This Startup Is Using AI to 3D-Print Its Way Into the Space Race

October 21, 2019 - 8 minutes read

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What will it take to make a trip to Mars viable? Relativity Space thinks it has the answer: Huge 3D printers, massive robotic arms, and, of course, some artificial intelligence (AI) development to tie it all together. If the company is correct, it could reinvent how we build rockets to reach the stars — and return to Earth.

Rethinking Rockets from the Ground Up

Tucked away next to Keanu Reeves’ stunt gym and across the street from one of Snoop Dogg’s recording studios is Relativity Space, a small startup with big ambitions. Founded by 29-year-old CEO Tim Ellis and 26-year-old CTO Jordan Noone, the company is on a mission to do for space rockets what Henry Ford did for the car: optimize their production via automation.

The fact that this rocket-building robotic factory is neighbors with these A-listers’ regular haunts emphasizes one of Relativity’s main selling points — that they can build rockets anywhere, even on Mars — as long as there’s ample space for 3D printers and robots. Behind the loading bay doors of the company’s Los Angeles development headquarters, you’ll find four enormous metal 3D printers producing rocket parts around the clock.

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Stargate is the name of Relativity’s latest proprietary printer. 30-feet-tall and equipped with two colossal robotic arms, Stargate printers will be responsible for manufacturing roughly 95 percent (by mass) of the startup’s first rocket, Terran-1. Parts like electronic elements, cables, rubber gaskets, and moving parts account for the remaining 5 percent.

Making a rocket 3D-printable was no small feat; Relativity’s team had to rethink and re-engineer their typical design to make it work. Terran-1 will end up having 100 times fewer parts than a normal rocket. And while a conventional liquid-fueled rocket usually consists of thousands of components, Terran-1’s Aeon engine will be assembled from only 100 parts.

This simplicity in design will pay off in more ways than one. According to Ellis, Relativity will theoretically be able to transform raw materials into a rocket ready for the launch pad in just 60 days. But this won’t be proven true until at least 2021, the earliest expected year for the Terran-1 to lift off.

3D-Printing a New Way to the Stars

When fully assembled, Terran-1 will be about 100 feet tall and capable of carrying 2,800-pound satellites to low Earth orbit. That puts it right in the medium range of payloads; it’s more than small launchers like Rocket Lab’s Electron, but far less than SpaceX’s massive Falcon 9 rocket.

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It’s worth mentioning that Relativity Space is far from the only company leveraging 3D printing. Rocket Lab, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and dozens of others are also using the revolutionary technology to produce parts. But Ellis and Noone are doubling down more on 3D printing for good reason; they see it as an essential piece of the puzzle to establishing transportation infrastructure to and from Mars.

Prior to Relativity Space, both Ellis and Noone worked on University of Southern California’s renowned rocketry team. After college, Ellis went to work for Blue Origin while Noone became employed at SpaceX. That’s when Ellis started to envision a different type of rocket factory — one run by robots as much as possible.

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Fast forward to now, and the duo is many steps closer to making that vision a reality. They’ve certainly come a long way. the first iteration of Relativity’s Stargate printer is approximately 15 feet tall and has three robotic arms which it uses to monitor printing progress, weld metal, and correct defects. While the newest Stargate model only has two arms, it can print large components like fuel tanks or rocket bodies in a single go. Ellis says the next version of Stargate will be twice as big (around 60-feet-tall) to print even larger parts.

The Brains Behind the Robots

While the Stargate printers are used to take care of larger rocket elements, Relativity relies on commercially available metal 3D printers to produce components requiring more precision, like the engine. To get the fine-tuned nuances they need, Ellis and Noone turn to AI.

Before a print like this, Relativity’s team runs a simulation to see what the ideal print would look like. Then they run the real thing while sensors capture environmental data. By comparing these two outcomes, the team is able to train the machine learning algorithms behind the printer to recognize and correct mistakes until it can produce a flawless iteration of the component.

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Ellis believes this process will be integral to perfecting automated manufacturing on other worlds. “To print stuff on Mars you need a system that can adapt to very uncertain conditions,” he explains. “So we’re building an algorithm framework that we think will actually be transferable to printing on other planets.”

Per Aspera Ad Astra

Like any ambitious startup, Relativity Space has its doubters. Max Haot is the CEO of Launcher Space, another rocket startup that utilizes 3D printing. He explains that, while everyone in the aerospace industry is eager to tap into the benefits of 3D printing, it may not be the best production method for every component:

The question is whether 3D printing aluminum tanks is worth it when compared to the traditional tank manufacturing methods. We don’t think so, but let’s see where they take it.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped Relativity from securing hundreds of millions dollars’ worth of deals with numerous satellite operators. And many of the startup’s investors and advisors see much more potential in the company than just launch services.

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Shagun Sachdeva, Senior Analyst at space consultancy Northern Sky Research, says “Even if we don’t get to the point of full rocket manufacturing on Mars, Relativity may be able to manufacture other components in orbit. That’s a pretty big development for the industry as a whole.”

When their first rocket is completely assembled, Relativity’s team will ship it to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex-16 for liftoff. What do you think of Relativity’s out-of-this-world approach to rocket building? Do you think this is the future of space exploration? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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