Sun, Apr 14, 2019 - Page 15 News List

Taking on SpaceX with
3D-printed rockets

At 28, Tim Ellis is the youngest person on the US National Space Council. He says his rockets should require 100 times fewer parts than traditional rockets

By Ivan Couronne  /  AFP, COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado

Relativity Space’s metal 3D printer called Stargate is pictured in an undated handout photograph.

Photo: AFP / Relativity space

To see Tim Ellis hunched over his laptop, alone in a room at a major space industry conference in Colorado, you can hardly imagine that he might be the next Elon Musk.

Yet Relativity Space, the company he cofounded in December 2015 with the vision of launching 3D-printed rockets, has grown from 14 to 80 employees in one year and is to recruit another 40 this year.

At the age of 28, Ellis has lured several industry veterans, including from Space Exploration Technologies Corp, commonly known as SpaceX, the US market leader for launches that was founded by billionaire entrepreneur Musk.

Relativity Space has raised US$45 million so far, Canadian satellite operator Telesat has entrusted it with the launch of part of its planned 5G satellite constellation and the US military has given it a launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Ellis, who six years ago was still studying for his masters in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, now sits on the US National Space Council along with former astronauts and the heads of the largest US aerospace groups.

“I’m the youngest person by more than 20 years, and we’re the only venture capital backed start-up,” Ellis told reporters during the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, a major annual event for the space industry that welcomed about 15,000 participants from 40 countries.

Dozens of start-ups have announced plans in the past few years to build small and medium-sized rockets to launch small satellites. Many are likely to fail before having made their first rocket, but that is the game, Ellis said.

“The notion in Silicon Valley is you’re going to take tonnes of big bets, where lots of them will totally lose money, but the ones that succeed will pay for all of the losers — and in a huge outcome, if it’s the next Google or the next SpaceX,” he said.

Relativity Space, which like SpaceX is based in Los Angeles, has so far printed nine rocket engines and three second stages for its rocket model, called Terran 1, whose first test flight is scheduled for the end of next year.

With its large 3D-printing machines, the start-up has said that its rockets should require 100 times fewer parts than traditional rockets.

“We’ll only be experts in like two or three [technological] processes,” compared with traditional manufacturing with complex supply chains, he said. “It’s far easier.”

Only the electronics are not 3D printed.

“It’s much cheaper, because of the labor reduction in the automation with 3D printing,” said Ellis, who plans to charge US$10 million for a launch, at least at first.

“Also, it’s more flexible,” he said, adding that eventually, Relativity Space plans to adapt the size of the fairings of the rockets to the requirements of individual customers, depending on the size of their satellite.

Speed is the other advantage: “Our target is to get from raw material to flight in 60 days,” Ellis said.

If Relativity Space succeeds in this feat — which it has not yet demonstrated — it would revolutionize the launch industry. Today, a satellite operator can wait for years before having a place in the large rockets of Arianespace SA or SpaceX.

The Terran 1 will be 10 times smaller than the SpaceX Falcon 9 and able to place a 1,250kg payload into very low orbit — 185km above the Earth’s surface.

This could be suitable for a constellation of small satellites for telecommunications or imaging the Earth, but also for one of the largest customers in space: the US military.

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