NASA looks to large-scale DED Additive Manufacturing for future rocket engines

September 18, 2020

Blown powder Directed Energy Deposition can produce large structures such as these engine nozzles (Courtesy NASA)

NASA reports that it is seeking to incorporate large-scale metal Additive Manufacturing in the design and manufacture of its future rocket engines, through its Rapid Analysis and Manufacturing Propulsion Technology (RAMPT) project. By using a blown powder Directed Energy Deposition (DED) process, NASA hopes to bring reduce costs and lead times for producing large, complex engine components such as nozzles and combustion chambers.

“This technology advancement is significant, as it allows us to produce the most difficult and expensive rocket engine parts for a lower price tag than in the past,” stated Drew Hope, manager of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, which funds the RAMPT project. “Further, it will allow companies within and outside of the aerospace industry to do the same and apply this manufacturing technology to the medical, transportation, and infrastructure industries.”

The Additive Manufacturing method injects metal powder into a laser-heated pool of molten metal, or melt pool. The blown powder nozzle and laser optics are integrated into a build-head. The build-head is attached to a robot and moves in a pattern determined by a computer building one layer at a time. The fabrication method has many advantages, including the ability to produce very large pieces, states NASA. It can also be used to additively manufacture very complex parts, including engine nozzles with internal coolant channels. Rocket engine nozzles that contain internal coolant channels run cryogenic propellant through the channels to help keep the nozzle at safe temperatures.

“It’s a challenging process to manufacture the nozzles traditionally, and it can take a very long time,” commented Paul Gradl, RAMPT co-principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, USA. “Blown powder Directed Energy Deposition Additive Manufacturing allows us to create very large-scale components with complex internal features that were not previously possible. We’re able to significantly reduce the time and the cost associated with the fabrication of channel-cooled nozzles and other critical rocket components.”

The RAMPT team recently used the technique to produce one of the largest nozzles NASA has additively manufactured, measuring 102 cm (40 in) in diameter and standing 97 cm (38 in) tall, with fully integrated cooling channels. This nozzle was fabricated in a record time of just thirty days, compared with nearly one-year using traditional welding methods, and completion occurred a year earlier than scheduled due to the technology advancing rapidly.

The RAMPT project’s success has garnered the attention of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket team. NASA’s SLS, along with the Orion spacecraft, are reported to be the backbone to its deep space exploration plans, including sending the first woman and next man to the Moon in 2024 and establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade. The SLS Program is investing in RAMPT’s blown powder Directed Energy Deposition fabrication process with the goal of certifying it for spaceflight. Together with RAMPT, the team is using the technique to build and evaluate a channel-cooled nozzle that is up to 142 cm (5 ft) in diameter and almost 213 cm (7 ft) tall.

“Producing channel wall nozzles and other components using this new type of Additive Manufacturing would enable us to make the SLS engines at the scale required with a reduced schedule and reduced cost,” said Johnny Heflin, Liquid Engines Office manager for the SLS Program.

Through a series of rigorous hot fire tests, engineers will subject a subscale version of the nozzle to the same 6,000-degree combustion temperatures and sustained pressures it would face during launch to demonstrate the durability and performance of the new DED technology. 

NASA’s investments in blown powder Direct Energy Deposition fabrication technology and materials development is expected to play a critical role in enabling the agency’s most ambitious exploration missions. The technology may also play critical roles in many other industries, including commercial space.

The RAMPT project is funded by NASA’s Game Changing Development program within the Space Technology Mission Directorate. RAMPT includes partners from across the agency, including NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, industry, and academia.

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