Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the start-up rocket-maker known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, plans to unveil a new spacecraft today at its California headquarters.
The new craft, called Dragon V2, complete with its new thruster, called SuperDraco, is designed to carry seven astronauts. The propulsion system is designed to separate the module from the rocket if necessary and land the crew safety on the ground -- "on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy," according to a press release.
Unlike earlier generations of launch escape systems that jettisoned after launch, the company's version is built into the spacecraft itself.
Eight SuperDraco thrusters capable of producing a combined 120,000 pounds of axial thrust are built into the walls of the module. The engine chamber is made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using a process called direct metal laser sintering, a form of 3-D printing.
"Through 3-D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods," Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said in the release. "SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before."
The company plans to stream live video of the ceremony beginning 7 p.m. Pacific time. It also released video of the thruster firing as part of qualification testing, which took place over the past month at its rocket facility in McGregor, Texas.
SpaceX has a contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station and is seeking certification to eventually fly astronauts to the orbital outpost -- a prospect that may not happen until 2017 due in part to federal budget cuts.
The company is also trying to break into the military launch market and has sued the Air Force to open more missions to competition.
(Story was updated to clarify that the unveiling ceremony was for the spacecraft, not just the engine.)