3D-printed rocket engine succeeds in first test fire

All eyes recently have been on North Korea’s missile program, so few people realise that Australia, too, has recently test-fired a new rocket.

But while – thankfully – the rocket was not ignited to make any sort of bellicose point, it does mark a potentially major incursion of Australian technology into the global aerospace industry.

The new rocket engine has two unique features. First, it has an “aerospike” design, markedly different to the bell-shaped configurations of other rockets. 

Second, the whole assembly was made using a 3D-printer.

We have ignition: a successful test-fire of the 3d-printed engine.
We have ignition: a successful test-fire of the 3D-printed engine.
Courtesy of Monash University

The rocket was created by engineers from Australia’s Monash University, at the behest of a university-affiliated company, Amaero, which was established two years ago to take advantage of the uni’s pioneering work in 3D-printing jet engines.

Using a printing process – known technically as additive manufacture — to make components, explains the project lead, Graham Bell, was the key to creating the aerospike rocket.

“Designing for additive manufacture opens up a raft of possibilities”, he says.

“We were able to focus on the features that boost the engine’s performance, including the nozzle geometry and the embedded cooling network. These are normally balanced against the need to consider how on earth someone is going to manufacture such a complex piece of equipment. Not so with additive manufacturing.”

The aerospike design concentrates the output from the rocket engine, allowing it to maintain thrust more efficiently than current models. The quest to make it went from concept to testing in just four months – a remarkable timeframe.

Bell and his colleagues have formed a new company, NextAero, to continue development of the project.

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