Relativity Space Terran 1 launched 3D printing parts in rocket science

Specially made alloy, GRCop was 3D printed to make combustion chambers for rocket engines.
Ameya Paleja
An image of the Terran 1’s rocket exhaust during launch in March 2023.
An image of the Terran 1’s rocket exhaust during launch in March 2023.

Relativity Space 

A test rocket made entirely of 3D-printed parts was launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in March this year, NASA reported recently. Called Relativity Space Terran 1, the rocket was 100 feet (30 m) tall and 7.5 feet (2.2 m) wide.

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing where objects are created using layering materials. Different materials have been used for building objects such as buildings as well as bridges using 3D printing. Last year, a space startup in India test-fired a single-piece rocket engine that was made using this technology.

Space Terran 1 took it a step further by not only using the technology to print different parts but also using a NASA-developed alloy as starting material.

What is Glen Research Copper?

In the late 1980s, NASA was looking to develop a rocket engine that could withstand multiple firing in low-Earth orbit. Back then, even the main engine combustion chamber liners of the Space Shuttle were replaced after one to five missions. Instead, the space agency wanted a much more durable material to be developed and began the Game Changing Development Program.

NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland developed a family of copper-based alloys for this purpose, which became known as Glenn Research Copper or simply GRCop. Optimized for high strength, thermal conductivity, and low cycle fatigue, GRCop was made using copper, chromium, and niobium. The newly developed alloys could tolerate temperatures up to 40 percent higher than traditional alloys and had high creep resistance- the ability to handle more stress and strain at high temperatures.

Relativity Space Terran 1 launched 3D printing parts in rocket science
Dave Ellis and Chris Protz inspect the first additive manufactured GRCop combustion chamber.

Over the years, the alloys were further improved upon, and further applications were explored by David Ellis, who led their development in the 1980s. Under another recent program, the team of researchers created GRCop-42, which was found to pair well with additive manufacturing methods.

In one such method called laser powder diffusion, a 3D model is digitally sliced into thin layers, and then a powder bed machine spreads thin layers of GRCop and fuses them on top of each other to complete a part. The strength derived from such as manufacturing method is comparable to forged metal and can be used to make finely detailed parts such as nozzles and cooling channels for combustion chambers.

Another method called directed energy deposition (DED) uses a laser to create a melt pool on which powder is blown to create a solid material. The 3D motion of a robot controls the building process, which can make large shapes but without much detail.

The Relativity Space Terran 1 rocket was built using a combination of both these methods, thereby showcasing that the technology could be used for future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Unfortunately, the rocket did not make it to orbit but made history, nevertheless.

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