The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has turned to 3D printing once again to make science fiction into fact with a Methane-powered rocket turbo pump that rewrites all of the rules. Predictably, the results are simply spectacular.
Methane is a violent, aggressive fuel that is difficult to contain, especially when it’s pressurised to the levels required for space travel. Its explosive nature means it is far more efficient as a propulsion source than traditional fuels, but it requires specialist equipment and handling with care. Get Methane wrong and it is a disaster in the making.
So when NASA wanted a completely new turbopump that could force even more Methane into the jet engines that propel a variety of craft, there was only one option. It simply had to be 3D printed.
The turbopump is mission critical
The whole rocket propulsion system relies on the turbopump. If it fails, then the results could be spectacular and catastrophic. It speaks volumes for the progression of 3D printing, then, that the world’s most famous space agency turned to the process for such a mission critical part and then proceeded to push the limits of human imagination with the engineering.
Essentially the turbopump feeds fuel into the engine. The more fuel it can pump, the hotter the jet can run. A hot jet is an efficient engine and running like this means the rocket uses less fuel and can travel further, which opens up new avenues in space exploration.
In space, every part is a lifesaver
It can also mean the difference between the success and failure of a mission, or life and death for those on board.
NASA had a list of conflicting demands that only the most cutting edge materials and 3D printing technology could cope with. The turbopump had to be lightweight enough to spin at 36,000rpm, which is twice the revolutions a Formula One car can muster. It had to produce 22,500lb of thrust and it had to be more than strong enough to cope with the rigours of space travel.
It also had to be produced quickly so that NASA could test two alternative designs to find the best solution. The icing on the cake was that the 3D printed model had 45% less components than a traditional turbopump.
Less is more when it comes to structural integrity
Simply put, having less parts in the structure allowed the engineers to generate additional strength from the walls of the turbopump. Not only that, using fewer parts makes it easier to tune the flow of the gas through the pump and essentially increase the pressure through the system. All of this would simply have been impossible with old-school construction techniques.
3D printing, though, combined with the advanced design and modelling systems NASA has at its disposal, meant the engineers could fine tune the parts. The results speak for themselves, this turbopump is a massive leap forward and just another feather in the cap for the 3D printing process.
It produced exceptional results in a series of six tests at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and now has the green light to go on the MEA landers, ascent vehicles and in-space propulsion units.
Will we see this in the real world?
NASA felt confident enough to release the details of this ground-breaking turbopump and we have to see if this new technology will filter down in some form or another to the civilian world. Even if it doesn’t, we should revel in an awesome bit of kit that simply wouldn’t have happened without additive printing.