Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to Push NASA’s Space Exploration with 3D Printing

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Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne will expand their partnerships with NASA, with the aerospace giants aiming to carry out two additive manufacturing (AM) projects to advance the future of propulsion capabilities for the agency’s Moon to Mars campaign.

NASA selected 16 proposals from 12 companies, including two from Aerojet Rocketdyne and two from Blue Origin, through its Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO). Since ACOs are not funded by NASA and are rather cooperative agreements, the agency will provide access to its unique facilities and technical expertise, allowing more direct support for the development of promising technologies without the transfer of funds.

“By sharing our knowledge and facilities with U.S. companies, NASA helps mature capabilities that promise to benefit our objectives and the entire aerospace industry,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “These awards allow us to work with both small and large companies to advance some of the most crucial technologies for future exploration.”

NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, conducts mobility testing at NASA Glenn’s Simulated Lunar Operation Laboratory. Image courtesy of Bridget Caswell/NASA

Aside from Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin, NASA also enlisted Boeing, Canopy Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Maxar, Phase Four, Psionic, Roccor (a Redwire company), Stratolaunch, Sierra Space, and Venturi Astrolab. These companies plan to demonstrate a wide range of space innovations, including a new lunar rover tire design, a robotically assembled power system, and an electrically actuated device to join in-space propellant transfer lines.

Engine tech

Aerojet Rocketdyne and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will work on a fully additively manufactured liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen (LOX-LH2) engine demonstration over the next two years. The company is one of the leading manufacturers of LOX-LH2 engines, with a long history of providing propulsion systems for a variety of space missions, including the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle. Its RS-25 engines, which use a combination of LOX and LH2 as propellants, will power the core stage of NASA’s super heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket during the historic Artemis III mission that will return humans to the surface of the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

Designed to handle some of the most extreme temperatures as they move massive amounts of propellants to generate enough energy for the rocket to escape Earth’s gravity, the existing RS-25 engines already have numerous 3D printed parts. These collaborate towards reducing the engine’s overall production costs by nearly 35% while maintaining performance, reliability, and safety. Four have already been used to power the first Artemis lunar mission on November 2022.

RS-25 engines attached to the core stage for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the agency’s Artemis missions. Image courtesy of NASA/Eric Bordelon

Actively using 3D printing technology for a variety of components, Aerojet has been able to produce heat exchangers for LOX-LH2 engines. Thanks to its 3D printing technique, the aerospace firm can produce these parts as single, monolithic components, which are stronger and more durable than traditional designs. In addition to heat exchangers, Aerojet Rocketdyne is also using AM to make the injectors that deliver the propellants to the combustion chamber and turbopump components, such as impellers and vanes, which can improve pump efficiency and reduce manufacturing costs.

In an interview with 3DPrint.com, the company has stated that it sees significant potential for 3D printing to transform the aerospace industry. Given how much Aerojet already uses 3D printing in its manufacturing process, having a fully additively manufactured large-scale rocket engine that uses cryogenic propellants like LOX and LH2 seems like the next logical step.

Breaking new ground

As for Blue Origin, it will team up with NASA’s Marshall and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to tackle Friction Stir Additive Manufacturing (FSAM), a 3D printing technology particularly useful for processing high-strength and high-temperature materials, such as aluminum alloys and titanium, which are difficult to weld through conventional methods. FSAM also enables the production of large and complex parts with minimal waste, making it an attractive option for aerospace and other high-performance applications.

Both companies are actively using 3D printing technology in their manufacturing processes, clearly seeing it as a valuable tool for improving efficiency, reducing costs, and accelerating innovation in the space industry.

Blue Origin has developed its own powder bed fusion technology, which it uses to produce rocket engine components and other parts for its New Shepard and New Glenn rockets. The two-decade-old space firm has stated that the use of 3D printing has enabled it to produce parts with greater efficiency and precision. Similarly, Aerojet has stated that the use of 3D printing has enabled it to reduce the weight of its engines while maintaining performance and reliability and has also allowed for more rapid prototyping and iteration of new designs.

NASA Marshall advances 3D printed rocket engine nozzle technology. Image courtesy of NASA/MSFC/David Olive

“The collaborations reduce the development cost of space technologies and aim to accelerate the infusion of new capabilities,” said Laguduva Kubendran, Tipping Point/ACO lead at NASA. “The 2022 ACO solicitation topics were intentionally broad, allowing industry to propose emerging capabilities with the widest potential benefit, increasing access to space for all.”

NASA is certainly looking to develop technologies under the ACOs that can support the Artemis program, a long-term human space exploration initiative that aims to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2025. The Moon landing is clearly NASA’s highest-priority mission at the time. However, these technologies also have additional applications.

Organizations interested in developing space technology with NASA can explore opportunities online here.

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