NASA has successfully tested a 3D printed rocket engine fuel injector and has indicated how important the manufacturing process is likely to become to its future operations.
The US Space Agency said that 3D printing allowed the rocket component to be made more quickly and cheaply than previous techniques.
The fuel injector is used to supply the engine’s combustion chamber with liquid oxygen and hydrogen. It was made by Aerojet Rocketdyne using a technique known as selective laser melting (SLM), which involves using high-powered lasers to melt and fuse metallic powders into the desired shapes.
"NASA recognises that on Earth and potentially in space, additive manufacturing can be game-changing for new mission opportunities, significantly reducing production time and cost by 'printing' tools, engine parts or even entire spacecraft," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology.
"3D manufacturing offers opportunities to optimise the fit, form and delivery systems of materials that will enable our space missions while directly benefiting American businesses here on Earth."
NASA said the component would have normally taken a year to build but SLM enabled the organisation to cut the manufacturing time to less than four months, whilst slashing costs by 70 per cent.
"Rocket engine components are complex machined pieces that require significant labour and time to produce. The injector is one of the most expensive components of an engine," said Tyler Hickman, an engineer responsible for testing the injector.
The testing was carried out at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
The injector’s creators now say they will move on to demonstrate the feasibility of developing full-size, additively manufactured parts.