NASA has collaborated with Virgin Orbit, a division of the the Virgin Group that provides launch solutions for small satellites, to develop and test an additively manufactured rocket part. Virgin Orbit has reportedly joined NASA’s experts in combustion and Additive Manufacturing at its Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, USA; Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, USA; and Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, USA, to produce an additively manufactured combustion chamber that combines multiple metal materials.
“Traditionally, it takes many months to manufacture, test and deliver a conventional combustion chamber. We can reduce that time considerably,” stated Paul Gradl, NASA Senior Engineer and lead on the joint project at Marshall. “Additive Manufacturing is primed to augment and enhance traditional processes. It provides new design and performance opportunities and yields a highly durable piece of hardware – and with this partnership, we’re advancing that capability even further.”
According to NASA, the project incorporates a proven NASA copper alloy, GRCop-84, which was developed at Marshall and Glenn in 2014 to successfully produce and test the first full-scale additively manufactured copper rocket engine part. To further strengthen this new engine thrust chamber, Virgin Orbit used its own hybrid additive/subtractive manufacturing system to apply a second bimetallic superalloy jacket and precisely machine the part.
In late 2018 and early 2019, researchers at Marshall, in consultation with Glenn and Virgin Orbit engineers, tested the combustion chamber using high-pressure liquid oxygen/kerosene propellants. The test article was said to have delivered more than 2,000 lb of thrust successfully in nearly two-dozen, 60-second test firings.
Kevin Zagorski, Propulsion Advanced Manufacturing Manager at Virgin Orbit, commented, “The combination of multiple optimised materials and Additive Manufacturing technologies we’ve employed represents a significant advancement from the compromises typically made in the production of 3D printed rocket engine combustion chambers. Information gained from our partnership with NASA will be key in applying these technologies to further improve cost, performance and lead time of Virgin Orbit’s propulsion systems for the LauncherOne vehicle.”
NASA reported that its goal is to continue working with industry to advance technology and improve access to space by making launch technology safer, faster and more cost-effective. Ed Hamlin, Project Manager at Armstrong, stated, “Public-private partnerships like this one are instrumental to maturing critical technology and achieving the nation’s strategic goals in space for decades to come,” added Hamlin.