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What’s a 3D-printed rocket and why it’s the next big thing in space travel

Relativity Space, a rocket startup, made history with the launch of what it claims is the world’s first 3D-printed rocket. 

The 33.5-metre tall Terran 1 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, powered by super-chilled methane and oxygen. 

The startup wanted to put the souvenir into a 200-kilometre-high orbit for several days before having it plunge through the atmosphere and burn up along with the upper stage of the rocket.

However, shortly after the rocket’s first stage detached, the engine meant to propel the upper stage appeared to ignite only briefly, leaving the rocket without enough power to reach orbit.

It was the third launch attempt from what once was a missile site. 

Relativity Space came within a half-second of blasting off earlier this month, with the rocket’s engines igniting before abruptly shutting down.

This time around, even though the Terran 1 rocket did not achieve orbit, the rocket met its goal for this test, which was to go past “max Q” – the place in a launch where the rocket is under maximum dynamic pressure, a key test of the structural load a spacecraft can handle.

Early launch failures are also common in the rocket industry. As launches are highly complex and involve numerous technical and logistical challenges, even small issues can significantly impact a launch’s success.

The startup has announced further work will be carried out to determine the particular causes for the failure.

READ MORE: Launch debut of 3D-printed rocket ends in failure, no orbit

Standout in rocket industry

Before the launch, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis explained that the rocket was designed to carry lightweight satellites into orbital space and that the company’s founding thesis was that rockets could be quickly, cheaply, and efficiently built using 3D printing.

Producing a major portion of a rocket through printing has several benefits. When the printer is prepared, it is possible to construct multiple big and intricate components and merge them into a single entity, similar to assembling a giant Lego set. 

This approach reduces the expenses of labour and streamlines the management of the supply chain. 

Ultimately, it will lead to the creation of more affordable space equipment, according to Senior Vice President of Relativity Josh Brost.

Relativity has been a standout in the rocket industry, with the ability to raise capital and attract high-profile contracts before its first launch attempt. 

About $1.65 billion in launch contracts are already on the startup’s books, but those deals are primarily for its larger reusable rocket, Terran R, which will be the successor of Terran 1.

The company envisions using Terran 1 primarily for deploying small satellites that are part of larger constellations, while Terran R is still in the early stages of development.

Despite the launch failure, Relativity’s 3D printing technology remains a game changer for manufacturing across several industries, including aircraft, oil and gas refineries, and wind turbines, according to Ellis. 

It is not yet clear when or if Relativity will attempt another Terran 1 launch, but the startup has announced that they will assess flight data and provide public updates over the coming days.

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