Space aficionado Elon Musk is looking to scale up the production of their rocket engines at SpaceX with the help of additive manufacturing or 3D printing technology. His main goal is to automate the production process.
SpaceX started using 3D-printed parts for the first time in their Dragon 3 aircraft back in 2014. Elon and the team have now been working for three years in order to perfect this technology. Not only is the 3D printing process cost-effective, but it is also highly precise, thanks to AI. Wanna know more about it? Keep on reading!
How do SpaceX 3D printers work?
3D printing is one of the many achievements on Elon Musk’s long resume of exceptional inventions. The main work that goes behind it is called selective laser sintering.
3D printers typically work by printing continuously on a particular area till a three dimensional figure is formed. They are given a 2D render drawing via a computer as per which they map the material.
For their rocket parts, SpaceX uses a specialized high performance super-alloy which is created using direct metal laser centering (DMLS).
“We are now planning to construct the parts of our Merlin engine using Leap Motion Controller which will be controlled via the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset as well as a high-end metal 3D printer” – said Musk when asked about the process.
The key to achieving rapid engine development is to limit the amount of parts required, which reduces the time required to build the engine as well as the interruption caused by supply chain failures. The most straightforward method of accomplishing this is to alter production procedures.
Additive manufacturing processes, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing processes, allow space companies to build up parts by gradually adding material to them.
Subtractive manufacturing processes, as opposed to additive manufacturing processes, allow space companies to shape parts by removing material from them. In simple words, SpaceX now has the capability to convert a simple piece of metal into a rocket using their high-end algorithms. Real-life use cases
They first started using 3D printing to create their emergency escape rockets. The first entry level use case, the Dragon 3.0 was mainly a part of SpaceX’s entry into competition against NASA who had been trying something similar for a long time.
It was used to ferry astronauts in and out of the International Space Station. The first 3D printed part they used was a rocket engine’s main oxidizer valve which flew alongside a SpaceX rocket on January 5th 2014.
This rocket consisted of a payload to orbit that consisted of ‘Thaicom 5 Telecommunication’ satellites. The valve was used in one of the rocket’s Merlin 1D engines.
The valve performed quite well with the help of high pressure liquid oxygen and the use of cryogenic temperatures & high vibrations. Unlike its predecessor which was manufactured manually and took over two weeks to build, this valve only took two days.
One can easily see the speed gains in manufacturing once the process is automated safely. This valve is now a proprietary unit in all the Falcon 9 flights. To keep up with SpaceX, NASA also sent a 3D printer produced by California based company “Made in Space” to the ISS.
Many other European agencies have also been using 3D parts to build lunar bases. How this works is that first we send a 3D printer onto a moon or a planet where we want to build a base.
The printer we send should then be programmed to make a bigger printer which would then assemble small components for a lunar base. This will be extremely cost effective too as you will not have to take frequent trips to gather raw materials.
This really helped bridge the gap between establishing a colony on Mars and the doubts holding back mankind. SpaceX also uses 3D printing on their Superdraco Thruster Engine which is an enhanced version of their current engine used in the Dragon aircraft.
Superdraco was used in aircrafts which needed to hover in an orbit and also in the Dragon 2 spacecraft. These engines are typically used to supply power to the vehicle’s escape system. In its testing phase, these rockets have malfunctioned just a few times and now become totally reliable.
Lastly, the helmet that goes on top of the custom made Tesla astronaut suit is also designed using 3D printing. The helmets are equipped with microphones, integrated oxygen chambers and also features for visor attraction and locking. SpaceX also plans on making most of their crew’s gear using additive manufacturing.
Outcomes of 3D printed modules: Satisfactory or not?
When up and running, the Superdraco engine can produce a full thrust of 16,000 pounds.
SpaceX also carried out a rather harsh testing of the Superdraco which included multiple starts, extending firing durations, extreme off-nominal propellant flow as well as temperature tests.
These engines also have a feature called deep throttle which provides astronauts with huge precision and power in space to thrust forward. Elon Musk stated that during their testing, the Superdraco went through two different profiles : Launch Escape and Landing burn.
It could also be throttled from 20% to 100% relatively easily. They fired their rocket over 100 times during testing which is quite ruthless even by a non-living machine’s standards. But then, that’s how testing procedures should be.
When SpaceX launched the dragon version 2, the eight engines inside it could generate over 120,000 pounds of axial thrust in case a spacecraft needed to propel forward during emergencies.
In 2020, one of their main 3D printer suppliers, Velo 3D suggested that they should use 3D printing machines to make certain components that they were facing problems with. They also said that such components are really crucial to SpaceX if they want to again step foot on mars.
The launch escape system powered by 3D printed components also enabled astronauts to precisely land to safety. All in all, 3D printing helps us build cutting edge components at a fractional cost compared to the conventional manufacturing methods and the results have also been quite satisfactory.
About SpaceX You can’t truly call yourself an Elon Musk admirer if you do not know the history behind Tesla. What now once started as a result of lack of support by other parties when supplying rockets, led to the birth of one of the world’s best space agencies.
Aside from the constant strides they are making in the manufacturing sector, SpaceX also plans to bring the world together via their satellite network called Starlink. SpaceX now works in partnership with NASA and deals in rockets.
As per Elon, they are also planning to send a giant ship to mars and try a shot at colonising when his works are approved.
Are 3D printed parts really viable?
The importance of this for private space firms like SpaceX cannot be overstated. It is not inexpensive to construct a rocket. As the RUD trash heap grows in size, investors may become more erratic in their decisions. If companies competing to launch payloads into space are forced to postpone their launch dates due to defective rockets, the public perception of such companies suffers.
Three-dimensional metal printing technology is being used by almost all new rocket businesses and space entrepreneurs. It expedites their development process, allowing them to survive the critical years before they are able to launch anything into space.
Other noteworthy mentions include Rocket Lab, which launches rockets from New Zealand using its 3D-printed engine, and Relativity Space, which is 3D printing the complete rocket from the ground up. Skyrora and Orbex are two companies that operate in the United Kingdom.
The latter intends to launch a rocket-powered by a 3D-printed engine as early as 2022, according to its website. To further establish his strong foothold on the subject, in October 2020, Elon Musk tweeted that “
Additive manufacturing of parts is still far too costly for cars, but can rapidly create tooling to accelerate pace of innovation. It’s already sensible for rocket engine parts. To the best of our knowledge, Space is 2 or 3 years ahead of other companies in use of the additive.”
Verdict It is roughly now seven years since 3D printers first emerged into the picture, but the technology still needs some fixation and smarter AI cores to process information. That said, SpaceX now regularly uses 3D printed components like the Superdraco and engine valves with their Falcon 9 rockets.
It is unclear if SpaceX will be able to build a full-fledged rocket including all of its components just using 3D printing. However, it is apparent that this is the right direction for an industry in which light-weight and complex in-house production will affect the payload limit of rockets.
Thanks for reading till the end. Comment what’s your opinion about this information “SpaceX’s Secret Weapon: The Rocket 3D-Printer”.
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Information Source: Youtube – Elon Musk Zone