Like many humans—and especially because I spend so much time writing on the subjects—I’m often inclined to float away in daydream mode thinking of the expansiveness of space, our travel there, and what more we might find, whether that be positive or terrifying. And in terms of 3D printing, I spend far more time considering the impressive progression of a fairly small machine that initially was created for engineers to produce fast, quality prototypes—and is now responsible for enormous and important strides in areas such as space. Who would have thought years back that this technology would be responsible for building fast, lightweight space vehicles and components—and even more affordably? For anyone who has doubts about the longevity of 3D printing, check with Rocket Lab Ltd.of New Zealand, a company now able to exploit the technology for fabricating lightweight, affordable rockets that are battery powered.
As Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, has pointed out previously, it’s been thought for many decades now that space travel would become more accessible and affordable to all. Many see that wait as having taken far too long, but a new technology which many have the same hopes for is exactly the one that is providing that access to space. We’ve been following this adventurous team since the unveiling of the powerful battery-operated Electron Launch System, a rocket accompanied by the oxygen/hydrocarbon Rutherford engine that takes a mere three days to 3D print, along with their plans for potential moon travel with California-based Moon Express, as they work to send an HD-equipped robotic rover there by 2017 riding on none other than the Electron rocket.
In March, the Rutherford engine was further tested and qualified for flight in space. Compliance for blasting off into space is obviously quite a rigorous ordeal, and after two years, the Rutherford was given the green light. Those two years included over 200 hot fires of the engine, resulting in success as it will now be qualified for flight on the Electron launch. And of course, it will go down in history as the first rocket to have all of its fundamental components 3D printed, all designed at Rocket Lab. This includes the:
- Regeneratively cooled thrust chamber
- Main propellant valves
“Rutherford started as a clean sheet of paper,” said Lachlan Matchett, Rocket Lab’s propulsion lead, in a recent press release. “Without the burden of heritage engines, we were able to make the most of today’s most advanced technologies in ways not attempted before.”
For the first stage of the Electron’s journey into space, nine Rutherford engines will be required for power. In the second stage, the rocket will be using a variation on the Rutherford, but one that is made to endure the vacuum of space travel. And they will take off from the first orbital launch site that Rocket Lab is currently building in New Zealand, on the Mahia Peninsula at Onenui Station. They had predicted that flights would begin in 2016, and true to form, this will occur in the second half of the year during the test program for the Electron.
The Rutherford is special not only as the first 3D printed engine that will go into space but also due to its unique electric propulsion cycle which uses brushless DC electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive the turbopump.
“We are seeing the vehicle come together, and are looking to move to manufacturing at quantity for both our test and commercial flights,” said Beck.
Not just a one-off, they will soon be making more of these 3D printed engines, according to the company, as they consider volume production of the powerful space vehicle, which is able to deliver a 150kg payload to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit—within the range of what is required for the satellite market. We’ll be following as the time grows closer for this unique and powerful rocket/engine to blast into space. Do you think more engines and rockets like this will follow? Let’s discuss over in the Rutherford 3D Printed Engine forum at 3DPB.com.[Source: 3D Printing Progress]