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The process of manufacturing a rocket engine is complicated at best. Why do you think they call it “rocket science?”

However, there are students from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) that are taking the manufacturing process to new levels. They are making rocket parts using a 3D-printer. First priority is to create a 3D-printed rocket engine that works.

The project is in the enthusiastic hands of Deepak Atyam of UCSD and the student members of a group he started called the UCSD chapter of the Students for the Exploration of Space (SEDS).

The group was organized to determine if making 3-D printed, liquid-fuel rocket engines is feasible.

The process to achieving the goal started a few years ago when the group decided to try and develop a small 3-D first generation rocket during a project they dubbed Tri-D. The students were able to create the rocket and actually test-fire it in 2013.

Since then they have had the goal of producing a larger rocket with a new power plant they are calling Ignus.

The Ignus engine is capable of generating 750 pounds of thrust, is less than 1-foot (30 centimeters) in height, and weighs only about 15 pounds (7 kilograms).

The initial plan was to use existing designs and to improve them somewhat. So they focused on making a model of the F-1 engine, the power plant that produced 1.5 million pounds of thrust to launch NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket.

They were out to produce something new, but not something that would be too radical and may not work. So they kept many design parameters of the F-1 engine constant with only a few variables.

Carbon3D DemoPrinting out the engine rather than using a machining and casting technique was something radical nevertheless.

They discovered that the injection and combustion chamber could be printed as one piece. However, since the engine was a research and development project, they wanted to be able to disassemble and examine it after test firing. So this feature was incorporated into the plan.

They used a bell-shaped curve of how small or large a liquid-fueled small suborbital rocket can be. According to the curve, the minimum power of such a rocket is between 600 to 1,000 pounds of thrust. The students settled on printing out an engine that would generate somewhere between those parameters. They were able to go with 750 pounds of thrust.

Once the engine shell had been printed out, they went on to prepare for the test. The students worked for an average of 12 hours a day for about two weeks.

The test firing was performed in the Mojave Desert at a rocket test stand operated by the Friends of Amateur Rocketry. A group of engineers from XCOR, engineers who built the Lynx suborbital space plane served as advisers.

The engine was tested and the group could see that it worked. But an oops moment occurred. Everything looked great. However, during the countdown the data acquisition system from a computer was accidentally disconnected. So there was no data.

The group remedied that by firing up the engine again. This time the data acquisition system remained connected to the computer and they got their data.

Next, the engine will be used to launch a small three-stage rocket to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) during the summer.

The hope then is to use the engine to launch a small rocket that will lift a tiny satellite into orbit.

The European Space Agency, among others, see the making of parts and products via 3D printing as a way to keep the cost of space exploration affordable. It sees 10 ways the technology can revolutionize space exploration:

  1. The technology will make it easier to construct hard-to-build items.
  2. It can translate computer design into the manufacturing of real world products.
  3. It will create new rules in the design process.
  4. It will make the manufacturing process more efficient and therefore less costly.
  5. It will speed up the process of model making.
  6. It will help achieve faster production because parts can be tested in 3D.
  7. It will lead to quick improvements in product performance.
  8. It will help develop lighter weight items.
  9. It will help get parts into space faster.
  10. It will change how we plan space missions.

Source: European Space Agency


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