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There are an estimated one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, with around 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Each star hosts at least 1.6 planets with some Earth-like planets such as Kepler-186f discovered in the habitable zone (Culler, 2017).
Exploring New Planets for Human Civilization
Since the industrial revolution, although technology has greatly improved the average standard of living on Earth, the negative outcome of these improvements has led to an increase in pollution and global warming.
Greenhouse gases continually destroy the Ozone layer, increasing the planet's average temperature. As we find ourselves in a time of rapid technological advancements, the development of machine learning and artificial intelligence makes things thought previously impossible possible, with scientists exploring the galaxy for a habitable planet.
Using Cutting-Edge 3D Printing Technology to Build Rockets
There have been recent advancements in aerospace technologies with SpaceX recently launching its first reusable rocket and Virgin galactic focused on bringing commercial space travel to the masses (Branson, 2018).
Tech startup Relativity Space has made some interesting advancements in space technology. It is at the forefront of the aerospace industry due to its advanced integration of intelligent robotics and cutting-edge 3D printing technology into the manufacturing process (Relativity Space, 2020).
The company has joined a host of new companies with the vision of making the human population an interplanetary species by building settlements on Mars. Although no human has been on the red planet, there is an array of rover launches to study the planet's terrain and atmospheric conditions. Developing a settlement on Mars is no easy task due to a host of hazards, from radiation exposure on the planet's surface to the lack of oxygen in its atmosphere. Every aspect of the mission has to be analyzed and, to make this economically possible, there has to be innovation in the fundamental way rockets are being made.
Relativity Space proposes 3D printing rockets using additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is the process of combining different materials to build an object from 3D model data (GE Additive, 2017). Layers on layers of this material are added in precise geometric shapes to create parts, allowing better flexibility in the way parts are built.
The 3D printer named Stargate is capable of printing parts up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. This is in contrast to the traditional manufacturing process, which primarily involves subtracting pieces of material by machining, carving or milling to build a component of a design.
The Advantages of 3D Printing Rockets
Employing this process into the aerospace industry has several advantages. Additive manufacturing speeds up the innovation process as several iterations of the same design can easily be built and tested.
Video Credit: Relativity Space/YouTube.com
Relativity Space can build rockets in a fraction of the time that is normally required to do so. Parts manufactured this way are much lighter and stronger than regularly manufactured parts. 3D printing parts simplifies the fabrication process and leads to improved performance.
3D printing use extends beyond making rocket parts. The company AI SpaceFactory is planning to 3D print entire houses optimized for living on the surface of Mars. The Marsha project involves using a stationary rover to build a vertical habitat from materials readily found on the surface of Mars. This innovative design stems from NASA's 3D-printed habitat challenge.
The recent advancements by SpaceX in rocket reusability make the times even more exciting, being able to pair rapid Rocket manufacturing with the reusability of those rockets will result in a fraction of cost it usually takes to perform space missions.
Relativity Space and NASA have recently signed a 20-year partnership enabling the use of its Stennis space center. The deal includes an exclusive lease of a 25-acre E4 test complex for testing Relativity Space's 3D-printed engine.
Click here to find out more about 3D printing technologies.
Relativity Space will use four test stands provided in the facility, making it possible to perform more engine tests before the final installation.
Relativity Space was founded in 2016 and has previously carried out 124 fire tests on its rocket engines set for its first space launch in 2021. Being able to 3D print an entire rocket involves redesigning components from scratch to reduce the complexity of the build.
Relativity is developing a new Aeon 1 engine, which has around 100 parts in comparison to the thousands of parts required to make a traditional engine (Berger, 2018). The Aeon 1 engine uses a fuel mixture of methane and oxygen for propulsion with a vacuum thrust of 19,500 lb.
Relativity plans on using 9 Aeon 1 engines for the first stage of its Terran 1 rocket. The rocket is designed to be around 10 stories tall for small to medium-sized launches into low-Earth orbit with a payload-carrying capacity of approximately 1250 kg. Using the Stargate 3D printers, the company aims to produce rockets such as the Terran 1 in less than 60 days from raw materials.
One launch of the Terran 1 costs around $10 million in comparison to SpaceX's average launch cost of $60 million.
Video Credit: Seeker/YouTube.com
The Future of Rocket Technology
We find ourselves on the verge of massive technological advancements where things thought previously impossible are being developed by innovators around the world.
Relativity Space's vision of building a rocket in 60 days extends beyond launching rockets from Earth. The company plans for a future where 3D printers could be launched and assembled on the surface of Mars. This would be a tipping point in space exploration as materials can be sent from Mars back to Earth. It could also act as a launch site for exploring parts of the Milky Way due to its low gravitational field.
The key to rapid advancements in the industry is through technology integration and collaboration between major players such as Relativity Space and SpaceX.
Read more: What is 4D Printing and How Does it Differ from 3D Printing?
References and Further Reading
BERGER, E., 2018. Relativity Space reveals its ambitions with big NASA deal. [Blog] ARS TECHNICA, Available at: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/03/relativity-space-reveals-its-ambitions-with-big-nasa-deal/ [Accessed 16 April 2020].
Branson, R., 2018. Mission. [Online] Virgingalactic.com. Available at: https://www.virgingalactic.com/mission/ [Accessed 16 April 2020].
Culler, J., 2017. Kepler-186F, The First Earth-Size Planet In The Habitable Zone. [Online] NASA. Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/ames/kepler/kepler-186f-the-first-earth-size-planet-in-the-habitable-zone [Accessed 16 April 2020].
Ge.com. 2020. What Is Additive Manufacturing? | GE Additive. [Online] Available at: https://www.ge.com/additive/additive-manufacturing [Accessed 16 April 2020].
Relativity Space. 2020. Relativity Space — Relativity Space. [Online] Available at: https://www.relativityspace.com/mission [Accessed 16 April 2020].
Grush, L. 2019. Startup that aims to 3D-print rockets says it’s fully funded for its first commercial missions. [Online] The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/1/20891868/3d-printing-rockets-relativity-space-stargate-terran-1-rocket-funding-launch [Accessed 4 May 2020].