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3D printed rocket propulsion system for satellites successfully test-fired

PATRIOT_plume CubeSat thruster firing University of Michigan photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Aerojet Rocketdyne has tested out a thruster system that could be used on CubeSats (image of University of Michigan's Cat Engine). Photo Credit: University of Michigan

The MPS-120™ CubeSat High-Impulse Adaptable Modular Propulsion System™ (CHAMPS ™) was put through its paces via a hot-fire test carried out by California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne. This particular engine design is a hydrazine-integrated propulsion system for use on small CubeSats and could open up missions that were previously unavailable to the tiny spacecraft. Funded by the NASA Office of Chief Technologist’s Game Changing Opportunities in Technology Development and awarded out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center also in California. The test itself was carried out in Redmond, Washington.

Four small rocket engines and the elements of the feed systems that keep them supplied with propellant were only parts of a larger equation. There also were propellant and pressurant tanks as well as a 3D-printed titanium piston. The engines have been designed to use both the highly-toxic hydrazine – as well as the so-called “green” AF-M315E propellant. Engines can be changed out so as to upgrade to the MPS-130 “green” propellant version.

“The MPS-120 hot-fire test is a significant milestone in demonstrating our game-changing propulsion solution, which will make many new CubeSat missions possible,” said Christian Carpenter, MPS-120 program manager. “We look forward to identifying customers to demonstrate the technology on an inaugural space flight.”

The system is very small, with a description of it stating that it can fit into a chassis – about the size of a coffee cup.

Aerojet Rocketdyne MPS-120 Aerojet Rocketdyne image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

MPS-120. Image Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

During the hot-fire test, the MPS-120 displayed more than five times the required throughput as well as several discharges on the propellant tank. According to the engine’s manufacturer, with the completion of this hot-fire, the system has reached Technology Readiness Level 6 and a Manufacturing Readiness Level 6.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne continues to push the envelope with both the development and application of 3-D printed technologies, and this successful test opens a new paradigm of possibilities that is not constrained by the limits of traditional manufacturing techniques,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Vice President of  Space Advanced Programs Julie Van Kleeck in a press release.

With the test fire complete, the next steps will be to qualify the engine – and then to have it fly an actual mission into space.

The use of 3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing (AM), has been increasingly used by aerospace companies as it lessens complexity, production times and in so doing – lowers the cost to send payloads to orbit.

“Demonstrating the speed at which we can manufacture, assemble and test a system like this is a testament to the impact that proper infusion of additive manufacturing and focused teamwork can have on a product,” said Ethan Lorimor a project engineer working on the MPS-120. “The demonstration proved that the system could be manufactured quickly, with the 3D printing taking only one week and system assembly taking only two days.”

This is not the first 3D-printed rocket engine or components to be tested out – or flown. The following are just some of components that have either been tested or flown to date:

Thrust Chamber Assembly using copper alloy produced via 3D-printing – Oct. 2014.

Bantam demonstration engine built entirely through 3D-printing – June 2014.

Falcon 9 rocket with a 3D-printed Main Oxidizer Valve (MOV) body in one of the nine Merlin 1D engines – Jan. 2014.

Liquid-oxygen/gaseous hydrogen rocket injector assembly designed through 3D-printing – July 2013.


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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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