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Virgin Galactic’s long-anticipated commercial space flights could be finally ready for lift-off next year. They will be utilizing innovative 3D printing technology already used by its spin-off company Virgin Orbit.
Formed in 2017, Virgin Orbit was established as a small- to medium-sized satellite launch service. Using rockets to launch satellites into a low-Earth orbit, the company has been implementing 3D printing technology for the fabrication of rocket engine components. The company has also been collaborating with NASA to 3D print and test an engine combustion chamber. Furthermore, it was the first company in the US to make use of hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing with a machine developed by the Japanese company DMG Mori.
Using pioneering technology, Virgin Orbit has developed the LauncherOne rocket, a two-stage air launch to orbit rocket, created to fire ‘smallsat’ payloads upwards of 300 kilograms into space. The rocket is made airborne via the carrier aircraft, “Cosmic Girl” where the launch sequence is initiated at high altitude, sending payloads into a low-Earth orbit.
The partnership with NASA enabled Virgin Orbit to hone its hybrid manufacturing process, taking advantage of the skilled insights possessed by experts in the fields of combustion and additive manufacturing. During the tests, Kevin Zagorski, manager of propulsion advanced manufacturing at Virgin Orbit, stated, “The information gained from our partnership with NASA will be key in applying these technologies to further improve cost, performance and lead time of Virgin Orbit’s propulsion systems for the LauncherOne vehicle.”
When opening up new encounters with the space industry, Richard Branson knew that to maintain a steady footing, his enterprise would need to keep up with certain technological advances and take risks on developing new processes.
You don’t learn to walk by following rules, you learn by doing, and by falling over.
Richard Branson, CEO, Virgin Group
The DMG Mori Lasertec 4300 3D hybrid is now enabling Virgin Orbit to manufacture rocket engine parts at the company’s factory in Long Beach, California. Coming in at around the size of a bus, the machine facilitating the hybrid technology combines additive manufacturing with conventional subtractive methods of machining away excess material. The Lasertec 4300 can produce parts that have improved performance via material combinations such as Copper and Inconel.
The aim of Virgin Orbit is to completely overhaul the way in which the space industry thinks about rocket design and construction - while using automation to accelerate manufacturing time and reduce labor costs. For example, the time it takes to produce an engine part that previously took up to a year using traditional methods could potentially be reduced to just one month. This would not only stimulate the rocket manufacturing process but could also change the small rocket industry as a whole.
It is not only Virgin Orbit using cutting-edge hybrid 3D printing techniques to create and power a new generation of spacecraft. SpaceX made use of high-tech 3D printing technology to manufacture the cooling channels for Draco engines. Draco engines are installed on the Dragon spacecraft as well as main oxidizer valves for the Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D engine. The 3D printed parts were fabricated in less than 48 hours whereas a part would have taken months to manufacture using traditional methods.
3D Printing offers the aerospace industry rapid, cost effective fabrication techniques that could revolutionize space travel soon.