster. »

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