Aerojet Rocketdyne tests largest 3D printed rocket engine part made of copper

Leading aerospace and rocket technology company Aerojet Rocketdyne has been working on implementing 3D printing technology into projects for over a decade now, and today it announced the successful testing of its largest 3D printed rocket engine part made from copper. A thrust chamber assembly for the RL10 rocket engine, made from copper alloy using laser sintering, was hot-fire tested and approved for use.

Over 450 RL10 engines have flown in space since the rocket’s first operational flight in 1963, placing numerous spacecraft into orbit and propelling others to explore the rest of our solar system. Speaking about the RL10, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake said the company had made several major upgrades ‘’to enhance the engine’s performance and affordability since it first entered service in the early 1960s.” Taking advantage of 3D printing technology was the next logical step in the evolution of the rocket, as the company was looking ''to make the engine even more affordable for our customers.”

Not only does 3D printing allow for much cheaper building of these rocket parts, the manufacturing time is also drastically reduced. The technology allowed for the thrust chamber assembly design to be simplified to just two parts (a huge 90 percent reduction in part count), which then took under a month to fully complete using SLS 3D printing. This is a lead time several months shorter than when using conventional methods.

According to Additive manufacturing Program Manager Jeff Haynes, the thrust chamber assembly is the largest one ever 3D printed with the high-performance copper alloy that was used. '‘Infusing this technology into full-scale rocket engines is truly transformative as it opens up new design possibilities for our engineers and paves the way for a new generation’’, he said. 3D printing technology’s increased space for design modification means that 3D printed rocket parts can have a number of advanced features, enabling better heat transfer. What this means is that the resulting engines can be much more lightweight and compact, a huge bonus for the vast majority of aerospace applications.

The recently completed thrust chamber assembly part was tested at the program management office of the Defense Production Act Title III, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. The success of the testing will bolster confidence in Aerojet Rocketdyne’s other applications of 3D printing technology. Other products making use of 3D printing include the RS-25 engines that are intended to help with exploration of deep space, as well as the company’s new AR-1 booster engine that is being developed to replace the Russian-built RD-180 engines by 2019, as mandated by Congress.

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