You might soon see a milestone moment in 3D printing. Startup Relativity Space expects to launch Terran 1, billed as the largest 3D-printed object to attempt orbital flight, at 1PM Eastern. You can watch the Cape Canaveral launch of the inaugural “Good Luck Have Fun” mission through a livestream starting at 12PM. The rocket doesn’t include a customer payload.
Terran 1 isn’t completely 3D-printed, but 85 percent of its mass is — including the structure, its nine Aeon first-stage engines and lone Aeon Vac second-stage engine. Combined with autonomous robotics, the construction process theoretically leads to fewer parts, a more reliable design, cheaper launches and quick assembly times. Relativity claims it can build a Terran 1 from raw materials within 60 days, and even an exclusive mission costs just $12 million. The combination of liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas for propulsion also helps with long-term reusability efforts. It can carry up to 1,250kg (2,756lbs) into low Earth orbit, and 700kg (1,543lbs) to a high-altitude mission.
Relativity is small compared to private spaceflight rivals like Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), but has enjoyed rapid growth and privileged access since Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone founded it in 2015. The company had received over $1.3 billion in funding as of June 2021. Ellis, meanwhile, got a seat on the National Space Council’s Users Advisory Group in 2018. It was the fourth company to receive access to Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 16 following Blue Origin, SpaceX and ULA.
Terran 1 is an expendable rocket. If the launch is successful, though, it will pave the way for a reusable medium-duty Terran R rocket slated to reach orbit no earlier than 2024. The new vehicle is poised to carry the first commercial mission to Mars (Impulse Space’s Mars Cruise Vehicle and Mars Lander) and will shoulder nearly 20 times the payload of Terran 1. Relativity already has contracts for other Terran R missions, including the deployment of OneWeb’s second-generation internet satellites. Eventually, Relativity foresees its rockets using methane on Mars for interplanetary missions.
The challenge, of course, is that other companies aren’t standing still. NASA recently chose Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket to fly science payloads to Mars, and SpaceX has long-term visions of using its Starship rocket for Mars missions. Relativity’s 3D printing may help it keep costs down for potential customers, but it won’t necessarily help the company win business that would otherwise go to the competition.
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