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May 6, 2019,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Relativity Space: company looking to break into the space industry by printing rockets in 3D

In Silicon Valley, a new kid on the block by the name of Relativity Space is breaking into the space industry. The company was co-founded by Tim Ellis in 2015 and is looking to carry out launches of rockets printed in 3D. Their technology will mean reduced costs, and launches that are faster and better adapted to the needs of clients and to the size of the craft that are being sent into orbit.

Printing rockets in 3D? Why not? After all, companies in this sector are already enjoying a certain degree of success. In December 2015, a young man by the name of Tim Ellis co-founded Relativity Space to send craft entirely printed in 3D into the atmosphere. By 2018, the company had grown from 14 to 80 employees and is now looking to take on another 40, with Ellis hiring a number of space industry veterans including former employees of SpaceX, the US market leader in launches.

Success story

Relativity Space has raised 45 million US dollars so far, and with US telecoms operator Telesat having recently commissioned the company to launch part of its future 5G constellation and the US army granting it a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, 28-year-old Ellis is seen by many as the new Elon Musk.

Ellis has also been asked to sit on a board of the White House’s National Space Council alongside former astronauts and heads of major US aerospace groups. "I’m the youngest [...] and the only representative of a start-up that is entirely financed by venture capital," Ellis said to AFP at the 35th Space Symposium at Colorado Springs, one of the major space industry gatherings, in early April.

Gamble set to pay off

Relativity Space is not the only start-up to have launched in recent years in the small and medium-sized rocket sector to meet demand for small satellites. "In Silicon Valley, there is a belief that you have to gamble on a lot of ideas and most of them won’t be successful," Ellis explained, "but the ones that pay off cover all the ones that don’t, with an enormous return on investment if they end up being the next Google or SpaceX."

To date, Relativity Space has already aluminium-printed nine engines and three second stages of its "Terran 1" model. The rocket’s first test flight is set to take place at the end of 2020.

Fast, cost-effective and personalised launches

With its large-scale 3D printing robots , the start-up claims that it uses a hundred times less in terms of parts compared with a traditional rocket. "We only specialise in two or three processes," Ellis continued, "making things a lot simpler". The electronic systems are the only element that is not printed. "It’s a lot cheaper since the automation reduces the labour costs."

At the outset, launches using Relativity Space will cost 10 million US dollars, but this price will become more flexible, with the company hoping to adapt the size of the fairing (or nose) of its rockets to the size of the clients’ satellites. Another advantage will be the speed of the overall production process, which should only take 60 days according to Ellis from the acquisition of the raw materials to the launch.

Working for the army

Relativity Space is promising big but has yet to prove that it can deliver, but if it does, it will revolutionise the launch industry. As things stand, satellite operators can spend years on a waiting list for a major rocket such as Arianespace or SpaceX. The Terran 1 will be ten times smaller than the SpaceX Falcon 9 and capable of sending over a tonne into very low orbit (an altitude of 185 kilometres).

This kind of performance would be ideal for mini-satellites used for telecommunications or earth inaging, and also for a potential big fish in the form of the US army, hence Ellis’ attendance at the 35th Space Symposium where he met with high-ranking officials from the Pentagon.

Allianz Partners

Cover photo credits: Relativity Space

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