Nasa tests 3D-printed rocket engine fuel injector

3D-printed injector component Nasa says 3D printing could one day be used by astronauts to make replacement parts

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Nasa has announced it has successfully tested a 3D-printed rocket engine part.

The US space agency said that the injector component could be made more quickly and cheaply using the technique.

The part is used to deliver liquid oxygen and hydrogen gas to an engine's combustion chamber.

The news follows General Electric's revelation that it planned to use 3D printing technology to make fuel nozzles for its jet engines.

Nasa said that California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne had made the injector using a method called selective laser melting (SLM).

The technique involves turning a computer-designed object into a real-world part by controlling a high-powered laser beam which melts and fuses thin layers of metallic powders into the preordained shape.

The test part was smaller than would be used in a full-size rocket, but large enough to test it could withstand the heat and pressure involved.

Nasa said the component would normally have taken a year to make because of the exact measurements involved, but by using SLM the manufacturing time was cut to less than four months and the price reduced by more than 70%.

"Nasa recognises that on Earth and potentially in space, additive manufacturing can be game-changing for new mission opportunities, significantly reducing production time and cost by 'printing' tools, engine parts or even entire spacecraft," said Michael Gazarik, Nasa's associate administrator for space technology.

SLM is not the only unusual manufacturing technique being explored by Nasa.

The agency has also asked researchers at Washington State University to see whether it would be possible to 3D-print objects out of powder made from lunar rocks.

It is also testing a process called electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3) which uses a computer-controlled electron beam gun placed in a vacuum that welds metal wires into complex shapes and patterns.

It has suggested the process could be used by astronauts to make spare parts in space.

Design competition

Nasa's announcement comes a month after General Electric announced a competition for third-parties to create the best 3D-printable design for an aircraft engine bracket - the part used to support the engine when it needs to be serviced.

Leap engine General Electric is using 3D-printed parts in a new range of turbofan engines

The firm will divide a $20,000 (£13,300) cash prize pool between the eight best performing designs after they are built and tested between August and November.

The US company has already used SLM to produce parts for its upcoming Leap (Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion) family of turbofan engines, made in conjunction with France's Snecma.

It has said the process allowed it to make a single widget rather than having to solder 15 to 20 parts together, helping cut its weight and boost the engine's fuel efficiency.

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