They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and that competition is a great way to fuel progress and innovation. If these truisms are to be believed, the NewSpace industry will benefit from the presence of Relativity Space, a commercial space company based in Los Angeles. At the same time, SpaceX founder Elon Musk should feel flattered that Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone (founders of Relativity Space) are following his example.
About six years ago, Ellis and Noone founded Relativity with the aim of revolutionizing the aerospace industry with new technologies. Earlier this week (Tuesday, June 8), the company announced that it had raised $ 650 million in additional private capital. This money will be used to develop fully 3D printed and fully reusable missiles, as well as to develop a new class of heavy launch vehicles known as the “Terran-R”.
Years ago, Ellis stated that he and co-founder Noone were both inspired by the achievements of Elon Musk and SpaceX in space. By that time, Musk had proven that his company could retrieve and reuse the first stage boosters on their Falcon 9, and that the commercial space industry could handle anything from launching payloads into orbit to sending replenishment missions to the International Space Station (ISS) .
Innovation & Disruption
However, Ellis and Noone were concerned that his long-term ambitions (i.e., building a self-sustaining city on Mars) lacked planning. They also believed that the aerospace industry was still reliant on labor-intensive practices that were quickly becoming obsolete with the advent of additive manufacturing (3D printing). As Ellis recently explained to Ars Technica:
“In every SpaceX animation, we saw a fade into black as people left the rocket on Mars. So what was clear [is] that there has to be another company that is building mankind’s industrial base on Mars. Replicating the infrastructure for the one million people living on Mars is a huge undertaking, and I think a lot of people will have to work on it. “
As aerospace engineers, Ellis and Noone were both very familiar with the NewSpace industry. The two even worked for Blue Origin and SpaceX before starting Relativity Space, and many of their concerns arose from the practices they experienced firsthand. Essentially, it was due to the inefficient way rockets were produced, which was inconsistent with the companies’ vision of cutting costs and making space more accessible.
This led to their decision to start their own commercial space company that would fuse 3D printing, sensor and analytics-driven machine learning, and autonomous robots to create the structure and thrusters of their rockets. This, they hoped, would lead to a tenfold increase in production speed, a hundredfold increase in the number of parts required, a simplified and streamlined supply chain, and a faster design and iteration process.
At the center of their production efforts is their Factory of the Future, which is based on the Stargate – the world’s largest metal 3D printing system – to build all of their hardware. These include the Aeon 1 rocket engine, which is based on a combination of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid oxygen (LOX) and can produce 69,000 Newtons (N or 15,500 pounds-force) at sea level and 113,000 N (25,400 pounds-force). Force) in the vacuum of space.
The same method is used to create their missile fleet, which includes the two-stage Terran 1, the world’s first 3D-printed missile. This first stage is based on nine Aeon 1 engines, the second on a single Aeon VAC, and the entire launch system can carry a maximum payload of 1,250 kg (2,760 lbs) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 700 to 900. send kg (1,500 – 2,000 lbs) into sun synchronous orbit (SSO).
Then there’s the Terran R, the world’s first 3D-printed rocket that is fully reusable – engines, first stage, second stage, and payload fairing – which is based on seven Aeon R (LNG / LOX) engines for its first stage and one Aeon VAC for his second. This missile is said to compete with the Falcon 9 and be capable of launching over 20,000 kg (44,000 lbs) according to LEO, with a maiden launch from Cape Canaveral targeted for 2024.
These rockets and thrusters are printed from a suitable alloy using a process known as selective laser sintering and can build an entire rocket in as little as 60 days (and with fewer than 100 parts). This is in contrast to the time-honored method of making the various components using traditional tools and then relying on a practical process to assemble the thousands of parts.
A look inside the Relativity facility in Los Angeles. Source: Relativity Space
Find what you were looking for
The Terran R is also distinguished by the fact that it is one of only two fully reusable launch systems in the world, the other being the SpaceX spaceship. As Ellis indicated, the vehicle will also perform mission profiles similar to the Starship, such as transporting payloads through space, to the moon, and perhaps even to Mars. One cannot help but notice some similarities between the configuration of the Terran R and the spaceship.
These include the first tier grille ribs (which help with the recovery) and the shape of the second tier / payload launcher – which looks like the second tier of the Starship. Once the Terran R is fully developed, it would be the Falcon 9’s main competitor for lucrative government and commercial launch deals. However, the ultimate goal here, according to Ellis, is not just to compete with SpaceX, but to step up its overall efforts.
“We’re trying to skate where the puck goes,” he said. “What we keep hearing from customers is that they don’t just want a single startup company that is frankly the only rapidly changing, disruptive provider.” I remember Matsuo Basho’s words: “Don’t try to follow in their footsteps to kick the wise. Look for what you were looking for. ”
With this latest round of funding, Relativity Space plans to accelerate development of the Terran-R launcher. Meanwhile, the company is getting closer to the first launch of its Terran-1 rocket. Ellis says the first and second stages are 85% complete and the second stage is scheduled for delivery to NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi later this summer for hot fire testing.
Whether in the commercial aerospace sector or national space agencies, one of the defining characteristics of the modern age of space exploration is the way more and more competitors join the battle. While the “space race” was a constant battle for the superiority of two superpowers, today five large space agencies and any number of commercial providers (in competition and in cooperation) are working to secure the future of humanity in space.
With their focus on streamlined production, fast iteration and analysis powered by data and machine learning, Relativity Space is likely to give SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic a run for their money in the years to come!
Further reading: Ars Technica, Relativity Space