The Startup 3D Printing Rockets

Article By : George Leopold

A rocket manufacturer pioneering 3D printing technology is scheduled to loft its first payload into orbit as early as 2021 under terms of a deal between the aerospace startup and a launch services provider

Relativity Space said this week it has signed a launch services agreement with Spaceflight, a satellite rideshare and mission management specialist. The deal calls for Spaceflight to book satellite launches to low-earth orbit using Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, an entirely 3D-printed rocket.

Relativity Space

Image courtesy: Relativity Space
Relativity bills itself as the aerospace industry’s first autonomous rocket factory and launch service integrating machine learning and intelligent robotics with 3D autonomous manufacturing technology. The startup claims it can build a rocket using additive manufacturing techniques in less than 60 days and initially loft payloads as large as 1,250 kg (2,755 pounds).

The two-year-old startup founded by a pair of twenty-something veterans of Blue Origins and SpaceX built the world’s largest metal 3D printer called Stargate. The 15-foot-tall robot includes a company-designed printer head. An 11-kilowatt laser melts aluminum which is shaped into various rocket components.

Relativity Space2

Image courtesy: Relativity Space
CEO Tim Ellis said the deal with Spaceflight puts Relativity on track to conduct the first orbital test launch of the Terran 1 by the end of next year, with current plans to enter commercial service in 2021. The 3D rocket manufacturer also has launch deals with the Canadian satellite operator Telesat and the Thai satellite technology company mu Space Corp.

The agreement with Spaceflight calls for up to six launches that would deploy payloads totaling as much as 6,000 kg into low-Earth orbit. Seattle-based Spaceflight provides satellite infrastructure and lines up so-called rideshare services on the SpaceX Falcon 9 and other commercial rockets.

Meanwhile, Relativity recently secured Air Force permission to launch the Terran 1 at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 16, previously used to test the U.S. military’s Titan II and Pershing missiles.

Relativity has been testing its Terran 1 engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. Along with the Cape Canaveral launch site, Ellis said the company is also seeking a launch site capable of boosting payloads into polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

Los Angeles-based Relativity is among a growing list of rocket makers seeking to reduce the cost of lofting small satellites and so-called cubesats to orbit through component reuse or new manufacturing approaches. The Stargate printer is able to churn out components ranging from avionics to fuel tanks. That capability simplifies the rocket launch supply chain by reducing components counts from about 10,000 for conventional rockets to less than 1,000.

Relativity’s 3D-printed Aeon 1 engine has so far been test fired 136 times using a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid methane. Ellis previously worked on propulsion development and additive manufacturing at Blue Origin, the commercial space venture launched by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin is currently developing a new liquid methane engine called the BE-4.

While at Blue Origin, Ellis helped complete the design and testing of the company’s first operational metal 3D-printed components. That work included a prototype boost pump turbine for the BE-4.

Jordan Noone, Relativity’s co-founder and chief technology officer, is a propulsion engineer who previously worked at SpaceX and Blue Origin.

While the Terran 1—named for a video game—can’t match the Falcon 9 for payload capacity, Ellis predicts his printed booster will fill a growing niche for small and medium-size satellites. “It’s around the optimum spot for launch services” that are growing as more and smaller satellites are launched, Ellis noted in an interview.

Established players are also looking for ways to transform aerospace manufacturing as a way to reduce launch costs. Aerojet Rocketdyne, a longtime supplier of propulsion systems to the military and NASA, recently conducted a hot fire test of its RL10C-X prototype engine that included 3D-printed “core components,” the company said.

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