Even though 3D-printed rocket components is not a new thing for NASA, the newly printed turbopump is being hailed as the “one of the most complex, 3D-printed rocket engine parts ever made.” Mainly because previously the components built were relatively basic like combustion chambers and fuel injectors. The sheer complexity of the turbopump makes it a huge success for NASA.
The turbopump was built and tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama by Marshall Engineers and others. The method applied was laser additive printing. In this process, a powdered mixture of metal alloy is spread in a thin layer by the printer and a computer controlled LASER then fuses the particles together to form a cross section of the component to be manufactured. The process is repeated until the whole component is completed. The excess powder is used to hold the printed component together.
The 3D printed pump uses 45% fewer parts than the conventional designs but there are no slip ups in the performance. It is capable of operating at 90,000 RPM and generates over 2,000 bhp (1500 kW) as it pumps over 1,200 gallons of cryogenic liquid hydrogen per minute.
The results of 15 full-power tests are enough to be optimistic about this turbopump. These tests are intense and are capable of generating 35,000 lb of thrust. The turbopump delivered a fuel temperature of -240º C which burned at 3,315º C during these tests. According to NASA, the 3D printed parts are more economical and save space in manned missions.
The NASA engineers are ecstatic with their success and claim that the design and tests of the turbopump took them only two years. If conventional methods had been applied, the whole process would have taken almost double of that number. Therefore, they not only saved time but also introduced a whole new innovative and effective way of manufacturing complex rocket components. The engine and test data are open to American companies working on future space engines.