Why the first 3D printed rocket is a revolution

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

2023 promises to be packed with excitement for space lovers, with many launches set to mark the year. We can obviously cite 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 just as innovative, the first steps of which must absolutely be followed: Relativity Space’s Terran 1, the first space vehicle mainly printed 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 for example the case of the injectors. This part makes it possible to transform the liquid propellants which react to propel the machine into a fine mist, so that the reaction takes place in a stable and homogeneous manner. Currently, most injectors are already 3D printed.

But overall, manual work still occupies a considerable place in the assembly of a rocket. Some actors want to shake up this state of affairs. We are thinking, for example, of the Reims start-up Latitude. In the summer of 2022, she presented Navier, a fully 3D printed concept rocket engine. Relativity Space, for its part, wants to go much further.

It will start with Terran 1, which is theoretically due to take off for the first time in the first quarter of 2023. Unlike its competitors, most parts will be 3D printed instead of traditionally machined. And this 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 constructed from several million individual elements. A real nightmare for engineers, because each of these parts represents a potential breaking point in the event of a failure.

To illustrate this, IEEE Spectrum unearthed a famous sentence from 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 circumvent this obstacle by designing complex parts from a single block. This avoids the need for screws, rivets and other fixings liable to break. At the scale of the whole vehicle, we therefore considerably 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 also relies on two points that go hand in hand: the speed and cost of construction and development. Thanks to 3D printing, the firm 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 then test multiple iterations of the same item in a relatively short time, simply by changing a few details on the computer model that will be printed. A huge advantage for these companies embarked on a race for perpetual innovation.

It is also very interesting in operational terms. Once the rocket has been built and duly 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 aerospace, and even more so today, given the growing weight of private service providers in this industry.

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 earlier this year, it could represent another major paradigm shift, just a few years after SpaceX redistributed the cards with its reusable launchers.

© SpaceX

If the test goes as planned, Relativity will begin working on Terran R, his first real commercial objective. It 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 the prices are as attractive as expected, this could encourage other industrial players to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon. Exactly like they are doing right now with reusable launchers.

It will therefore be necessary to follow the progress of Terran 1 carefully. For the moment, the firm has not yet announced a definitive date. The latest news, the firm was aiming for a first launch in January 2023. The deadline is therefore approaching at high speed. While waiting for a press release, enthusiasts will therefore have every interest in subscribing to Relativity Space’s YouTube channel to follow this historic launch attempt.

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