PORTLAND, Ore. ó No longer are 3D printers a novelty for kids, or even just a tool for prototyping, now that the world's first production rocket thruster to be qualified for space flight was certified today by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif. According to SpaceX, 3D printing can drastically cut the cost and time of manufacturing finished parts for space vehicles and by implication for any vehicle. Will Google's next driverless car be 3D printed?
The world's first rocket thruster to be fabricated on a 3-D printer was certified by SpaceX today.
Called the SuperDraco thruster, eight will power the Dragon spacecraft for both the launch escape-from-gravity system as well as for coordinated Earth landings -- Flash Gordon-style. The Draco engines were originally designed only for maneuvering the spacecraft in orbit and to assist during re-entry. The upgraded SuperDracos now produce 16,000 pounds of thrust plus the deep throttle capability that gives astronauts the ability to make pinpoint landings.
The SuperDraco engine is 3D printed using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) -- originally developed by EOS GmbH in Munich, Germany -- using a high-performance superalloy called Inconel--a carbon-laced nickel-chromium alloy trademarked by Special Metals Corp. in New Hartford, NY.
The SuperDraco will further lower the cost of launching SpaceX spacecraft by supplying the escapee-form-gravity propulsion which was previously provided by a separate rocket that was jettisoned after launch. The system is also safer since one of the eight SuperDraco's can fail without endangering the mission. The SuperDraco's have also been repositioned to ensure that in the case of an emergency during launch they can provide 120,000 pounds of axial thrust, enough to land the spacecraft safely.
The first use of a SuperDraco-powered spacecraft will be in a pad-abort-test later in 2014 as a part of NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative.
— R. Colin Johnson, Advanced Technology Editor, EE Times