Spanish startups Pangea Aerospace and Aenium Engineering will have the exclusive capabilities to develop and industrialize advanced 3D printed propulsion systems in Europe made from an innovative copper-alloy material created by NASA called GRCop-42. Through this collaboration, Pangea will test its first GRCop-42-based aerospike rocket engines in the third quarter of 2021, expecting to radically transform space propulsion due to its higher efficiency, reusability, very low cost, and rapid manufacturing.
Several aerospike engines have been developed throughout history, but none have ever flown. Unlike conventional rocket engines, which feature a bell nozzle that constricts expanding gasses, the basic aerospike shape is that of a bell turned inside out and upside down. So, why aren’t aerospike engines used on rockets? This is mainly due to the engineering difficulties historically linked with aerospike nozzles: cooling, weight, and manufacturing costs. However, today 3D printing techniques and new materials, like GRCop-42, enhance the possibility of building a functional and economically viable aerospike engine at a fraction of the cost and time.
In fact, according to Pangea CEO Adrià Argemi, the GRCop-42 alloy is one of the key solutions that allowed the company to solve the thermal challenges of aerospike nozzle rocket engines. Originally developed in 2019 as a feedstock for powder bed fusion printing by a NASA team of researchers, the material has demonstrated superior thermo-mechanical properties like no other in harsh environments. The metal powder has already been used by the space agency to produce and test near fully dense 3D printed parts such as combustion chamber liners and fuel injector faceplates.
By integrating additive manufacturing (AM), complex post-processing, and GRCop-42, Pangea and Aenium can now develop and commercialize propulsion systems for the European aerospace market, allowing more startups in the growing space industry access advanced propulsion solutions. Together, they have designed a 3D-printable aerospike nozzle rocket engine that should be up to 15% more efficient than those traditionally produced, allowing for a significant payload increase for any launch vehicle. Furthermore, thanks to the inherent advantages of 3D printing, the aerospike propulsion system can be additively manufactured in only two pieces, at a fraction of the cost, and intended to be reusable at least 10 times.
Pangea is currently manufacturing DemoP1, a liquid oxygen and methane aerospike engine demonstrator designed to characterize and validate several key enabling technologies for future aerospike developments, including the use of methane as a fuel, its manufacturing methodology developed together with Aenium, a dual regenerative cooling system, and a design required for reusability. Once operational, the company hopes its in-space propulsion system based on the aerospike geometry will be ideal for small satellites, deep space missions, and landers.
Pangea has already started the preliminary design of its larger, commercially ready aerospike engine and its subsystems, benefiting from this collaboration. Based in Barcelona, the startup aims to revolutionize the current standards for modern space launch systems. First, by developing efficient and modern rocket engines through 3D printing to tackle the challenges of an evolving space ecosystem. In the future, the startup plans to use the same technologies to develop reusable micro-launchers, designed to carry payloads of up to 350 kg, typically for small commercial or experimental satellites. One of its first designs is the Meso rocket, which will use an aerospike engine and a novel, patented recovery system to land safely for reusing the first stage.
Like many of the hundreds of space startups working on technologies to drive off-Earth experiences, Pangea is still developing its product. At this stage, the competition is fierce, with many companies pursuing small launch vehicles, satellites, and rocket engines. The commercial race to create the technology for the next generation of launch vehicles has led many businesses to leverage 3D printing for complex part builds, which would otherwise be difficult to make with traditional manufacturing. By collaborating with AM experts at Aenium, Pangea hopes to open the door for the European aerospace sector to access cutting-edge materials quicker and cheaper.
“This alliance will propel the next generation of reusable rocket engines also bringing the opportunity to the EU market to improve their combustion devices with the most innovative material science and qualified industrial additive manufacturing,” said Miguel Ampudia, Chief Information Officer at Aenium.
The agreement formalized between both companies ensures a breakthrough in engineering complex combustion devices and drives the analysis of different types of advanced superalloys so far untreated for the most demanding applications within the space sector. Although there are still quite a few milestones before the GRCop-42-based rocket engine takes off, we are eager to witness the first 3D-printed aerospike engine flying to space in a couple of years.
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