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Printing Defying Gravity

3D Printed Rocket: The Latest Advancements in 2020

Picture of Leo Gregurić
by Leo Gregurić
Feb 11, 2020

Properly designed, a 3D printed rocket boasts efficiency and affordability. Discover the latest advancements in 3D printed rockets!

3D Printed Rocket Advancements

Transforming the Aerospace Industry

This 3D printer is powered by multiple robotic arms capable of printing end use metal parts
This 3D printer is powered by multiple robotic arms capable of printing end use metal parts (Source: Wikipedia)

To most, it may seem that the space industry hasn’t really taken any big steps forward in recent years. Yet, many companies are investing astronomical amounts of money into R&D, hoping to create the next big thing in spaceflight. To this end, recent developments in 3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, has allowed it to become one of the most significant technologies making an impact on the aerospace industry.

Satellites have become a key focus of both scientists and engineers, allowing for advanced studies as well as more commercial uses, like worldwide internet systems. However, these satellites need a way to get into orbit, and the best method is still to use a rocket. As it happens, building a rocket and sending the payload into space is a very expensive thing to do.

Minimizing the cost of building rockets has been an industry target for quite some time now. The key to achieving that goal is to make rockets more lightweight, more fuel-efficient, and cheaper to build. That’s where 3D printing comes in.

Advantages of 3D Printing

The main advantage of 3D printing in the rocket-building business is providing the ability to reduce part count and make the production line flexible without the need to invest tens or even hundreds of millions into special tooling prior to manufacturing each design.

A rocket consists of tens of thousands of parts, making it a very complex product. With 3D printing, it’s possible to significantly reduce the part count of a rocket, bringing the cost down. In this way, we’re entering into a new era of cost-efficient rocket building and space business.

Stay with us and explore the latest, most exciting advancements in 3D printed rockets!

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3D Printed Rocket Advancements

Relativity Space: 3D Printing an Entire Rocket

The Aeon 1, a 3D printed rocket engine
The Aeon 1, a 3D printed rocket engine (Source: Relativity Space)

Relativity Space, a company founded in 2015, is on a quest to build the world’s first entirely 3D printed rocket, dubbed Terran 1.

The main goal of the company is, using 3D printers, to reduce part count on a rocket as much as possible and make the production of a rocket a flexible process.

On average, a rocket has around 50,000 to 100,000 parts, making it about as complex as a car. Relativity has managed to reduce the number of parts on their rocket down to around 1,000, which enables a lot of cost reduction.

The Stargate 3D Printer

As 3D printing seemed like the perfect manufacturing method for their project, Relativity has gone ahead and developed their own 3D printer, the Stargate. It’s one of the world’s largest metal 3D printers, and it’s responsible for most of Terran 1’s production.

The full system consists of three robotic arms, one for printing, and the other two for post-processing. The technology used is direct energy deposition, a method where metal wire is fed into a melting zone and then extruded into the desired shape. In layman’s terms, it’s essentially 3D welding.

Churning rockets like we churn 3D Benchys...
Printing rockets as if they were Benchys... (Source: IEEE Spectrum)

Nuts & Bolts

Innovation at Relativity doesn’t stop there, as they’ve also invested in AI to monitor the production process, helping to make it better and more efficient in every possible way.

The Terran 1 rocket features a maximum payload of 1,250 kilograms and is powered by nine Aeon 1 engines, which are 3D printed and use liquid methane and liquid oxygen as propellants.

The fuel tank is also 3D printed on the Stargate printer. From the outside, the tank looks like a simple structure, but it actually consists of two inner tanks, as each of the propellants needs to be stored separately. Thanks to the Stargate printer’s large build volume, the tank can be printed in a single piece without seams, making it quite safe from potential leaks.

As claimed by the company’s website, their Stargate factory is capable of printing the Terran 1 in 60 days, bringing it all the way from raw material into a flight-ready vehicle. For comparison, regular rocket-building lead times are usually more than a year!

While the Stargate is responsible for producing the rocket structure and the propellant tank, the smaller components and the engine are printed on a direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) 3D printer.

The orbital test is set to happen in 2021, while the official launch for commercial flights should happen soon afterwards.

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3D Printed Rocket Advancements

Orbex: World's Largest 3D Printed Rocket Engine

Orbex's 3D printed engine is also a wonderful thing to look at
Orbex's 3D printed engine is also a wonderful thing to look at (Source: Orbex)

Orbex is a start-up based in the UK, specializing in developing satellite launch vehicles. Orbex gained significant press coverage with the introduction of Prime, the company’s eco-friendly rocket, aimed at providing low-cost orbital launch services. This is an impressive achievement considering that Orbex was founded only 5 years ago.

In order for Orbex to meet the goal of low-cost orbital launches, it was very important to make a lightweight rocket with the best available materials. While the majority of the rocket is fabricated from carbon fiber, aluminum, and graphene composites, 3D printing still plays a role at Orbex, and what a role it is.

A Big Deal

Orbex’s launch vehicle is powered by the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine. It was printed on an SLM Solutions 800 machine in a single run, eliminating the need for excess joints. It runs on bio-propane to ensure the lowest possible carbon-emission footprint.

At the time of writing, the upcoming first launch of Orbex’s launch vehicle is scheduled for 2021. We’re excited to see what happens in the future with this exciting young company!

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3D Printed Rocket Advancements

Rocket Lab: Small Satellites in Low Earth Orbit

This is where the magic happens
This is where the magic happens (Source: Rocket Lab via YouTube )

Rocket Lab is a California-based aerospace company focused on delivering small satellites into low Earth orbit.

Recently, the company introduced its new two-stage launch vehicle, the Electron. The rocket itself is made out of carbon composites to bring the weight down as much as possible. The maximum payload is set to 225 kilos.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rocket Lab’s vehicle is the use of specially 3D printed Rutherford engines.

What Is a Rutherford Engine?

The Rutherford engine, named after Ernest Rutherford, is a small rocket engine that uses oxygen and kerosene for propellants. Combining a simple design that’s easy to produce with professional electron beam melting (EBM) 3D printers makes for a highly effective cost-cutting setup.

Rocket Lab's 3D printed Rutherford engine
Rocket Lab's 3D printed Rutherford engine (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)

Up to this point, Rocket Lab has printed more than 100 of these engines, which have successfully completed various testing programs. The production process itself is impressive (and unique to Rocket Lab), taking only 24 hours per rocket.

With that said, it’s fair to say that Rocket Lab is working hard towards its vision of unlocking the potential of space.

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3D Printed Rocket Advancements

Launcher: Efficient Engines

Testing the Engine-1, the Engine-2's predecessor
Testing the Engine-1, the Engine-2's predecessor (Source: Launcher )

Launcher is a Brooklyn-based start-up focused on developing the world’s most efficient “small rocket” to deliver small satellites to orbit. Their solution is the Rocket-1, a 20-meter rocket equipped with a set of five Engine-2 thrusters. The rocket has a maximum payload capacity of 773 kg.

In order to provide competitive pricing for satellite launches, the cost of rocket and engine production needed to be as low as possible. In collaboration with EOS and AMCM, Launcher implemented 3D printing into its workflow.

The Engine-2

The Engine-2 features one of the world’s largest single-piece 3D printed combustion chambers, made in a single piece from a copper alloy on a powder 3D printer. Printing the part all at once made the production easier, as no joints are required. It also enabled them to develop a 98% efficient thruster, an impressive feat.

The engine uses kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants but gives beautiful blue thrust diamonds (typically only seen in methane engines). It’s promised to deliver an impressive thrust of 22,000 lbf (roughly 97,860 Newtons).

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3D Printed Rocket Advancements

Skyrora: Plastic Waste to Propellant

3D printers are crucial for both development and production
3D printers are crucial for both development and production (Source: Skyrora via Instagram)

Skyrora is an Edinburgh-based company that focuses on satellite launching. We’ve had a few similar firms in the article, but Skyrora caught our eyes thanks to their innovative approach to fuel.

Believe it or not, Skyrora managed to find a way to develop fuel, kerosene specifically, from plastic waste. They call it “Ecosene”, and when burned, it produces around 45% fewer gas emissions.

Skyrora’s process of extracting fuel from plastic waste caught a lot of attention from the space industry. And it gets even better, as the process is claimed to be able to produce 600 kg of kerosene from 1,000 kg of plastic waste in a record-breaking 24-hour period.

Skyrora developed this fuel to power its 3.5-kN 3D printed engine system, Leo, which will hopefully find its home in their Skyrora XL rocket, measuring 22 meters in length. The 3D printed engine system could also serve to maneuver the rocket after it attains orbit, as it has an innovative feature that lets it restart.

(Lead image source: Wikipedia)

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