Yesterday was a big day for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The company which has a long term contract with NASA, to provide transportation to and from the International Space station, unveiled their latest spacecraft, the Dragon Version 2. Unlike the first version of the Dragon space capsule, which was used to send supplies to the Space Station, this new spacecraft will be used to send a crew of seven astronauts to the station, and then back to Earth again.
“It’s all around I think a big leap forward in technology,” Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO of SpaceX said, regarding this new spacecraft. “It really takes things to the next level.”
What sets the Dragon V2 apart from other manned space capsules, is its ability to use thrusters to counter the affects of gravity, during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, or perhaps that of other worlds. Essentially the capsule can land upon reentry, on land in a fashion not seen in prior manned spacecraft. To do this, the Dragon V2 will rely on 8 restartable state of the art SuperDraco thrusters, which are made in-house by SpaceX. Each thruster produces a staggering 16,400 pounds of thrust (200 times that of SpaceX’s previous Draco thruster) and enables the capsule to land in a controlled manner, as well as act as Dragon’s launch emergency escape system.
So, how is SpaceX able to produce such a powerful thruster, at minimal costs, and still meet the strict deadlines set by their client, NASA? For one, they use 3D printing. That’s right, the most advanced manufacturer of rockets and spacecraft on the planet, relies on a process called direct metal laser sintering, to create one of the most important components of the SuperDraco thruster, the combustion chamber for the engine. The chambers are 3D printed with a material called Inconel, which is very high performance nickel chromium superalloy, known for its amazing strength and toughness.
“Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk. “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”
In total, the eight thrusters will provide the capsule with the ability to produce over 120,000 pounds of axial thrust, not only allowing for a landing, but possibly saving the lives of the crew, should an emergency occur during the launch of the capsule. Because of the power provided by the SuperDraco thrusters, astronauts will be able to maneuver away from danger during the entire accent, and if one of the thrusters fails, the system provides redundancy in order to continue functionality. SpaceX is also looking into the use of the SuperDraco thruster for its Red Dragon Mars lander, which is an unmanned version of the Dragon, being produced to explore Martian soil.
Just this week SpaceX completed qualification tests for the Superdraco thruster. Below is a quick video of one of these thrusters, equipped with a 3D printed combustion chamber, firing. Let us know what you think of SpaceX’s use of 3D printing within their spacecraft at the 3DPB forum thread for the Superdraco 3D printed thruster.