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3D printed platinum thruster chamber passes firing tests

18 June 2015

The world’s first spacecraft thruster with a platinum combustion chamber and nozzle made by 3D printing has passed its baptism of fire with a series of firings.

3D-printed platinum thruster chamber and nozzle (photo: Airbus Defence & Space)

The chamber and nozzle was subjected to a series of firings lasting more than an hour and 618 ignitions and, according to project manager, Steffen Beyer of Airbus Defence & Space, this included a single burn of 32 minutes, during which a maximum throat temperature of 1,253°C was attained.

The combustion chamber for the 10N hydrazine thruster was printed in platinum–rhodium alloy using a laser beam applied to a metal powder bed.

“The aim was to test this alternative manufacturing method as a way of reducing material costs,” says Laurent Pambaguian, overseeing the project on behalf of ESA. “At the start we were by no means certain it could be done, or even whether the metal powder could be prepared to the appropriate quality. For production we ended up using a laser machine normally employed for making jewellery, which is the current industrial state-of-the-art for manufacturing with these metals.”

“Considering that platinum currently costs €40 a gram, 3D printing offers considerable future savings,” adds Dr Beyer. “We produce 150 to 200 thrusters in this class per year for different customers. 3D printing should allow shorter production cycles and a more flexible production flow, such as manufacturing on demand.”

The prototype thruster was produced and tested at the Airbus Defence & Space facility in Lampoldshausen, Germany, through an ESA project called Additive Manufacturing Technologies for Advanced Satellite Thrust Chamber (AMTAC).

The platinum–rhodium was supplied by Germany’s Heraeus company, then atomised by the Nanoval firm, with the additive manufacturing process overseen by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes of Laser Technology, in Aachen, and Machine Tools and Forming Technology, in Augsburg.

“Platinum–rhodium was chosen for this first phase as the most mature platinum alloy for additive manufacturing,” says Dr Beyer. “Then, in the next phase, we will attempt to print using a new alloy, platinum–iridium, which has performance advantages. This alloy cannot easily be manufactured by traditional techniques like casting and forging, so printing is the only way it can be harnessed for space use.”

Video clip embedded, courtesy of Airbus Defence and Space.

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