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NASA successfully tests 3D printed rocket components

The use of printers in space to make everything from food and tools to rocket parts aims to reduce costs and improve safety.

NASA is one step closer to realizing its goal of using advanced technologies like 3-D printing to make every aspect of space exploration simpler and more cost-effective. From tools to food to spare parts and rocket engines, NASA is very interested in incorporating 3D printing.

The largest 3D printed rocket engine component NASA ever has tested roared to life Aug. 22 during an engine firing that generated a record 20,000 pounds of thrust. Early results indicate the injector worked flawlessly.

Using a process called selective laser melting, which produces layers of nickel-chromium alloy powder, the 28 element subscale injector was similar in size to injectors that power small rocket engines. In its design, it was similar to injectors for larger engines, like the RS-25 engine that will power NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for deep-space human missions to an asteroid and Mars.

The tests are part of NASA's desire to better understand the larger processes behind bringing 3D parts into widespread use.

"This entire effort helped us learn what it takes to build larger 3D parts -- from design to manufacturing to testing," said Greg Barnett, lead engineer for the project. "This technology can be applied to any of SLS's engines or to rocket components being built by private industry."

It's just another way that NASA is leading the research and development phase of innovations that might end up making their way into our daily lives.

A program dubbed Space Shop at NASA Ames Research Facility in Mountain View, Calif., is also experimenting with open source ideas and 3D printing, where engineers and researchers can experiment with the technology in an attempt to take the best practices and lessons learned from the maker community.

During the recent injector test at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen passed through the component into a combustion chamber and produced 10 times more thrust than any injector previously fabricated using 3D printing. This test builds on prior hot-fire tests conducted with smaller injectors at Marshall and at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

One of the keys to reducing the cost of rocket parts is minimizing the number of components needed, NASA says. This new 3D printed injector had just two parts, whereas a similar injector tested earlier had 115 parts. Fewer parts require less assembly effort, which means complex parts made with 3D printing have the potential for significant cost-savings.

NASA is also in development and testing stages for a 3D printer that will print tools for the crew of the International Space Station. NASA is even exploring the possibility of printing food for long-duration space missions.