European space agency trials 3D printed spacecraft thruster

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A spacecraft thruster featuring a 3D-printed platinum combustion chamber and nozzle has successfully completed a series of test-firings at the Airbus Defence & Space facility in Lampoldshausen, Germany

Produced by Airbus for the European Space Agency (ESA) using a laser-sintering machine more typically used for making jewellery, the components were subjected to 618 separate ignitions and a single burn of 32 minutes during which a maximum throat temperature of 1253°C was attained.


Hot firing of world’s first 3D-printed platinum thruster chamber

The combustion chamber for the thruster was made from platinum–rhodium alloy, which has been used before in additive processes. However in the next phase, the team plans to print using a new alloy, platinum-iridium, which is claimed to have a number of performance advantages.

“The aim was to test this alternative manufacturing method as a way of reducing material costs,” said ESA’s Laurent Pambaguian. “It demonstrates that performance comparable to a conventional thruster can be obtained through 3D printing,” he added.

Steffen Beyer, who is heading up the project for ESA, added that the use of 3D printing techniques could lead to big savings for the space sector.

“Considering that platinum currently costs €40 a gram, 3D printing offers considerable future savings,” he said. “We produce 150–200 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.”