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Relativity Space 3D Printed Rocket to Launch First Commercial Mars Lander

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As Los Angeles rocket 3D printing startup Relativity Space works towards the first launch of its Terran 1 small-lift launch vehicle, it also revealed that its Terran R fully reusable, 3D printed rocket, will launch Impulse Space‘s first commercial mission to Mars sometime between 2024 and 2025.

Under the new partnership, Relativity will launch Impulse’s Mars Cruise Vehicle and Mars Lander from Relativity’s Space Launch Complex 16 (SLC-16) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida as part of an exclusive agreement until 2029.

According to the companies, once in orbit, Terran R is planned to complete the trans-Mars injection burn to place the cruise vehicle, carrying the lander on a trajectory toward Mars. The cruise vehicle will then separate from the lander that, protected by an aeroshell, will enter the Martian atmosphere and attempt to propulsively land on the surface of the red planet.

Landing on Mars

But this will be no easy feat. In 2021, before the Mars Perseverance rover mission, NASA said: “Landing on Mars is hard. Only about 40 percent of the missions ever sent to Mars – by any space agency – have been successful. Hundreds of things have to go just right during this nail-biting drop.”

Other published data places the overall success rate of missions lifted from Earth with the intent to land on Mars somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. Relativity and Impulse suggest that excluding launch failures, missions that have attempted to land on the red planet have succeeded only 65% of the time. Furthermore, American missions have a 90% success rate, with the only failure being the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999.

The first mission intending to land on Mars was Sputnik 24 in 1962 (also known as Mars 2MV-3-1), a Soviet mission that failed to depart low Earth orbit (LEO) due to an upper stage failure on its rocket. Another Soviet mission, Mars 2, unsuccessfully landed on Mars in 1971. Then, less than a week later, the Mars 3 mission successfully soft-landed, but communications failed two minutes later.

So far, there have been 56 Mars missions, 26 of which have been successful. Several international space programs have attempted to land a spacecraft on Mars, but never before has this been attempted without the involvement of a government space agency.

3D Printing the Right Stuff

Impulse Space’s founder and CEO Tom Mueller said that one of the most challenging aspects of landing on Mars is the “glide stage,” which involves an aeroshell to encapsulate the lander for the survival of a Mars entry.

“With the power of our combined teams, experience and passion, I am confident this historic mission will be just one of many to come,” emphasized Mueller.

Mueller’s confidence in the mission is no surprise based on his engineering background. The aerospace engineer and rocket engine designer was also a founding member of SpaceX. In 2002, he created the company’s propulsion team, then led the development of the Merlin engine used on the Falcon rocket family, and created the division of the company that has developed the Draco, SuperDraco, and Raptor engines. After leaving SpaceX, Mueller founded Impulse Space to develop in-space transportation services for the inner solar system, including orbital transport vehicles and, now, a Mars lander.

The Impulse Space lander will include payload capacity intended to support the research and development required for future crewed missions to Mars. It might even carry a government research payload from NASA or another customer. Above all, it is clear that enabling interplanetary transport is a shared goal for both Impulse and Relativity.

Rendering of an Impulse Space vehicle in Earth's orbit.

Rendering of an Impulse Space vehicle in Earth’s orbit. Image courtesy of Impulse Space.

With the potential to lead the rocket market in the next decade, Relativity is developing the Terran rocket family, consisting of Terran 1 and Terran R. Although no vehicle has yet launched to orbit, both have been highly publicized, primarily because they are entirely 3D printed. Like other advanced technologies, AM aligns with future needs of constructing components of vehicles and other systems on Mars, the Moon, and other off-Earth sites, such as asteroids.

The Martian Timeline

In July 2022, Relativity announced it was getting closer to its Terran 1 demo launch, which is on track for its first launch this year, with the first vehicle completing a spin-start test on its Cape Canaveral launch pad on July 18.t Aside from the first Terran 1 rocket awaiting its departure, Relativity co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis said the company is already printing another Terran 1 at its factory in Long Beach, California. Additionally, the engineering team is working hard on creating the fourth generation of Relativity’s Stargate metal 3D printer, which offers a tenfold improvement in printing time.

Relativity Space's fully 3D printed rockets, the Terran 1 and the larger and reusable Terran R

Relativity Space’s fully 3D printed rockets, the Terran 1 and the larger and reusable Terran R. Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

Alternatively, the Terran R vehicle that will launch the Impulse Mars mission is the successor to Terran 1. While also 3D printed and planned to launch from SLC-16 in Florida, Terran R will be fully reusable and offer over 20,000 kg to LEO as well as flights to the Moon and Mars. Terran R is the second and most recently announced fully reusable launch vehicle, behind SpaceX’s Starship launch system.

Commenting on the upcoming Mars mission with Impulse Space, Ellis pointed out that it is a “monumental challenge,” but one that, if successfully achieved, will expand the possibilities for human experience in our lifetime across two planets. Formerly at Blue Origin, the aerospace engineer believes building a multiplanetary future on Mars is only possible if “dozens to hundreds of companies” are inspired to work toward a singular goal.

“With the delivery capabilities of Terran R coupled with Impulse’s in-space transportation, we are bringing humanity one step closer to making Mars a reality. This is a historic, impactful partnership with Tom and the entire Impulse team through the collaboration of two low-cost commercial providers that will establish and expand our presence on Mars,” highlighted Ellis.

Terran R’s first flight is slated for no earlier than 2024, the same year the launch window for the Impulse Mars mission opens.

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