Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Relativity Space Switches Emphasis Toward Reusability

The latest entry under "reusability changes everything" is startup (still to orbit) Relativity Space.  My last deeper look at them was last August, with a rendering of their Terran-R rocket, which is intended to be competitor to higher weight payloads to LEO.  CEO and co-founder Time Ellis says it's wrong to compare the Terran R to the Falcon 9; it's more like a smaller version of Starship and the Super Heavy booster.  Terran R will have nowhere near the lift capacity of Starship.

Before the Terran R exists, Relativity is working on a smallsat launcher called Terran-1. Michael Berger at Ars Technica reports they're already working on a next generation engine that will replace the nine Aeon-1 engines currently planned for the Terran-1 with a single Aeon-R.  

"We’ve always envisioned Terran 1 being a development platform," said Tim Ellis, the co-founder and chief executive of Relativity Space, in an interview with Ars.

The California-based company, which seeks to 3D-print the majority of its rocket parts, is continuing to work toward the first launch of Terran 1 this year. Powered by nine Aeon 1 rocket engines, this small rocket has a lift capacity of 1.25 metric tons to low Earth orbit. This first Terran 1 mission will not carry any customer payloads in order to focus on the rocket itself and is called "Good Luck, Have Fun." The name is a reference to what players say to one another before a video game begins, Ellis said.

Aeon-1 engine in static fire test.  Relativity Space photo.

Ellis, who has said, "we are definitely launching this year," said they have three flights of the Terran 1 scheduled.  After those three demonstration flights, Relativity plans a switch from the nine-engine configuration to just a single Aeon-R engine.  This engine, nine of which will eventually power the reusable Terran R rocket, is projected to have about 300,000 pounds of thrust, or more than 10 times that of the Aeon-1 engine.  The improved thrust will upgrade the Terran 1 giving a somewhat higher payload to the same orbit, and provide commonality with the coming Terran-R.  

By going from nine engines to one, that has to help reduce part counts which generally improves reliability.  For the Terran-1 instead of nine engines and 18 turbopumps, the upgraded version would use one engine and two turbopumps.  

Interestingly, Tim Ellis said they went down the road of a complex Terran-1 with nine LOX/methane engines because they wanted to learn how to do the hard stuff. 

Building an initial rocket with nine smaller engines was "definitely not the optimum choice in hindsight to get to orbit as simply and quickly as possible for the Terran 1 program," Ellis said. "But it’s been part of our plans to do a much larger reusable rocket for a long time. So we chose to do liquid oxygen and liquid methane engines as well as the nine-engine configuration on Terran 1 so that we could learn as a company how to do something that complex early on, before we had to go build this 20,000 kilogram payload-to-orbit vehicle."

(An early rendering of the Terran-R.  Relativity's picture.) 

Ellis said that there are no plans to abandon the Terran-1 as development of the -R version goes forward.  After a few rounds of venture capital raising, Ellis said Relativity has nearly $1 billion cash in the bank—and the large 1-million-square-foot factory it is building in Long Beach will support both vehicles.  Right now, the company has grown to 700 employees, and since that large building isn't completed they're very likely not completely staffed.

That larger, futuristic Terran R rocket will have a reusable first and second stage, which Ellis believes will allow his company to compete with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for commercial launches. Ellis said there is a lot of interest in Terran R since it was publicly announced last year, with one customer already on board and "quite a few more" expected to close on deals during the next six months. The Terran R may make its first flight in 2024.

It seems like another example of "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" when you add in that CEO Tim Ellis and his co-founder Jordan Noone are fans of SpaceX and Elon Musk.  They founded the company five years ago, around the time SpaceX started regularly landing boosters for reuse.  They were drawn to the technology and Musk's stated desire to create settlements on Mars as a step to making mankind a multiplanetary species.  Ellis' vision is for expansion to Mars, like Elon Musk's, but sees different ways to achieve some of these things.  Getting a colony of a million settlers is a huge task and the more people working toward it, the more likely it is to succeed. 



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