BLT’s 3D Printing Powers LandSpace’s Rocket Hopper Test in China

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In the ongoing race to space, a new chapter was added on January 19, 2024, when Chinese business LandSpace successfully hopped its ZhuQue-3 (ZQ-3) prototype rocket during a Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTVL) recovery test. This test is part of an effort to make rockets reusable, a goal that other companies in the space sector share. While this is a huge step forward in the development of space technology, it’s one of many in the industry’s journey toward more sustainable and cost-effective space travel.

With the rocket taking center stage last month in China’s booming space economy, Xi’an Bright Laser Technologies’ (BLT) involvement stands out. Known for its expertise in metal additive manufacturing (AM), BLT played a significant role in the ZQ-3’s development. LandSpace used its metal 3D printing capabilities, including the BLT-S310 and BLT-S400 models, to manufacture intricate components within the engine, such as joint elements, igniter mounts, and complex internal structures. Since these components were challenging to make with traditional metal fabrication, LandSpace turned to BLT to avoid long production cycles, difficulties in mold manufacturing, and escalating costs.

BLT intelligent factory. Image courtesy of BLT.

The Hop

The buzz around LandSpace’s recent hopper test started on social media days before, spotted by satellite imagery fans. Designed as a demonstrator for the reusable technology featured in the ZQ-3, the hopper was prepped in a small landing pad next to the company’s main launch pad. Despite a delay from the original schedule, the successful ZQ-3 hopper reached 350 meters before maneuvering to a precision landing.

ZQ-3 VTVL-1 reusable rocket. Image courtesy of LandSpace.

Powered by LandSpace’s TQ-12 methane engine, which also propels the current ZQ-2 rocket, the hop demonstrated the engine’s broad throttle range, essential for the controlled takeoff and landing, explains NASA Space Flight. The 50.3-ton hopper completed its flight in roughly 60 seconds and landed within 2.4 meters of its target. This ZQ-3 hopper is more than “a leap in technology,” It also paves the way for the debut of the ZQ-3 rocket in 2025, a medium-to-heavy lift vehicle standing at 76.6 meters with a diameter of 4.5 meters that will be constructed out of stainless steel and powered with upgraded TQ-12A engines. According to the company, the ZQ-3 aims to feature a reusable first stage capable of supporting up to 20 flights today, which is a huge stride towards reducing the cost and environmental impact of space launches.

The success of the VTVL-1 recovery test is described by BLT as part of the collaboration between the two companies: “To better meet the technical demands of our engine, we chose metal 3D printing technology for the production of critical components. BLT’s expertise in additive technology solutions was instrumental in reducing production time and supporting our rapid development iterations,” described LandSpace.

ZQ-3 VTVL-1 reusable rocket. Image courtesy of LandSpace.

Founded in 2015, LandSpace has quickly established itself as a leader in China’s private space exploration sector. With a focus on developing medium and large liquid oxygen-methane launch vehicles, it is committed to providing cost-effective and reliable space transportation services globally. On the other hand, BLT has been a predominant force in the metal 3D printing market since its start in 2011. With a marked market capitalization and a strong focus on R&D, BLT keeps innovating in metal 3D printing

Others Before

The successful VTVL-1 recovery test marks a significant milestone in reusable rocket technology and a critical development for China’s commercial space sector. However, it’s important to recognize that this achievement isn’t the first of its kind. In November 2023, Chinese commercial rocket company Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology, known as iSpace, launched the Hyperbola-2Y single-stage hopper at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The test vehicle achieved a height of 178 meters during its 51-second flight, performing a powered descent and soft landing on four landing legs. This 3.35-meter-diameter, 17-meter-long test stage’s successful flight and soft landing are considered crucial steps towards iSpace’s goal of debuting a reusable medium-lift rocket by 2025, much like LandSpace.

China’s VTVL tests show efforts similar to those pioneered by SpaceX, which used VTVL technology for its Falcon 9 rocket boosters, a form of reusable rocket technology. The Falcon 9’s first stage performs a controlled return to Earth after separating from the second stage, which continues its journey to orbit. This return ends in a vertical landing either on a ground pad (such as Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral) or on an autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) stationed in the ocean. Falcon 9 was the first reusable rocket to use VTVL technology to recover its first stage. Luckily, these operations have set a high bar for innovation in the new space industry and have been key to proving the importance of reusable rockets.

VTVL-1 stable landing. Image courtesy of LandSpace.

With LandSpace and BLT at the forefront of space technology innovation in China, there is much more potential for metal 3D printing to help overcome traditional manufacturing challenges, paving the way for future advances in the race to deep space exploration.

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