3D-printed rocket blasts off, withstands rigors of launch but fails to reach orbit
A new rocket, the world’s first made up of mostly 3D-printed components and fueled by liquid natural gas, blasted off on its maiden flight Wednesday night and climbed out of the lower atmosphere only to suffer a second stage malfunction that prevented it from reaching orbit.
It was a disappointing setback for Relativity Space, a California start-up vying to become a major player in the emerging commercial launch market, but such anomalies are not unusual when flight testing a new rocket and the company vowed a thorough investigation to find and fix what went wrong.
“No one’s ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit and while we didn’t make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D-printed rockets is possible,” one of the company’s launch commentators said.
The 110-foot-tall Terran 1 rocket, powered by nine Relativity-developed Aeon 1 engines generating a combined 207,000 pounds of thrust, blasted off from pad 16 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 11:25 p.m. EDT, climbing straight up and then arcing away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean.
Two earlier launch attempts on March 8 and 11 were scrubbed by a combination of issues, mostly related to flight software, officials said later. The countdown Wednesday was held up by higher-than-allowable winds aloft and by a boat that strayed into the off-shore danger zone.
But the final moments ticked down without a hitch and the rocket put on a dramatic show, its engines generating a brilliant blue-white flame in sharp contrast to the orange hues produced by kerosene-burning engines.
For its initial flight, Terran 1 was not carrying a customer payload and was not equipped with the nose fairing normally used to protect satellites during the climb out of the lower atmosphere.
The test flight was intended to “prove that 3D printed structures can withstand the pressures of flight, which will prove our hypothesis that 3D printing is a viable way to manufacture rockets,” Relativity tweeted before the company’s first launch attempt.
Wednesday night, the rocket’s first stage did just that, burning liquid natural gas — methane — with liquid oxygen, safely accelerating through the region of maximum aerodynamic stress, known as “max Q,” as it powered its way out of the dense lower atmosphere.
The first stage engines shut down as expected about two minutes and 50 seconds after launch and the stage fell away as planned. A camera mounted on the rocket showed the second stage engine beginning to start a few seconds later, but it did not appear to fully ignite.
Moments after that, an anomaly was declared and commentators on the company’s livestream confirmed the vehicle did not achieve orbit.
“Maiden launches are always exciting, and today’s flight was no exception,” one said. “Although we didn’t reach orbit, we significantly exceeded our key objectives for this first launch, and that objective was to gather data at max Q, one of the most demanding phases of flight, and achieve stage separation.”
Relativity Space was founded in 2015 by college classmates Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone, who both gained experience working for Blue Origin and SpaceX. The Long Beach, California-based company has now grown to 1,000 employees and has a market valuation of $4.2 billion. Among its early investors is billionaire Mark Cuban.
The Terran 1 rocket is capable of putting payloads weighing up to 2,755 pounds into low-Earth orbit for an advertised price of $12 million. About 85 percent of the launcher, including its propellant tanks, bulkheads and major engine components, was 3D printed by Relativity.
“No new company has ever had their liquid rocket make it to space on their first attempt,” Josh Brost, a Relativity vice president, told Spaceflight Now before launch. “So if everything goes incredibly well, and we achieve orbit on our first launch … that would be a remarkable milestone for us, which we would be, of course, over the moon excited about.”
But it was not to be.
Terran 1 is the latest in an increasingly crowded field of rockets designed to carry relatively small satellites to orbit that otherwise might have to wait on rides as secondary payloads on larger rockets.
Relativity also is developing a much larger, more powerful and fully reusable rocket known as Terran R that will compete with medium-class rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Terran R will be capable of boosting up to 44,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, even more if flying in expendable mode.
Ellis said earlier that Terran 1 served as a “fantastic learning platform for developing technologies directly applicable to Terran R, giving us a lot of confidence we are ahead in the race to become the next great launch company.”