The European Space Agency (ESA) tested its first ever 3D printed platinum alloy thruster combustion chamber and nozzle and returned with favourable results.
The thruster was printed with a laser printing machine that is used for jewellery making. Using layers of platinum-rhodium alloy, the 10 N hydrazine thruster combustion chamber and nozzle was printed and tested 618 times via ignition tests. During the tests, a maximum temperature of 1253 °C (2287 °F) were reached, and the thruster fared resiliently.
“The aim was to test this alternative manufacturing method as a way of reducing material costs,” said ESA engineer Laurent Pambaguian. “At the start we were by no means certain it could be done, or even whether the metal powder could be prepared to the appropriate quality.” Typically, Airbus Defence & Space produce 150-200 hydrazine thrusters each year, compounding the wasted cost, as platinum cost is as high as €40 (US$63) a gram.
In 2014, SpaceX also experimented with 3D printing their SuperDraco thruster, complete with a nickel-chromium alloy combustion chamber. With many companies venturing into progressive manufacturing options in the aerospace industry, we can expect a shift in the realm of space exploration.
As for now, ESA sets its eye on experimenting with 3D printing platinum-rhodium alloy as a way of performance enhancement on its thrusters.