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SpaceX Finds Competition in Relativity Space: A Startup that Aims to 3D Print Rockets, Quicker and Cheaper

Jun 27, 2020 12:52 PM 3 min read
Editorial

You’ve already heard of VC Mary Meeker (and writer of the iconic annual Internet Trends Report) investing in Byju’s through her investment firm named BOND. We checked BOND’s other investments and aside from seeing A-listers like Airbnb and Facebook, chanced upon a rather interesting company.

A four-year old startup with the aim to completely 3D-print a rocket in less than 60 days.

Founded by alums from SpaceX and Blue Origin, Los Angeles-based Relativity Space aims to revolutionize how rockets are built and flown and expand the possibilities of human space experience. 

But how do they plan on doing that?

 

We’ve Got A Plan!

3D-printing in the aerospace industry is not completely unheard of. 

Most companies would take a traditionally-manufactured assembly and try to figure which one is the best-suited for 3D printing and print that. 

At Relativity however, the process starts when the part is still on a computer i.e. With zero fixed tooling, faster design iterations, and real time quality control. 

Recognising the constraints of working with traditional 3D printers, Relativity designed its own metal printer called Stargate - one which could make metal parts 20 feet (6 meters) tall and 10 feet wide. The company can then refine its designs quicker using a powerful AI program that calculates a rocket’s fuel dynamics.

 

Stargate
Stargate

 

 

Furthermore, Relativity uses direct metal laser sintering to make liquid oxygen engines for its spaceships. 

Currently, Relativity is developing Terran 1 - the company’s first rocket envisaged to be carrying 2,755-pound (1,250-kilogram) payloads into low Earth orbit. The startup is eyeing a 2020 orbital test and 2021 commercial launch.

It signed an agreement allowing it to fly rockets out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California. This is in addition to its lease of a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Now while such “additive” manufacturing is not great for high-volume production, the aerospace industry is a low-volume, high-precision industry, making the technology ideal for constructing rocket parts. 

 

Why 3D-Print a Rocket?

There are primarily two advantages of introducing the 3D-printing process to rocketry.  

  1. Reducing the part count on rockets. Traditionally, rockets can have 100,000 parts on them. 3D-printing can reduce them to around 1,000
  2. Flexible manufacturing allows engineers to create designs that were previously not possible, letting them combine parts or simplify systems.

These help make rockets at a lower cost with fewer parts at faster speeds. Moreover, automating the entire process would mean cutting down greatly on human labor costs.

Consider This: SpaceX - currently the cheapest and the most nimble rocket company around - takes around 18 months to construct a Falcon rocket and charges about $60m per launch. 

For the science enthusiasts, here’s Relativity’s Co-Founder Jordan Noone explaining how exactly all this is done. 

 

Colonising Mars

Relativity has till date raised $185m. It closed its $140m Series C funding round led by BOND and Tribe Capital in October, last year. The financing round also saw participation from former Tiger Global partner Lee Fixel, Creative Arts Agency founder Michael Ovitz, Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff, Republic Labs, and Jared Leto.

While Relativity is building its own rockets, part of the company’s vision involves getting its 3D printers off the Earth.

“We have a vision of scaling and sustaining an interplanetary society, with the goal of printing and launching the first rocket made on Mars,” the company says. 

Relativity wants to eventually load its Stargate printers onto much larger rockets that are bound for Mars. Once there, the printers would be able to build Relativity’s rockets. From there, who knows where to!

Four commercial customers have signed up for launches to Earth orbit beginning in early 2021, which include Momentus, Telesat, mu Space and Spaceflight Industries. 

 

The Future of Aerospace and Space Travel

With Elon Musk announcing his plans to create a thriving Mars colony as a fail-safe for humanity in case of a catastrophic event, Russia’s NASA i.e. Roscosmos gearing up to send two space tourists for the first ever civilian spacewalk in 2023, and Relativity announcing its plans to make rockets on Mars, the future of aerospace and space travel is totally worth betting your money on!

FIN.

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