What Are 3D Printed Rockets?

These tailor-made spaceflight vessels explore lightweight alternatives in aerospace engineering.

Written by Brooke Becher
What Are 3D Printed Rockets?
Image: FotograFFF / Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Brennan Whitfield | Oct 13, 2023

A 3D-printed rocket is a spacecraft that features additively manufactured components using 3D-printing technology. Compared to most traditional rockets, the 3D-printed variety is more fuel efficient, lighter in weight and built in a fraction of the time.

The engines and airframes of 3D-printed rockets can be built in one piece — without any joints, seams or welds. Its additive manufacturing process also streamlines production pipelines, requiring little to no tooling and fewer parts, while enabling aerospace startups to partake in rapid prototyping.

3D-Printed Rocket definition

A 3D-printed rocket is a functional spacecraft that is largely composed of additively manufactured parts. 

At this time, 3D-printed rockets are primarily developed as satellite launch vehicles, which transport satellites and place them into specific, low-earth orbits. With more development, they may eventually be used for passenger-boarded space travel and Mars-bound missions.

“Almost anything can be 3D printed today, and more printing will be feasible in the future,” Ryan Kraft, senior director of integrated performance at private rocket company Relativity Space, told Built In. “The challenge is to determine what to print, and how to best integrate printed components into the overall launch vehicle system.”

Related Reading17 3D Printing Applications and Examples

 

How Are 3D-Printed Rockets Made?

The space race is just as competitive when it’s 3D printed, with each startup inventing their own novel approach as they go. With that said, there are seven total types of additive manufacturing, of which two take the lead: powder bed fusion (specifically selective laser sintering) and directed energy deposition.

 

Selective Laser Sintering

Most commonly, 3D-printed rockets and their components are made using a powder bed fusion method known as selective laser sintering or selective laser melting, said Tony Hoffman, a senior analyst that tests and reviews 3D printers at PCMag. During this process, he explained, lasers are used to melt and fuse a metal powder that is distributed, layer by layer, to create the intended object.

Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, the blueprint is uploaded, then split into thin cross sections. That data is then transferred to the manufacturing equipment — a large, boxy machine with a built-in window and leveling roller. At each step, the roller passes from side to side, like a beam in an office scanner, spreading a thin layer of powdered material onto the build tray. A laser then draws out the design per programmed instruction using applied heat that binds the material. The build tray lowers one level, and the next layer is built on top of the previous, now-solidified layer (hence the “add” in “additive manufacturing”). This process repeats until the design is completed.

 

Directed Energy Deposition

But as you can imagine, one box doesn’t fit all when it comes to building rocket-sized vessels. Another technique, used by NASA and Relativity, is known as directed energy deposition.

“These printers have to be very large because the components they are attempting to produce are very large,” said Kurt Anderson, a professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In this method, a multi-axis robotic arm directs an energy source — such as a plasma arc, laser or electron beam — following a CAD model. As the nozzle extrudes a filament — likely a lightweight, metal alloy including aluminum or titanium — it melts the material and deposits it onto a revolving build tray.

“Given the thin-walled, cylinder form of many necessary rocket components,” Anderson said, “3D-printers oriented toward building rockets would tend to have spatial robotic manipulators working in conjunction with a very large, central turntable.”

This way, digital renderings can be turned into physical, functional components of scale, with the limitations being the size of its base and the chamber in which a piece is being built.

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What Rocket Parts Are 3D-Printed?

Oxidizer tanks, propellant tanks, engine nozzle bells, exterior rocket bodies and some of the piping are all components of a rocket that lend themselves to be 3D printed, Anderson said. Combustion chambers, injectors, pumps and valves also make the list.

Other parts that do not require a high-level of accuracy or strength in their construction are also solid candidates to be swapped out for a 3D-printed equivalent, he added.

However, any items that have chemical, thermal or strength thresholds; essential features that are a poor fit (size-wise) and those with consistencies or tolerances that exceed a printer’s capabilities (without excessive finishing) should maybe opt for traditional fabrication. 

The result: We don’t have any rockets that are completely 3D printed.

“Most companies at this point seem more interested in how to best integrate 3D printing into their [existing] workflows,” Hoffman said, “rather than in 3D printing entire rockets, per se."

Given how far tech has come, it’s not so much a matter of what can and can’t be printed, it’s more a question of what should be — to add the most value.

Related ReadingWhat Is 4D Printing?

 

Have Any 3D-Printed Rockets Launched?

Rockets partially created from 3D-printed parts have been launched into space. Rockets that are entirely 3D printed, however, have yet to be launched.

Terran 1, developed by Relativity Space, was the first rocket with 3D-printed parts to reach space. It was launched on March 22, 2023 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Complete with 10 engines total, 85 percent of the methane-fueled rocket was 3D printed. And while the aircraft failed to take orbit during its maiden voyage, “it proved that 3D-printed rockets are structurally viable,” Kraft said.

 

Examples of 3D-Printed Rockets

While 3D-printing lowers costs, decongests supply-chain bottlenecks and accelerates development, it also skyrockets demand. Here are some projects and their respective companies leading the space.

 

A Terran R prototype piece being 3D printed. | Video: Relativity Space

Terran R by Relativity

The next generation of 3D-printed rockets from Relativity Space features Terran R, a medium-to-heavy lift reusable spacecraft designed to launch 50,000-pound payloads, like satellites, into space for 20 different trips. Also, in partnership with Impulse Space, Terran R will be used to perform the first commercial landing mission on Mars. Like Terran 1, the new model will be a two-stage rocket, but doubled in size — measuring at 270-feet tall with an 18-foot diameter. The California-based startup intends to make Terran R available across the commercial and government sectors, lifting off in 2026.

 

A demonstration of the Orbex Prime rocket. | Video: Orbex Space

Orbex’s Micro Launcher, Prime

The United Kingdom-based aerospace startup Orbex introduces its first 3D-printed prototype named Prime. The micro launcher measures 62 feet in length, and will be used to launch small, commercial satellites into orbit. Each of its seven engines are built in one piece using a lightweight, aluminum-titanium blend of metals via an in-house, high-volume printer. As part of Orbex’s “green launch system,” Prime will use a renewable bio-propane fuel, which is said to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent compared to typical rocket fuels, according to the company’s website. Prime is also designed to be reusable and leave no trace of debris on earth or in space.

 

A test fire of the Launcher E-2 engine at the NASA Stennis Space Center. | Video: Launcher

Vast’s E-2 Engines

After Vast’s acquisition of competing startup Launcher, the California-based aerospace company that wants to build private, artificial-gravity space stations for people to live and work in orbit for up to 30 days at a time inherited a line of 3D-printed, liquid-rocket engines. Offering “less propellant with more payload,” the 50-foot E-2 model can carry 330 pounds to low-earth orbit, according to Launcher. Fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene-based propellants, the spacecraft’s combustion chambers are fully 3D printed using copper alloys.

 

A test fire of Ursa Major's Ripley engine. | Video: Ursa Major

Ursa Major’s Family of 3D-Printed Engines

Ursa Major, an aerospace company headquartered in Colorado that specializes in rocket propulsion, is developing four engines, all of which are 80-percent constructed via 3D printing. Additive manufacturing shortens production down to one month, the company stated in a newsletter. Ranging from 4,000 to 200,000-pound propulsion, Ursa Major’s rockets are made from copper alloy-based engine components and will be intended for space launch and hypersonic applications.

 

An explanation of the RS-25 engine and its features. | Video: Aerojet Rocketdyne

AEROJET ROCKETDYNE’s RS-25 ENGINES

California-based spaceflight manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne is teaming up with NASA to build new, 3D-printed RS-25 engines for use on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, beginning with the Artemis V mission. Using its past RS-25 engine model as a template — one that’s been in use for 40 years as the main engines in NASA space shuttles — the updated RS-25 engines will be produced with several 3D-printed components, and will reduce costs by 30 percent. The new RS-25 engines set for use in Artemis V will also be able to power up to an 111 percent level, in comparison to the 109 percent level of the RS-25 models to be used in the first four Artemis missions.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A 3D-printed rocket is a functional spacecraft mostly composed of additively manufactured parts. 

A 3D-printed rocket is made of lightweight metal alloys fused together using additive manufacturing methods, such as selective laser sintering and direct energy deposition. Common materials used include aluminum, titanium, copper, nickel and chromium, among others.

Yes. The first rocket with 3D-printed components to reach space was Terran 1 by Relativity Space. Its maiden voyage took place on March 22, 2023.

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