His name will not have brought him luck. The mission Good luck, have fun (Good luck, have fun), which consisted of launching the very first 3D printed rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the United States, is a failure. The craft rose well into the air on Wednesday, but failed to reach orbit due to a “anomaly” during the separation of the second stage. This disappointment follows two previous tests canceled at the last minute due to technical problems.
The rocket should have reached, 80 seconds after takeoff, the point where the aerodynamic force exerted on the machine is the highest (max Q, in the jargon). This is the crucial stage of the flight, according to the young boss of Relativity Space. “We have already proven on the ground what we hope to prove in flight – that when the dynamic pressure and tension on the vehicle is at its highest, 3D printed structures can withstand these forces”, had tweeted in early March Tim Ellis. After the separation of the first stage of the rocket, the second should have continued its journey until reaching Earth orbit, 8 minutes after takeoff. But that didn’t happen.
A fuel “of the future”
Achieving this step on the first flight would have been “unprecedented”, said Tim Ellis. Indeed, the rocket uses methalox as fuel, a mixture of liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas (essentially methane). If it had managed to reach orbit, it would be the first rocket using this fuel to do so. The rockets in development Vulcan, from United Launch Alliance (ULA), and Starship, from SpaceX, must also use this fuel. Relativity Space, which promotes the long-term vision of a humanity living on several planets, argues that it is the fuel “from the future”the easiest to produce on Mars.
Which is not without problems. A first attempt to launch Terran 1 had been abandoned on March 8 due to a fuel temperature problem. Then, on March 11, the takeoff was canceled twice in the last seconds of the countdown, first because of an automation problem, then because of a fuel pressure problem.
Rockets built in 60 days
The mission was closely scrutinized because 3D printed rockets could represent a small revolution in the launch industry. The Terran 1 rocket, from California-based start-up Relativity Space, was to collect data and demonstrate that a 3D-printed rocket could withstand the rigors of liftoff and spaceflight. Terran 1 is 33.5 meters tall and just over 2 meters in diameter. Its first stage has nine motors, also 3D printed. Its objective: to be able to place 1,250 kg in low Earth orbit (small satellites, for example), which makes it a light launcher.
In total, 85% of the rocket’s mass was 3D printed, and the company is aiming for 95% in the future. Main advantage of the technique: greatly simplifying the manufacturing process and thus reducing costs. With its large 3D printing robots, the company claims to divide the number of parts by 100 compared to a traditional rocket. It also highlights the speed of the method: 60 days, from raw material to finished product.
Whatever the degree of success of Terran 1’s maiden flight, the data collected will also be used to develop its big sister: Terran R. This larger rocket, also developed by Relativity Space, will have to be able to transport 20,000 kg to low orbit. The company has already signed $1.65 billion in contracts, the majority for Terran R, according to Tim Ellis. This type of rocket “medium-heavy is clearly where the biggest market opportunity is for the rest of the decade, with a huge shortage currently in this payload class”, had tweeted Tim Ellis. A satellite operator can indeed wait years before obtaining a place in the big rockets of Arianespace or SpaceX.