3D-printed rocket headed for space
A new 3D engine could usher in a new era of rocket building. The engine is lighter, more efficent and free of joins and welds that have been weak points on previous rocket engines.
It’s been mooted for some time that 3D printing heralds a world of new possibilities in manufacturing, and the ongoing commercial space race is one area where the technology is being used to full effect.
Among the companies to capitalise on it is UK-based private launch services company Orbex, who this week announced that in just a few years it will be launching a space rocket featuring a 3D printed engine.
The prototype, unveiled at the firm’s new rocket-building facility in Forres in the Scottish Highlands, represents a step forward for those harnessing the heavens for myriad commercial, scientific and communications purposes.
Called Prime, the rocket is designed to deliver nanosatellites into Earth orbit.
It has a Stage 2 rocket (the stage that will transit into orbital flight after launch) made from a specially-formulated lightweight carbon fibre and aluminium composite, and the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine.
The material used for Prime is up to 30 per cent lighter and 20 per cent more efficient than other small launchers, making low-orbit flight more fuel-efficient and cheaper.
By 3D printing the engine in one piece without joins, Orbex aims to address issues that have historically afflicted rockets as joints and welding are put under the extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations of space flight.
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Prime is also the first commercial rocket engine designed to work with bio-propane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions by 90 per cent compared to fossil hydrocarbon fuels.
Chris Larmour, Orbex’s CEO comments: “Not only do we have a full engineering prototype of the complete Stage 2 of the Prime rocket, but also a growing roster of customers hoping to be among the first to launch satellites from Scotland.”
Prime’s maiden flight will launch from Scotland in 2021 and its first payload has already been confirmed as an experimental consignment from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology.
Among the company’s other customers are Astrocast, a firm building a planet-wide Internet of Things (IoT) network, based on a satellite constellation of 64 nanosatellites.
Jane Williamson is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Production Editor.