Relativity's Video of a 3D-Printed Rocket Engine Feels Like the Future

"Time to freak out, people," says the project's financial backer.

Relativity Space

Rocket engine start-up Relativity Space shared a video of its 3D-printed rocket engine this week that’s stunning, for what it represents for the future of manufacturing and space travel.

The engine, named the Aeon 1, goes from ignition to full thrust in milliseconds. The entire video (embedded below) only last 10 seconds. While Elon Musk is working on the BFR, Relativity’s 3D printed engine is still a BFD for the future of space.

Relativity claims that the Aeon 1 engine takes far less time to create than a traditional rocket because it’s 3D printed — around one month instead of six for production, according to this chart that they shared — and has far less individual parts per engine. “Our process reduces the number of component interfaces, making full robotic automation of engine production possible,” the company says.

Relativity was founded in December 2015 by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone, aerospace engineers and veterans of space companies Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively. It first graduated from startup accelerator Y Combinator, before raising eight figures of funding – more than $10 million – led by Social Capital, the Palo Alto, California-based venture capital firm.

In July of this year, Ellis testified in front of lawmakers at a hearing organized by the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. A native of Plano, Texas, Ellis introduced his company to Senator Ted Cruz and others this way:

“We’re a stealth-mode startup creating a new launch service for orbital payloads, allowing for enhanced launch certainty at significantly reduced cost,” Ellis said. “Relatively’s rockets are designed, built, and flown in the United States. We’re based in Los Angeles with current testing operations in Mississippi and we’re looking to expand operations into Florida, Texas, and beyond.”

This promotional video of a 3D-printed rocket being tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi offers a glimpse of Relativity’s vision:

Relativity aims to decrease the price of rocket launches from $100 million to $10 million in four years, 3D print the first rocket — a 90-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide, able to carry 2,000 pounds into orbit — by 2020, and to launch that rocket into space by 2021.

“The 3D printing and automation of rockets is inevitable,” Ellis told Bloomberg in October.

Aeon-1 at full thrust, just milliseconds after igniting. 

Relativity Space

Current 3D printing technology is actually slower than traditional welding, so his “inevitability” may take some time to be realized. To get there, Relativity first had to develop its own 3D printer. Enter Stargate, a giant machine with 18-foot long arms, specifically designed with Relativity’s rockets in mind. Relativity says that it is the world’s largest 3D printer to work with metal.

If the technology continues to develop, Ellis and Noone hope to cut down the development time of a rocket from the many months – and hundreds of workers – currently required to just one month, and with minimal labor.

They’re still some way off from that goal, but that’s why the first video of their test at NASA Stennis was so exciting. Exclaimed Chamath Palihapitiya, the CEO of Social Capital: “Time to freak out, people.”

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