The World’s Largest Metal 3D Printer is Printing Rockets
We’ve often wondered why stealth mode startups have websites. Isn’t being found the one thing you don’t want to happen when operating in stealth mode? Not so, says Bond Collective, a provider of “thoughtfully curated boutique work environments” that charges wantreprenuers $900 a month for “an unmatched experience.” In some cases, a stealth mode startup will actually try to mislead the public about what they’re working on and where.
For example, back in 2017, we published a piece titled “8 NewSpace Startups Prove it IS Rocket Science,’ in which we looked at a stealth mode startup called Relativity Space. All we knew at the time was that the company was led by former executives at SpaceX and Blue Origin, they wanted to manufacture zero labor rockets, and they were based in Seattle. Boy, were we wrong about that. Turns out the whole Seattle thing was a head fake, and the plan all along was to disrupt the entire aerospace industry from the concrete jungle of the West Coast – Los Angeles.
About Relativity Space
Founded in 2016, Long Beach, California startup Relativity Space has taken in $185 million in disclosed funding to develop – among other things – the largest metal 3D printer in the world. That may come as news to investors in Australia’s Titomic, which was also said to be building the world’s largest metal 3D printer. Earlier this year, we noted how their claim to have assembled the “world’s largest titanium rocket via additive manufacturing” was more like “the largest titanium sculpture ever seen at a conference display booth.” What both companies have in common is a desire to 3D print entire rockets and shoot them into space.
Update 06/08/2021: Relativity Space has raised $650 million in Series E funding to accelerate the production of Terran R, the company’s heavy-lift, fully reusable two-stage rocket. This brings the company’s total funding to $1.3 billion to date.
The next time we came across Relativity was in our piece on Rocket Engines That Might Take Us to Mars where we talked about their 3D printing capabilities. Being able to 3D print both rocket engines and boosters means you do things much quicker with far less complexity.
That’s attracted the attention of investors like Tiger Global Management that may be making a big investment in Relativity, which brings us to another thing we’ve often wondered about.
Rumor Has It…
Oftentimes you’ll see a stock price surge for no reason, and then some media outlet will say “rumor has it company X is speaking to company Y.” Both companies will issue press releases stating, “it’s not our policy to comment on rumors,” then eventually everyone forgets what happened while some hedge fund is laughing all the way to the bank. It’s understandable why there are rumors for publicly traded companies, but why for privately held companies?
Tiger Global Management seems to be the subject of multiple rumors lately. First, we heard they’re wanting to dump a whole bunch of money into Scale AI, a company whose founder has barely hit puberty. Then, we read that they’re planning to lead a round of $500 million in Relativity. That’s according to an article by CNBC which gives us a glimpse into an absolutely amazing contraption that looks like it belongs on another planet. (More on this in a bit.)
When a company raises that sort of capital, they’re usually looking to scale fast. Here’s what they might be spending that money on.
An Automated Rocket Factory
In the same way Tesla transformed the auto industry with industrial robotics, Relativity plans to build the first autonomous rocket factory and launch service for satellites. Their medium payload launch vehicle, Terran 1, is engineered to “adapt to the changing needs of satellite operators,” implying that they’re able to use the inherent flexibility of 3D printing to build custom rockets on demand. The entire thing is a vertically integrated technology platform that transforms raw materials into custom rockets in just 60 days.
Relativity utilizes two types of 3D printing to produce over 90% of the dry mass of Terran 1. The world’s biggest metal 3D printer, Stargate, is used to produce primary and secondary structures for Terran 1 from a proprietary aluminum alloy. They’re currently printing structures up to 3.4 meters (11 feet) in diameter by 7.6 meters (25 feet) tall – the world’s largest metallic printed parts. Inspection happens during the print process, not after, ensuring a perfect part comes out every time.
The expendable two-stage launch vehicle is powered by liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid oxygen (LOX), using 10 Aeon engines: nine Aeon-1 engines on the first stage, and one Aeon Vacuum engine on the second stage.
All structures and major engine components are 3D printed using proprietary metal alloys. Eventually, they’ll move towards vehicle reusability like SpaceX is doing. At the moment, a dedicated mission will set you back about $12 million. At that price point, Relativity is expecting a lot of launches.
Getting Ready to Launch
Relativity operates multiple production, test, and launch sites across the United States which gives their customers greater flexibility. They’re the first and only venture-backed company with a Right of Entry directly with the U.S. Air Force at historic Launch Complex 16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. In Mississippi, they’ve secured a 20-year exclusive use agreement for a 220,000 sq. ft. factory building at NASA Stennis Space Center where they now operate one-third of the test stands. In 20 years, Relativity plans for their Stargate factories to be expanded to all of aerospace.
It’s important to note that Relativity is still a fairly young company with plans for its first orbital test launch in early 2021. In the meantime, they’ve been signing contracts left and right, including:
- Lockheed Martin – Launching an in-orbit refueling demonstration mission in October 2023. It’s all part of man’s most ambitious endeavor yet – landing again on the moon.
- Telesat – Contract to provide launch services for Telesat’s low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. It was the first time a major global satellite operator selected a completely venture-backed aerospace startup for launch services.
- Iridium – On-demand launch partner for up to six dedicated launches planned for no earlier than 2023.
As we learned in our recent piece on Momentus, signing a bunch of contracts mean very little. Execution is everything. With a possible round of fresh funding in the pipeline, Relativity has the capital needed to get this venture off the ground. As long as they don’t do something dumb like launching a pre-revenue SPAC, they should be in a good position to disrupt the entire aerospace industry, perhaps even the entire galaxy.
The Bigger Picture
You won’t see Sara Seager gracing the front of many women’s magazines, but this extraordinary woman has made it her life’s mission to find life on other planets. She even asked Frank Drake for permission to customize the famous Drake equation.
Once Sara and team have found intelligent life in the universe, we’ll need to send diplomats over there to spread freedom and see if they’re interested in buying some Apple products. The sales pitch will be a whole lot more convincing if we’re a multi-planetary species, and that’s why Relativity’s long-term goal is to upgrade humanity’s industrial base on Earth and on Mars. It’s a big bold goal that puts everything into perspective. Putting one of those 3D printers on Mars will make it a whole lot easier for us to build space vehicles and further expand throughout our solar system.
To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, it is as equally terrifying to think we are alone in the universe as it is to think we’re not. The final frontier of exploration is space, and companies like Relativity are at the forefront of those endeavors. The impact of cheap launches means we’ll be able to unlock trillions of dollars in value, whether that’s from mining asteroids or ensuring everyone on this planet can have the world’s information at their fingertips. With all the drama happening on our small planet right now, Relativity reminds us that it’s a great time to be a human.
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