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Relativity’s reusable Terran missile competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9

An artist’s impression of the size difference between the company’s Terran 1 rocket on the left and the proposed Terran R rocket.

Relativity space

Relativity Space, the 3D printed rocket builder, is making another big bet: developing a fully reusable rocket that matches the power and capabilities of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

Named the Terran R, the reusable rocket is “an obvious evolution” of the company’s Terran 1 rocket, Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity, told CNBC – the Relativity is expected to launch for the first time later in 2021.

“It’s the same architecture, the same propellant, the same factory, the same 3D printers, the same avionics and the same team,” said Ellis.

“I’ve always been a big fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it – even with 3D printing and with falling costs [increasing the] The automation of a launcher – to make it reusable has to be part of that future, “added Ellis.

Terran R is the first of several new initiatives that Ellis is expected to introduce in the coming year. The company has raised more than $ 680 million since it was founded five years ago. Just like Terran 1, Relativity Terran R will build more than 90% of the parts through additive manufacturing – using the world’s largest 3D printers as a “factory of the future” as Ellis calls it.

The theory of relativity, valued at $ 2.3 billion, is one of the most valuable private space companies in the world. Investors include Tiger Global Management, Fidelity, Baillie Gifford, Mark Cuban and more.

The factory floor of Relativity’s new headquarters in Long Beach, California.

Relativity space

Ellis pointed out that, despite the announcement of Terran R, Relativity is “very much focused on getting Terran 1 to launch for the first time,” which he believes is planned for later this year.

And the company plans to keep Terran 1 long term, as Ellis believes “it’s a great product”.

“We’re not moving from ‘Falcon 1 to Falcon 9’,” said Ellis, noting how Elon Musk’s SpaceX originally built and planned to operate a smaller rocket.

Take over the dominant falcon 9

A composite image showing a Falcon 9 rocket booster taking off and landing back near the launch pad a few minutes later.

SpaceX

Terran R is an extension of Relativity’s offering in the starter market.

Terran 1 costs $ 12 million per launch and is designed to transport 1,250 kilograms into low-earth orbit. This puts Terran 1 in the middle of the US launch market between Rocket Lab’s Electron and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in terms of price and performance.

Ellis said Terran R will be able to lift nearly 20 times as much payload as Terran 1, with Relativity targeting a rocket that can launch more than 20,000 kilograms into low-earth orbit. That would be near the 22,800 kilograms that can be fired from the Falcon 9 rockets, according to SpaceX.

While Ellis refused to disclose the per-launch price that Relativity expects for Terran R, he said Relativity plans to compete with other offerings. SpaceX is promoting Falcon 9 rocket launches at a price of $ 62 million. According to Musk’s company, each rocket costs about $ 28 million to launch.

“We were really asked by the market to create something [Terran R] and we’re currently talking to customers, “said Ellis.

According to Ellis, Relativity has a multi-billion dollar pipeline of “in active dialogue” contracts for the Terran 1 and Terran R missiles, with customer interest evenly divided between the two vehicles. He noted that the Terran 1 contracts Relativity has so far announced have binding launch service agreements so that customers pay the deposits for the missiles.

“There are tons of customers all getting funding and making big plans. This increases the need for more launch capacity around the world,” said Ellis.

Not only does the CEO of Relativity expect to be competitive in the marketplace, but he also believes that more spacecraft will launch than trips into orbit.

“There is actually going to be a lack of launch when you look at how many people are trying to get payloads into space,” Ellis said. “Almost every model we’ve looked at has to have more launch vehicles to carry out even a fraction of the plans people are talking about.”

Ellis also praised Terran R’s reusability as a further enhancement of Relativity’s competitiveness.

“I just don’t see a future where a fully reusable missile doesn’t and doesn’t have to exist,” Ellis said.

He highlighted SpaceX’s work on reusability as information about relativity’s approach to Terran R, which he expects to be “fully reusable”. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable as the company lands the first stage (also known as a booster) and often restores the rocket’s nose cone. However, SpaceX is not restoring the second phases of Falcon 9 – a feat that aims to achieve relativity through 3D printed designs that “wouldn’t be possible with traditional manufacturing,” Ellis said.

“We will be able to print far more exotic and traditionally difficult-to-make materials that will greatly improve reusability in both the first and second stages,” said Ellis.

No factory changes required

The company’s “Stargate” 3D printer.

Relativity space

Relativity’s focus on 3D printing means the company doesn’t have to change its production line or add new equipment.

“The printers will build Terran R directly with software changes,” said Ellis.

“It’s a completely different technology stack for the aerospace industry,” added Ellis. “Every aerospace factory you go to today is still building products with huge stationary tools and a very complex supply chain. It takes many years to develop a new product. If you want to make minor tweaks and changes, you have to rip them all out that and start all over again. “

The theory of relativity built Terran 1 with the expectation that Terran R would come.

Ellis noted that Terran 1 runs on liquid oxygen and liquid methane – propellants are at the heart of next-generation reusable missiles. Even the company’s test facilities at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are “already sized” to test the larger engines needed for Terran R, he said.

“A lot of the pieces are quite similar architecturally, but what is completely different is the fact that [Terran R] is completely reusable, “said Ellis.

Engine tests started

The enterprise test fires an Aeon 1 engine that is upgraded with copper and designed for use in the upper stage of the Terran R rocket at its facility at NASA’s Stennis Center in Mississippi.

Relativity space

Relativity has completed hundreds of tests on its Aeon 1 engines that will power Terran 1 – but Terran R will include a “new engine called Aeon R,” which the company has begun development, Ellis said.

“We tested the engine for the upper stage as well,” said Ellis. “It’s a copper chamber engine … and it’s actually the same engine now on the top tier of Terran R as it was on Terran 1.”

The company expects to be able to conduct Mission Duty Cycle Tests, also known as full-time tests, on the new, more powerful engine in the coming days, Ellis said.

Relativity plans to launch Terran R from Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the company previously secured a launch site for Terran 1.

More details will follow

Construction of the company’s launchpad on the LC-16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida is underway.

Relativity space

Although Ellis refused to speak specifically about his expectations for the Terran R development schedule, he said the company is announcing it now that it has started building hardware and running tests.

“I think it was only a matter of time before we could keep it a secret,” said Ellis, noting that the theory of relativity “is out now, selling Terran R-launches.”

The company will announce more details about the Terran R design and specifications later this year. As Relativity plans to land its Terran R rockets, Ellis said his company “may” use both concrete landing pads and drone ships, as SpaceX is doing.

Overall, Ellis has a vision of 3-D printed reusable missiles as “the inevitable technology we need to build the industrial base of mankind on Mars” – a goal akin to Musk’s dream of “turning mankind into a multi-planetary species.” “by building settlements on the red planet. Ellis believes Relativity and SpaceX may be two companies ushering in a new era of exploration.

“We have to inspire dozens to hundreds of companies,” he said.

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