The final frontier will be voyaged with 3D printed spaceships. Count on that. And lunar bases and Mars resorts will likely also be 3D printed. Though ships will eventually be printed in orbit, current efforts are to modernize the rockets that get stuff into orbit. The first team to successfully hot-fire test a 3D printed rocket was Aerojet Rocketdyne. Coming in second place, not at all long after, was NASA testing theirs for the Space Launch System. And third place goes to Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) at the University of California, San Diego with their Tri-D rocket.
That’s definitely the coolest looking test yet. What’s especially noteworthy is that, unlike the other engines which were printed at scale, Tri-D was printed full size. “We hope to see at least a 100 lb thrust achieved and proper oxidation of the fuel dispelled from the injector plate. Our aim in this research project is to prove that 3-D printed rocket engines can have comparable or greater results than machined rocket engines for a fraction of the cost and time required in traditional machining. Implications of these results could lead to a whole new wave of 3-D printed rocket technology, especially for small satellite payloads. This transformation could lead to more frequent flights and a boost in commercial space travel as well.”
The goal was 100 lbs of thrust. The rocket actually did 200 lbs. As UCSD SEDS President Deepak Atyam put it, “[the test] was a resounding success.” As the first university students to print a working rocket engine, they certainly deserved the Student Prize award in the DIYRockets competition that they received.
Tri-D is the result of a challenge from Jonathan E. Jones, a propulsions engineer from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Having previously designed 3D printed rockets, he advised the SEDS and provided design parameters. “The main goal of the project is to explore a quick and cost-effective way to build small scale 3rd stage rockets.”
Fuel for the rocket is Rocket Propellant-1 (Kerosene) and the oxidizer is liquid oxygen. As the hot-fire test was successful, Tri-D is planned to power the third stage of a NanoSat launcher, which delivers miniature satellites that weigh 1.33kg or less. Considering that the total cost for manufacturing the engine and test stand was only $6,800, and that the whole process from concept to test fire took a mere 8 months, I’d say proof of concept was achieved.