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3D printed rocket stops blasting but fails to reach orbit on first flight

A new rocket, the world’s first made mostly of 3D-printed materials and fueled by liquefied natural gas, blasted off on its maiden flight Wednesday night and exited the lower atmosphere only to have a second-stage malfunction prevent it from reaching orbit. .

It was a disappointing setback for Relativity Space, a California start-up hoping to become a major player in the emerging commercial launch market, but such anomalies are not uncommon when testing a new rocket, and the company promises a thorough investigation to find out. gave Fix what went wrong.


A time exposure captures the bright exhaust plume of the methane-burning Terran 1 rocket during a thunderstorm from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

William Harwood/CBS News

“No one has ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit, and while we have not completed it today, we have collected enough data to show that a 3D-printed rocket is possible to fly,” said a launch commentator for the company.

The 110-foot-tall Terran 1 rocket, powered by nine relatively-advanced Aeon 1 engines producing a combined 207,000 pounds of thrust, blasted off from Pad 16 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 11:25 a.m. EDT and then over the Atlantic Ocean. went east.

Two earlier launch attempts on March 8 and 11 were scrubbed by a combination of problems, mostly related to the flight software, officials later said. Wednesday’s countdown was held up by higher-than-permissible winds and by a boat that drifted into the coastal danger zone.

But the final moments ticked off without a hitch and the rocket put on a dramatic display, its engines producing a bright blue-white flame in stark contrast to the orange color produced by the kerosene-burning engine.

For its initial flight, Terran 1 was not carrying a customer payload and was not equipped with the nose fairing normally used to protect satellites during ascent from the lower atmosphere.

The purpose of the test flight was to “prove that 3D printed structures can withstand the stresses of flight, which would prove our hypothesis that 3D printing is a viable way to build rockets,” Relativity tweeted ahead of the company’s first launch attempt.

On Wednesday night, the rocket’s first stage did just that, burning liquid natural gas — methane — with liquid oxygen, safely accelerating through the region of maximum aerodynamic stress, known as “Max Q,” as it powered its way out of the densification. . lower atmosphere.

About two minutes and 50 seconds after launch the first stage engines shut down as expected and the stage fell as planned. A camera mounted on the rocket showed the second-stage engine starting after a few seconds, but it was not fully ignited.

Shortly thereafter, an anomaly was announced and commentators on the company’s livestream confirmed that the vehicle had not reached orbit.


Terran 1 on the launch pad.

Relativity space

“First launches are always exciting, and today’s flight was no exception,” said one “Although we didn’t reach orbit, we significantly exceeded our original objectives for this first launch, and that objective was to collect data at maximum Q, one of the most demanding phases of flight, and achieve phase separation.”

Relativity Space was founded in 2015 by college classmates Tim Ellis and Jordan Nunn, who both gained experience working for Blue Origin and SpaceX. The Long Beach, California-based company now has 1,000 employees and a market value of $4.2 billion. Among its early investors was billionaire Mark Cuban.

The Terran 1 rocket is capable of placing payloads weighing up to 2,755 pounds into low-Earth orbit at an advertised price of $12 million. About 85 percent of the launcher, including the propellant tank, bulkhead and main engine components, was 3D printed by Relativity.

“No new company gets their liquid rocket into space on their first try,” Josh Brost, a relative vice president, told Spaceflight Now before the launch. “So if everything goes incredibly well, and we achieve orbit on our first launch … that will be a tremendous milestone for us, which we’re certainly excited about for the Moon.”

But it wasn’t happening.

Terran 1 is the latest in an increasingly crowded field of rockets designed to carry relatively small satellites into orbit that might otherwise have to wait for a ride as secondary payloads on larger rockets.

Relativity is developing a larger, more powerful and fully reusable rocket known as the Terran R that will compete with mid-range rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The Terran R will be able to boost up to 44,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit if flown in expendable mode.

Ellis previously said that Terran 1 “served as a fantastic learning platform for developing directly applicable technology for Terran R, giving us a lot of confidence that we’re ahead in the race to be the next great launch company.”

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