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Launcher Assembles Its First 3D Printed Spacecraft for Upcoming Mission

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California-based space startup Launcher is assembling its satellite transfer vehicle and hosted payload platform Orbiter ahead of its first mission, SN1. This flight hardware is scheduled to hitch a ride on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in October 2022, carrying payloads for the company’s first ten customers. As Launcher’s first-ever spacecraft is getting ready for testing, the company revealed that everything in the assembly (except for the fasteners) was designed and manufactured in-house and that Velo3D’s Sapphire 3D printing system produced the most challenging metal components.

When SpaceX SmallSat Rideshare Program carries Launcher’s Orbiter satellite transfer vehicle and platform into space, it will deploy up to 400 kg worth of CubeSats and small satellites per mission and precisely place them into whatever orbit their owners desire. However, beginning in 2024, the company will also start offering its own launch service via a liquid-fueled rocket called Launcher Light that will carry 150 kg and 105 kg payloads into low Earth orbit (LEO) and sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), respectively.

Orbiter is the top end of the rocket’s three-stage design and was supposed to be the last part of the vehicle to be developed. However, when SpaceX announced in early 2020 that it would begin selling payload space on its Falcon 9 rocket, the Launcher team realized they could make their satellite deployment system compatible with it and other launch platforms and decided to fast-track that part of the project.

Launcher’s Orbiter satellite transfer vehicle and platform. Launcher’s Orbiter satellite transfer vehicle and platform, powered by 3D printed engines, will first hitch a ride with SpaceX in October. Image courtesy of Launcher.

Achieving a goal

For Orbiter’s propulsion system, Launcher licensed the drawing of a rocket engine for a space-proven turbopump, then set about improving its design using additive manufacturing (AM) technology. When no metal AM equipment provider could produce many necessary components, the team, led by former SpaceX AM manager Tim Berry, turned to Velo3D.

As part of this new challenge, the first part Velo3D created for Launcher was the engine’s shrouded impeller, an extremely critical and complex Inconel part that spins at 30,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and must withstand more than 300 bar of outlet pressure, and is filled with notoriously hard-to-print zero-degree angle surfaces. However, Berry said his team was up for the task and ended up with a finished part that “exceeded all of our performance objectives.”

Four of Launcher’s Orbiter engines, additively manufactured with Velo3D’s technology. Four of Launcher’s Orbiter engines are additively manufactured with Velo3D’s technology. Image courtesy of Velo3D/Launcher.

Since then, Velo3D went from Launcher’s subcontractor to a collaborative partner, especially now that Launcher has invested in its own AM equipment and other metalworking machinery. A move that Launcher founder and CEO Max Haot described as a game-changer, giving the company fast, flexible, and cost-competitive manufacturing advantages. This is crucial for a company that is determined to have its Orbiter spacecraft deliver the lowest cost in the industry for the highest propulsive capabilities. But to achieve that, it was critical for Launcher to have in-house design and manufacturing capabilities.

Berry says that “every time you buy a separation ring, propulsion system, or support structure from a third party, your costs and lead time easily rise by a factor of ten. So instead of the week or so it takes us to design an engine, print, and test it, we would spend maybe two or three months with an outside provider. It’s prohibitive.”

Until last year, Berry oversaw all AM production and development at SpaceX, including applications, process, and operations engineering, and managed one of the world’s largest printer fleets spanning four platforms to support Falcon, Dragon, Starship, and Raptor 2 programs. So if anyone understands how to solve AM challenges in the private space industry, it’s probably Berry.

a just-completed titanium fuel tank in the build chamber of Velo3D's Sapphire. Launcher used Velo3D Sapphire metal AM system to manufacture a lighter-weight fuel tank. Image courtesy of Velo3D/Launcher.

The expert pointed to the fuel tanks as one typical example. He says that if anyone tries to shop around for a space-graded tank able to withstand 3,000 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure, they will probably hear lead times of eight months to two years, especially if they are custom-made.

“That’s not an option in our environment, so as with many of our components, we took the approach of designing based on our available tools,” highlights Berry.

In this case, the Orbiter’s 22-liter tanks match Sapphire’s build volume, so Launcher began by printing the parts out of Inconel. Even though they performed pretty well, Berry and his team wanted to optimize the design by moving to lighter-weight titanium, which worked perfectly for the spacecraft.

“The Velo Sapphire, with its ability to reliably print complex geometry, made it very easy for us to pivot in the face of shifting priorities,” said Berry. “That’s a benefit of additive technology in general, but especially when you’re using a highly-capable print platform.”

Having in-house printing capabilities allowed Launcher to continually push for more aggressive designs and higher performance without sacrificing time and money. Today, the company is 3D printing a range of components on its Sapphire systems, including brackets and other secondary structures, combustion chambers, and injectors, all of them at the 24,000 square feet factory floor in Launcher’s new Hawthorne, California headquarters. The company is even selling a low-cost, ready-for-integration, 24” separation ring (flight hardware developed in-house to separate Orbiter from the SpaceX Falcon 9) as a component to other startups.

Launcher's in-house developed, low cost 24” separation ring for Orbiter. Launcher’s in-house developed, low cost 24” separation ring for Orbiter. Image courtesy of Launcher via LinkedIn.

Space access

Now that Orbiter SN1 integration has begun at the company’s clean room, it feels like its plans to provide space logistics are finally falling into place. This milestone for the company is a great example of how startups go “from 0 to 1,” says Haot; from a research and development stage to a designed, produced, and assembled product in orbit with paying customers. Less than a month ago, Launcher released the list of customers for Orbiter’s inaugural flight, including satellite developers Skyline Celestial, NPC Spacemind, and Innova Space, as well as student-run space research groups Cal Poly Pomona’s Bronco Space and Stanford’s Student Space Initiative.

Launcher's Orbiter SN1 integration in progress. Launcher’s Orbiter SN1 integration in progress. Image courtesy of Launcher via LinkedIn.

Due to the in-house design and production of most of the structure, propulsion, and avionics components, Orbiter is offered to its customers at an industry-leading price of $400,000 per dedicated vehicle (excluding SpaceX flight cost). While launch and orbit transfer services are also provided to Orbiter rideshare customers at a per kilogram price of between $8,000 and $25,000 (including SpaceX flight cost), depending on the mission requirements.

According to Haot, the upcoming inaugural flight will illustrate a need for transfer and hosted payload services, one that shared resources available from Orbiter can provide very efficiently. With less than 110 days to go, the upcoming launch is one of the most exciting this year, especially for a company like Launcher, which adopted AM technology from the outset.

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