NASA, as part of its RAMFIRE project, has developed and tested a 3D printed aluminum rocket engine nozzle. This novel technology is lighter than traditional nozzles, potentially enabling deep space missions with higher payloads. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center collaborated with Elementum 3D to create a heat-resistant aluminum alloy suitable for rocket engines, addressing the material’s typical limitations. The RAMFIRE nozzle is designed with internal cooling channels, making it more durable and preventing melting. Unlike traditional manufacturing methods, this 3D printed nozzle is constructed as a single piece, reducing manufacturing time and the need for numerous individual parts. The project’s success marks a significant milestone for the development of lightweight, structurally sound rocket components for deep space missions.
NASA recently accomplished a significant milestone in space exploration by testing a 3D printed aluminum rocket engine nozzle, marking a substantial leap forward for deep space missions. This groundbreaking development is a part of NASA’s Reactive Additive Manufacturing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (RAMFIRE) project, offering a lighter and more resilient alternative to conventional nozzles.
Engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, teamed up with Elementum 3D in Erie, Colorado, to produce a novel, heat-resistant aluminum alloy suitable for rocket engines. Unlike other metals, aluminum boasts a lower density, making it ideal for crafting high-strength, lightweight components. Historically, its susceptibility to extreme heat and a tendency to crack during welding made it unsuitable for additively manufacturing rocket engine parts. However, RAMFIRE has changed that narrative.
The RAMFIRE project, funded under NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), concentrates on advancing lightweight, additively manufactured aluminum rocket nozzles. These nozzles feature internal channels that effectively dissipate heat, preventing them from melting under extreme conditions.
In contrast to traditional manufacturing techniques, which may require the assembly of up to a thousand individual parts, RAMFIRE nozzles are created as single pieces. This not only streamlines the manufacturing process but also reduces the need for numerous bonds, significantly slashing production time.
The crux of this breakthrough lies in a novel aluminum variant, named A6061-RAM2, jointly developed by NASA and Elementum 3D. Utilizing laser powder-directed energy deposition (LP-DED) technology, the nozzles are constructed by forming a melt pool with a laser and layering specialized powder, ultimately leading to the creation of a robust and innovative product.
Paul Gradl, RAMFIRE principal investigator at NASA Marshall, emphasized the importance of industry partnerships in advancing additive manufacturing for NASA missions and the broader aerospace industry. “We’ve reduced the steps involved in the manufacturing process, allowing us to make large-scale engine components as a single build in a matter of days,” he explained.
NASA’s ambitious Moon to Mars objectives necessitate the capability to transport more cargo to deep space destinations. This novel alloy could play a pivotal role by enabling the creation of lightweight rocket components capable of withstanding high structural loads.
John Vickers, principal technologist for STMD advanced manufacturing, highlighted the significance of mass reduction for NASA’s future deep space missions. “Projects like this mature additive manufacturing along with advanced materials, and will help evolve new propulsion systems, in-space manufacturing, and infrastructure needed for NASA’s ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” he said.
Earlier this summer at Marshall’s East Test Area, two RAMFIRE nozzles completed multiple hot-fire tests using different fuel configurations, including liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen, and liquid methane. These tests revealed that the nozzles could operate under pressures exceeding 825 pounds per square inch (psi), far beyond what was initially expected. In total, they accumulated 22 starts and 579 seconds, or nearly 10 minutes, of run time, underscoring their capability to thrive in the most demanding deep-space conditions.
In addition to the rocket engine nozzles, the RAMFIRE project has leveraged the RAMFIRE aluminum material and additive manufacturing process to create other advanced components for demonstration purposes. These include a 36-inch diameter aerospike nozzle with integral coolant channels and a vacuum-jacketed tank designed for cryogenic fluid applications.
NASA is actively collaborating to share the data and processes with commercial stakeholders and academia. Several aerospace companies are exploring the potential of the novel alloy and LP-DED additive manufacturing process for applications such as satellite components. This achievement highlights the promising future of additive manufacturing in space exploration and its potential to transform the broader aerospace industry.
Photo Credit: Edward Wakefield – NASA