Space startup’s 3D-printed rocket fails to reach orbit


Relativity Space's 3D-printed rocket Terran 1 sits is rolled out to the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in this December 2022 photo. — Reuters

Launch startup Relativity Space Inc’s mostly 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket failed to reach orbit after suffering an issue mid-flight.

After successfully launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Wednesday night, an anomaly cropped up after the rocket’s stages separated. A livestream of the launch showed the ignition of the upper stage engine seemingly cutting out early. Still, the Relativity team ended coverage on a positive note, saying the company collected critical data proving its 3D-printed manufacturing technique works.

"Today is a huge win, with many historic firsts,” the company said in a tweet, adding that it will asses the flight data and provide updates in the coming days.

With this mission, called "Good Luck, Have Fun,” Relativity had hoped to achieve a series of ambitious firsts, including the first venture-backed company to reach orbit on the initial attempt, the first 3D-printed commercial rocket to make it to space and the first powered by methane fuel to reach orbit.

"No one’s ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit,” Arwa Tizani Kelly, technical program manager for test and launch at Relativity, said during the livestream. "And while we didn’t make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D-printed rockets is possible.”

Without ever launching a rocket, the closely held company from Long Beach, California, raised at least US$1.3bil (RM5.74bil), and was last valued at US$4.2bil (RM18.56bil) in June 2021. Relativity chief executive officer Tim Ellis previously told Bloomberg News that the company had secured a combined US$1.7bil (RM7.5bil) in launch contracts for a later rocket model, the Terran R, and that it had already sold future Terran 1 trips priced at roughly US$12mil (RM53mil) a flight.

3D printed

The Terran 1 rocket that launched Wednesday was 85% 3D-printed, though Relativity hopes to reach 95% in the future. Relativity says that by relying on mostly 3D printing to construct its rockets, the company can iterate on the design of its rockets more easily and cut down on costs and labour.

The company had initially planned to launch Terran 1 on March 8, but postponed the launch after issues with temperature of the rocket’s propellant. A second attempt to launch on March 11 saw the rocket’s engines ignite but shut off shortly after with no lift-off, eventually leading to another delay.

Before the test launch, Ellis said the priority was to gather data and hopefully reach Max-Q - the point during the first few minutes of flight when the rocket experiences the most forces and stress. Though Terran 1 didn’t reach orbit, it did survive Max-Q during this test flight, which Relativity hailed as a major achievement.

"We just completed a major step in proving to the world that 3D-printed rockets are structurally viable,” Kelly said after the rocket reached Max-Q.

Terran 1’s Aeon engines run on methane - a relatively new kind of rocket fuel that companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corp and United Launch Alliance LLC are using to power their rockets. Both of those companies have next-generation rockets that use methane fuel but have not yet launched.

Relativity and others say that while methane may not be as efficient as hydrogen, it’s easier to handle. It also burns more cleanly than another alternative, kerosene, reducing waste and making it easier for reusability. Relativity ultimately plans to make its rockets fully reusable in the future. – Bloomberg

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