One of the top uses of 3D printing has been in the aerospace industry. The fabrication technique, being developed by both NASA and the commercial sectors, is allowing for the construction of engines with fewer moving parts, of stronger materials, and lighter weight. Such jet and rocket engines will have a much greater performance than those built by more conventional methods.
One of the first rockets that has an entirely 3D printed engine is called the Electron, built by a New Zealand company called Rocket Lab. The Rutherford engine has the following components 3D printed:
- Regeneratively-cooled thrust chamber;
- Main propellant valves.
The Electron had its first flight test on May 25 and successfuly made it to space. The Rutherford was the first 3D printed rocket engine to fly in space. The turbo pump was the first on a rocket to be turned by electricity. Prior to the launch, the Rutherford had already undergone hundreds of test firings on the ground.
The use of 3D printing technology, Rocket Lab hopes, will enable low-cost deployment of small satellites to low Earth orbit at less than $5 million a launch. The Electron is also the chosen launch vehicle for Moon Express’ attempt to win the Google Lunar XPrize by landing the first private probe on the moon’s surface. If all goes well, the Moon Express launch will take place by the end of 2017.
In the meantime, Rocket Lab intends to launch two more Electrons in test flights before going to commercial operations.