Former Blue Origin and Space-X rocket scientists have found a new company that is 3D printing rocket engines in a fraction of the usual amount of time. If successful they could lead to an avalanche of similar operations that will decrease the cost of space travel as well as increase the feasibility of space colonization.
“We feel like it’s inevitable that if humanity is going out to colonize other planets, 3D-printing is really the only way to manufacture things like tools and replacement parts,” said Tim Ellis, co-founder of Relativity Space and former rocket-propulsion engineer at Blue Origin.
“So that’s what we’re working on: How to 3D-print an entire rocket,” he said. Tim Ellis helped introduce 3D-printing to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. “That inspired me to see 3D-printing is the future of rockets,” he said. “We saw the time savings in this totally new process to build rockets.
Relativity Space employs a 3d printing method called laser sintering whereby laser beams melt and bond metallic powder in to the desired formation. With this sort of technique you’re left with a smooth seamless product that would otherwise be filled with”ruts and bolts.
Relativity Space wants to significantly reduce the amount of parts required for building a rocket by a hundred times, from 100 000 – 1000. Which is impressive considering their signature “Terran” rocket can carry an entire car sized load in to orbit.
3D printing rockets could significantly reduce complications and increase dependability Ellis said. Due to their seamless nature they are much less likely to fall apart. It is a general rule of thumb in engineering that the more parts you have the more maintenance is required. Of course it also eliminates a lot of obsolete steps to assembly that would otherwise take years to complete.
Relativity Space’ first prototype is the rocket engine “Aeon”
Aeon engines are printed with high temperature nickel alloy powder that is successively melted and dried in to it’s final form – a process that would be extremely difficult if not impossible to replicate using molds. Durability and predictability are also much easier to control. These 3D printers form a single seamless part where conventional engineers would more often then not use hundreds of separate parts, including nuts and bolts, un-necessary plugs, sockets etc.
“No one has really innovated on the fundamental manufacturing problems that the aerospace has dealt with over the past 50 years,” Ellis said.
“They’ve all had a huge amount of hands-on labor and very complex supply chains. 3D printing … removes complex tooling, it’s very fast, and it reduces the labor required to make each product,” he added. According to Ellis a test rocket can be made in days rather than months”Since it’s so much faster and cheaper, you can take more risk and try new ideas,” he said. “You can see the product and future happen faster.”
“We want to go from raw materials to flying a rocket in 60 days,” Ellis said. “Normally a lead time for producing a rocket is 12-18 months. So this is significantly faster than traditional methods for the production time. And of course 60 days later, we can produce a totally different rocket style.” Aeons seamless extrusion of otherwise separate structures allow 2,700 individual parts to be drastically reduced down to only few key pieces, Ellis said. “Because things are 3D-printed, they’re more organic looking,” he added. “They almost look like parts made by nature.”
Relativity Space’ Aeon engine was designed, built, and tested in half a year whereas other organizations can take several years to accomplish the same amount of work. At this they have successfully tested the engine around 100 times. 10 Aeons are expected to fit on to one of the companies Rockets. Ellis claims that their customized Terran rocket will likely be reusable and inexpensive.
Their sleek and aesthetically appealing Stargate printer is just as practical as it is beautiful. According to Ellis it is the largest metal 3D printer in the world, which enables them to print such large large rocket parts.
One of these have already been built and now it’s undergoing test runs that will qualify it for commercialization. Since the printer is fitted with multiple cameras, sensors and sophisticated software it can actually study its own work, detect flaws and even learn how to speed up printing of complex parts.
“What do you need to make on another planet? We think there needs to be another company focused on this piece of the puzzle,” Ellis said. “I would love to launch our factory to Mars, and then figure out how to scale and sustain that society very quickly.”
Marco Cáceres, a senior space analyst at the Teal Group (an aerospace market analysis firm) was quoted saying
“If you’re going to live on other planets, you’ll need to produce hardware,” he told Business Insider. “If something goes wrong, you need to have spare parts.”
Proposals for some of the first Martian habitats suggest that we use a mix of martian dust and concrete to print dwellings, some of them even think we should use ice to print advanced habitable igloos. The bottom line is that there are a lot of uses for 3D printing in outer space. For example, China recently printed ceramic material using Lunar dust.
Plans for gathering the necessary resources to power Martian operations are currently under development. For example, head of exploration technologies at Space-X recently presented several ways to drill through the surface of Mars. Furthermore, 3D printing need not be limited to planets or moons. Asteroid mining corporation Planetary Resources actually demonstrated that it was possible to 3D print parts out of asteroid regolith – opening the very real possibility of erecting permanent deep space factories to propel us beyond the asteroid belt.
Automating metal 3D printers only increase the feasibility of this happening.