Fueled by beer and the enthusiasm of amateurs, a British team on Friday said it was preparing to launch the world’s first ever 3D printed rocket.
Showing off the human-sized rocket in a central London office, Lester Haines, head of the “Special Projects Bureau” at technology magazine The Register, described the technical challenges and “big future” of 3D printing in aeronautics.
“You can do highly complex shapes that simply aren’t practical to do any other way,” he said, dressed in a white lab coat sporting the project motto “Ad astra tabernamque,” which means “to the stars and the pub.”
“NASA are already 3D-prinsting metal rocket parts, so it’s obviously got a big future,” he said.
The project — sponsored by German data analytics firm Exasol AG — was suggested by readers of The Register and goes by the grand title “Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator,” or LOHAN for short.
It took 30 committed team members, including doctorate aeronautical engineers, four years to build the rocket.
The biggest challenge was getting the standard hobbyist rocket motor to fire at high altitudes, Haines said.
The team said it plans to launch the rocket from Spaceport America, the home of Virgin Galactic in New Mexico, later this year, after securing the ￡15,000 (US$24,000) needed for liftoff on crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
A huge helium balloon will lift the rocket 20,000m into the stratosphere, at which point the onboard GPS is set to ignite the engine, catapulting it to speeds of about 1,610kph.
The 3kg rocket, which cost ￡6,000 to print, is then scheduled to use an onboard autopilot to guide it back to Earth, all captured by an onboard video camera.
Haines explained how 3D printing’s main advantage was in speeding up the process of refining prototypes, requiring only a tweak to the computer-aided design plans that instruct the printer.
He called LOHAN “a because it’s there project,” which had no commercial value, but added that the number of potential uses for similar unmanned aerial vehicles was “endless.”
With the countdown on, Haines dispelled any suggestions the crew was feeling the pressure.
“We got some of the team turning up for a beer tonight,” he revealed. “It’s going to get really messy.”
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