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article imageRelativity Space aims to make a fully 3D printed rocket by 2021

By Karen Graham     Oct 19, 2017 in Technology
Los Angeles - Startup Relativity Space plans on using huge 3D printers to manufacture all the parts of a rocket without human intervention. The company aims to reduce the number of parts as well as the cost of producing a rocket.
The Los Angeles, California-based orbital launch company was founded in December 2015 by Jordan Noone, who serves as Executive Director at Relativity Space, Inc. and Tim Ellis, who serves as CEO at Relativity Space. Both men are veterans of Blue Origin, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture.
Back in July this year, CEO Ellis testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing about commercial space vehicles. At that time, Ellis only gave a hint at what Relativity Space planned for the future, although he did say in his prepared remarks that investments have added up to an “eight-figure funding round," meaning more than $10 million.
Relativity Space’s Stargate 3-D printer is at work at the company’s Los Angeles factory  with a ...
Relativity Space’s Stargate 3-D printer is at work at the company’s Los Angeles factory, with a 3-D printed fuel tank sitting at left.
Relatvity Space
Basically, the startup aims to reduce the cost of launch vehicles and reduce the number of parts required to build a rocket. The company points out that fully 3D printed rockets could have as few as 1,000 parts, compared to a traditionally manufactured rocket containing over 100,000 parts.
A rocket 'Made on Mars' dream
And, as part of the company's mission statement, they say they "are the second company committed to making humanity multi-planetary - and we hope to inspire hundreds more." To that end, Relativity Space wants to be the first venture to have a 3D rocket printing factory on Mars.
"Intelligent automation and lightweight, compact 3D printing are fundamental technologies needed to quickly build a new society with scarce resources. Our technology builds toward our long-term goal of 3-D printing the first rocket made from Mars,” the company says on its website.
To make the dream possible, the 14-employee company started from the ground up, building its own building-sized 3D printer from scratch, which they appropriately named "Stargate." The massive 3D printer, unlike traditional 3D printers, works with molten metal that is heated up by lasers.
Stargate is the backbone of Relativity Space
With its 20-foot long arms, Stargate has already fabricated an Aeon 1 rocket engine as well as a 14-foot-tall fuel tank. The methane-fueled Aeon 1 engine has already gone through rounds of testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. However, the company is not going to stop at just building a part of a rocket.
Relativity Space aims to build a fully autonomous factory that can fabricate a complete 90-foot-tall Terran rocket in a month or two. You may be asking yourself how this is possible? Stargate is special because it uses cloud-based computing, sensors, and artificial intelligence that allows the machine to be constantly learning.
Stargate  up-close and personal.
Stargate, up-close and personal.
Relativity Space
Stargate also has multiple printer heads, that when coordinated together allow for increased building rates. On-board machining allows the robot to build traditionally impossible geometric shapes and Stargate is very flexible in its scalability. As for the materials used in printing rocket parts, stronger alloys can be designed because the company has an in-house metallurgy and material characterization lab.
Cost savings will be key to a successful future in space
Relativity Space is planning on a first flight by the year 2021 with a rocket that should be able to put a 2,000-pound payload into orbit. The company says the anticipated price will be $10 million, compared to Space-X's published price of $62 million for a Falcon rocket launch.
As GeekWire points out, many rocket companies use 3D printing in their manufacturing processes. For example, the Lasertec 4300 3D additive-subtractive hybrid machine is turning out rocket parts at Virgin Orbit’s 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California.
Falcon 9 and 10 @IridiumComm NEXT satellites are vertical on SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in ...
Falcon 9 and 10 @IridiumComm NEXT satellites are vertical on SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The price for a launch is $62 million.
Almost all the companies in the space business are making use of "additive manufacturing," also known as 3D printing. These companies include Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, and Tethers Unlimited in the Seattle, Washington area.
The 3D printing process allows companies to rapidly build prototype parts, as well as the parts themselves.
Scott Macklin, chief engineer for Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne Evolution team, told GeekWire traditional manufacturing techniques might produce one complete combustion chamber in a year’s time. “We think that we can be generating a combustion chamber like this on the order of a month … an order of magnitude of reduction in time," Macklin said.
Will Relativity Space become a disruptive influence in the launch marketplace? It's very possible and it will be interesting to see what transpires as time goes on.
More about Robotics, relativity space, autonomous factory, Rockets, 3D printers
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