Relativity Space’s 3D Printed Rocket Fails Right After Launch

Relativity Space’s 3D Printed Rocket Fails Right After Launch

Relativity Space's 3D Printed Rocket Fails Right After Launch

Terran 1, a rocket designed and built by the company Relativity Space, suffered a failure shortly after lifting off from a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida late Wednesday evening. A demonstration mission, the rocket was carrying no people or customer payload, and no one was injured.

The vehicle was powered by nine 3D-printed engines and would have been the first rocket launched into orbit using liquid methane as fuel. During a webcast of Wednesday’s flight, the rocket soared on a column of white flame that ignited blue as it shot into space.

But about four minutes into flight, shortly after the rocket’s first stage fell, Clay Walker, Relativity Space’s launch director, said on the company’s webcast that a “T-plus anomaly with stage two” had occurred, meaning there was a problem with the rocket’s second stage, which was to carry its payload into orbit.

The company’s webcast hosts said additional details about the issue would be announced at a later date.

Following the success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, investors poured money into new spaceflight companies. A number of these companies have interplanetary ambitions, including Relativity Space, which announced last year that it would partner with another company called Impulse Space to send a private space mission to Mars, aimed at beating the company of Mr. Musk on the Red Planet.

But many fledgling spaceflight companies struggle with their first attempts to launch into orbit. In January, a Virgin Orbit spacecraft grounded an hour into its flight; the company has since laid off employees. Another company, ABL space systems, lost its first rocket just after takeoff from a base in Alaska. And even established rocket builders lose new rockets on their first flight. Earlier this month, a new rocket built for the Japanese space agency by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which has been producing rockets for decades, failed minutes after its first flight and lost the satellite it was supposed to deploy.

Wednesday’s Relativity flight did not lose a customer’s satellite. Its only cargo was a wheel-shaped object, the first thing ever made by Relativity’s 3D printers, which was to demonstrate the rocket’s ability to carry a payload into orbit.

The flight, which the company dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun” or GLHF, was the company’s third launch attempt in the past two weeks. The previous two were canceled for a series of technical problems shortly before takeoff.

At Wednesday’s launch, the company noted some of the milestones hit by the rocket. It was the first time a 3D-printed rocket had reached “max-q”, the point where the vehicle experiences the strongest stresses, as well as stage separation, when the propellant used for take-off falls off the second stage of the vehicle.

Relativity Space is one of a number of new companies making and testing low-lift launch vehicles: rockets that can carry smaller payloads of around two tons or less, usually with a destination in low Earth orbit.

At 110 feet tall, Terran 1 fell into that “small launch” category and is planned as a precursor to a much larger reusable launch vehicle, Terran R, which the company hopes to start testing soon.

To make these rockets, Relativity Space has developed massive 3D printers in Long Beach, California, which use robotic arms to make motors and other parts from metal alloys that can withstand the heat and pressure of fuel. of flaming rocket.

Traditional manufacturing processes often slow down rocket building. But 3D printers, which turn code into physical objects, allow engineers to move more quickly from design to testing. Instead of having to create an entirely new part, engineers can simply ask printers to increase the size of existing parts or modify them in some other way.

For this reason, there are many 3D printed parts in modern rockets. But Relativity Space treats 3D printers as a one-stop-shop for almost all of its rockets. About 85% of Terran 1’s mass was made using 3D printers, and each rocket can be made from scratch in 60 days.

Relativity is one of several companies building rockets to launch into orbit using liquid oxygen and liquid methane as propellants. In the past, most rockets used hydrogen or kerosene as fuel. Methane – the main component of liquid gas – is easier to store than hydrogen and performs better than kerosene. Starship, the next-generation rocket built by SpaceX for missions to the Moon and Mars, will use similar thrusters.

Carissa Christensen, founder and chief executive of space analytics company BryceTech, noted that of the hundreds of space startups created in recent years, only a handful have made it to the launch pad. This alone sets Relativity Space apart from many other private companies rushing to launch rockets. It shows “something of a proof point of the investment thesis,” Ms. Christensen said in an interview earlier this month.

A launch attempt, whether successful or not, is something Ms. Christensen celebrates.

“It’s a step in the way of a complex engineering system,” she said of the Terran 1 flight. “Pass or fail, they will learn from it.”


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