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How 3-D Printing Is Unlocking A New Space Race

DEFENSE AND TECHNOLOGY -- A new space race is in the works, thanks to 3-D printing. This time around, it’s not about large government agencies vying to blast human astronauts into uncharted territory. Instead, today’s competitors are aerospace startups like Rocket Lab and Relativity Space that are trying to launch satellites into orbit.

Demand for launches of small satellites — which can track weather systems, take snapshots of the Earth and beam internet to remote locations — is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. An estimated 263 launches will take place in 2018, according to data from aerospace engineering firm SpaceWorks. However, the company believes that a total of 2,600 nano and microsatellites will need to be launched in the next five years. To achieve this, the global space industry needs a greater number of available rockets that can ferry these devices up to orbit. And they’ve got to be manufactured quickly and cheaply.

“The biggest barriers to space right now are frequency and cost,” explains Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, the Huntington Beach-headquartered rocket maker striving to improve access to commercial space flight. “Small satellites can wait years to get on orbit, often flying as secondary payloads on large launch vehicles. This leaves them susceptible to delays caused by the primary payload.”

Rocket Lab is able to solve the launch frequency issue by creating a standardized small launch vehicle that can be mass-produced. The company’s Electron rocket reached orbit for the first time in January and successfully deployed three tiny CubeSats for customers Planet Labs and Spire Global. Electron’s next launch is scheduled for later this month, and it’ll also deploy research CubeSats for NASA this year. With its launch calendar filling up, Rocket Lab is relying on 3-D printing to make sure its model of engine production is scalable.

“With 3-D printing, Rocket Lab can produce an engine in days, not the months required of traditional engine manufacturing techniques,” says Beck. “By speeding up the manufacturing process, we are also able to reduce cost.”

Relativity Space, the orbital launch company cofounded by a pair of former SpaceX and Blue Origin employees, wants to take automated rocket production even further. Around 95% of its Terran 1 midsize rocket will be 3-D printed using Stargate, the company’s purpose-built metal 3-D printer. Eventually, Relativity aims to print an entire rocket in 60 days. This will be made possible, in part, by Terran’s pared-down design. Most modern rockets are made up of more than 100,000 individual components, but Terran 1 will incorporate fewer than 1,000.

Designed to carry payloads of up to 1,250kg, Relativity’s rocket is at the larger end of the small satellite launch spectrum. As a point of comparison, Electron’s maximum payload is 225kg, while Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne can carry payloads of up to 300kg. According to Tim Ellis, Relativity’s CEO, there is a growing demand for launches of mid-sized satellites and multi-satellite constellations that is not being met by other providers. Stargate will be instrumental in ensuring they can build launch vehicles capable of accommodating these larger payloads.


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