The first 3D-printed rocket is approaching its maiden flight

SpaceX revolutionized the aerospace industry with its reusable launchers; Relativity Space could do the same with 3D printing.

2023 promises to be full of excitement for space lovers, with many launches lined up to mark the year. Of course, we can mention the essential SpaceX Starship, which aims to revolutionize aerospace in large widths. But he is not the only one. There is also another launcher, more discreet but equally innovative, whose first steps must be absolutely followed: Relativity Space’s Terran 1, the first space vehicle printed mainly in 3D.

Today, 3D printing already occupies an important place in this industry. This approach makes it possible to produce complex parts that require extreme tolerances at an attractive price and, above all, to do it quickly. This is the case, for example, with injectors. This part allows transforming the liquid propellants that react to drive the machine into a fine mist, so that the reaction takes place in a stable and homogeneous way. Currently, most injectors are already 3D printed.

But overall, manual labor still occupies a considerable place in rocket assembly. Some actors want to shake up this state of affairs. We are thinking, for example, of the startup Latitude from Reims. In the summer of 2022, it introduced the Navier, a fully 3D-printed rocket engine. Relativity Space, in turn, wants to go much further.

It will start with the Terran 1, which is theoretically expected to take off for the first time in the first quarter of 2023. Unlike its competitors, most of the parts will be 3D printed rather than traditionally machined. And that philosophy has many advantages on paper.

Rockets more reliable than ever

The first is the reduction in the number of spare parts. Launchers are regularly built from several million individual elements. A true nightmare for engineers, because each of these parts represents a potential breaking point in case of failure.

To illustrate this, IEEE Spectrum unearthed a famous quote by Jerome Lederer, a former engineer who officiated during the Apollo program. ” Apollo 8 has 5,600,000 parts and half a million separate subsystems “, He explained. ” Even if everything worked with 99.99% reliability, we could still expect 5600 failures. »

However, with 3D printing, we can partially get around this obstacle by designing complex single-block parts. This avoids the need for screws, rivets, and other breakable fasteners. At the scale of the whole vehicle, we significantly reduces the risk of failure. RS intends to offer a launcher with 100 times fewer parts than a traditional rocket.

Time is money

To make its model the new paradigm, Relativity Space is also based on two points that go hand in hand: the speed and cost of construction and development. Thanks to 3D printing, the company can produce an individual part much faster than its competitors.

This is a clear advantage already in the development phase. 3D printing allows engineers to produce and test multiple iterations of the same item in a relatively short time, simply by changing a few details in the computer model that will be printed. A huge advantage for these companies to embark on a race for perpetual innovation.

It is also very interesting in operational terms. Once the rocket has been built and properly tested, 3D printing will make it possible to produce new copies in an extremely short time. Relativity Space aims to build an entire rocket in just 60 days.

By accelerating the processor to this point, RS could also offer its services to a very interesting price. This is fundamental data in the aerospace sector, and even more so today, given the growing weight of private service providers in this sector.

A new revolution in a few years?

For now, Terran 1 is still just a proof of concept. But if the craft manages to reach orbit early this year, it could represent another big paradigm shift, just a few years after SpaceX redistributed the cards with its reusable launchers.

© SpaceX

If the test goes as planned, Relativity will start working on Terrano R, your first real business objective. will be a fully recoverable medium launcher with a capacity of approximately 20 tons, which would make it a direct competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. And if prices turn out to be as attractive as expected, it could encourage other industrial players to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon. Just like they are doing now with reusable launchers.

It will therefore be necessary to closely monitor the progress of Terran 1. At the moment the company has not yet announced a definitive date. The latest news, the company was aiming for a first release in January 2023. The deadline is therefore approaching at breakneck speed. Pending a press release, enthusiasts will be keen to subscribe to the Relativity Space YouTube channel to catch up on this historic launch attempt.

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