The U.S. space agency’s Launch Services Program (LSP) has allotted contracts to three companies on December 11, 2020, to launch small satellites (SmallSats) to space, including CubeSats, microsats, and nanosatellites. One of these companies, space manufacturer Relativity Space of Long Beach, California, was awarded NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract, worth $3 million, to place CubeSats into low Earth orbit (LEO).
Relativity Space continues to grow its customer manifest and public-private partnerships. This marks the startup’s eighth announced launch customer and the second publicly announced U.S. government launch services contract. It follows an award as the launch partner for Lockheed Martin’s NASA Tipping Point Mission, slated to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies that will position them for infusion into future space systems.
Under NASA’s newly announced firm-fixed-price contract, the CubeSats launch will take place by June 30, 2022, from Relativity Space’s orbital launch site in Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 16 (LC-16). According to the rocket manufacturer, this award will allow the company to demonstrate its unique capabilities and sector-leading momentum by launching Terran 1, the first entirely 3D printed rocket. Designed for the future of constellation deployment and resupply, this next-generation launch vehicle could be printed in just 60 days using the company’s patented Stargate technology. Stargate is the first aerospace platform to automate rocket manufacturing, vertically integrating intelligent robotics, software, and data-driven 3D printing technology.
Co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space, Tim Ellis, indicated in a company statement that “NASA’s efforts to expand launch options are vital for the future growth of space access,” and that “we appreciate NASA’s selection of our 3D printing approach for our launch vehicle, Terran 1.” Furthermore, in a promotional video announcing the VCLS Demo 2 contract, the company suggested the launch will be a historic moment when NASA will become the first space agency to launch a satellite into orbit on an entirely 3D printed rocket.
Relativity Space is disrupting 60 years of aerospace, building an entirely new value chain to integrate 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robotics. Its 3D printed rocket factory in Long Beach—considered a futuristic vision by some—is a vertically integrated technology platform that enables company engineers to build and launch rockets in less than 60 days, with 100 times fewer parts and a radically simplified supply chain. This is one of the benefits that Relativity Space Senior Engineer Eliana Fu has reflected upon while participating in several forums and discussion panels in 2020.
During 2020 Formnext Connect virtual AM in aerospace forum, Fu said 3D printing will allow humanity to build “an interplanetary future.” She also said that Relativity Space’s proprietary Stargate AM technology “gives engineers full control of part manufacturing without depending on supply chains,” which turned out to be one of the most disrupted services during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, causing severe operational and financial consequences all over the world.
Moreover, Relativity Space’s in-house production is moving at speeds that Fu claims are unprecedented. As a startup, the manufacturer is facing competition from all the big companies, which is why Stargate seeks to give access to space faster to its customers. In line with this concept, the company’s new headquarters and factory, its Terran 1 launch vehicle, and Aeon 1 engine are completely designed, built, funded, and operated in the United States, ensuring that critical infrastructure and part creation will not be disrupted or the value chain delayed, lest there be another national lockdown. The company’s software-defined approach also creates significantly higher reliability by introducing automation and reducing risk at every level of design, test, and build.
To fund the VCLS Demo 2 contracts, the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate partnered with LSP, which supports the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) by providing launch opportunities to CubeSats that are awaiting launch. NASA has also awarded VCLS Demo 2 contracts to launch service providers Astra Space of Alameda, California for $3.9 million and Firefly Black of Cedar Park, Texas for $9.8 million. The three companies will launch CubeSats selected through the CSLI to demonstrate a launch capability for smaller payloads that NASA anticipates it will require regularly for future science missions.
SmallSats, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research, and educational investigations at NASA. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions and VCLS Demo 2 launches of small satellites can tolerate a higher level of risk than larger missions and will demonstrate – and help mitigate – risks associated with the use of new launch vehicles providing access to space for future small spacecraft and missions.
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