Massive, AI-Powered Robots Are 3D-Printing Entire Rockets
For a factory where robots toil around the clock to build a rocket with almost no human labor, the sound of grunts echoing across the parking lot make for a jarring contrast.
“That’s Keanu Reeves’ stunt gym,” says Tim Ellis, the chief executive and cofounder of Relativity Space, a startup that wants to combine 3D printing and artificial intelligence to do for the rocket what Henry Ford did for the automobile. As we walk among the robots occupying Relativity’s factory, he points out the just-completed upper stage of the company’s rocket, which will soon be shipped to Mississippi for its first tests. Across the way, he says, gesturing to the outside world, is a recording studio run by Snoop Dogg.
Neither of those A-listers have paid a visit to Relativity’s rocket factory, but the presence of these unlikely neighbors seems to underscore the company’s main talking point: It can make rockets anywhere. In an ideal cosmos, though, its neighbors will be even more alien than Snoop Dogg. Relativity wants to not just build rockets, but to build them on Mars. How exactly? The answer, says Ellis, is robots—lots of them.
Roll up the loading bay doors at Relativity’s Los Angeles headquarters and you’ll find four of the largest metal 3D printers in the world, churning out rocket parts day and night. The latest model of the company’s proprietary printer, dubbed Stargate, stands 30 feet tall and has two massive robotic arms that protrude like tentacles from the machine. The Stargate printers will manufacture about 95 percent, by mass, of Relativity’s first rocket, named Terran-1. The only parts that won’t be printed are the electronics, cables, and a handful of moving parts and rubber gaskets.
To make a rocket 3D-printable, Ellis’s team had to totally rethink the way rockets are designed. As a result, Terran-1 will have 100 times fewer parts than a comparable rocket. Its Aeon engine, for instance, consists of just 100 parts, whereas a typical liquid-fueled rocket would have thousands. By consolidating parts and optimizing them for 3D printing, Ellis says Relativity will be able to go from raw materials to the launch pad in just 60 days—in theory, anyway. Relativity hasn’t yet assembled a full Terran-1 and doesn’t expect the rocket to fly until 2021 at the earliest.
“A full-scale test will be the biggest milestone for them to prove this new technology,” says Shagun Sachdeva, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, a space consultancy. Then the company can start to address the other questions about its approach, such as whether there’s a need for a new rocket to pop into existence every 60 days.
Relativity thinks it will find its niche. Fully assembled, Terran-1 will stand about 100 feet tall, and be capable of delivering satellites weighing up to 2,800 pounds to low Earth orbit. That puts it above small satellite launchers like Rocket Lab’s Electron but well under the payload capacity of massive rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Ellis says it will be particularly well-suited to carrying medium-sized satellites.
Relativity isn’t the only rocket company using 3D printing—SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and others also use it to print select parts. But Ellis thinks the space industry needs to think bigger. In the long term, Ellis sees 3D-printed rockets as the key to transporting critical infrastructure to and from the surface of Mars. These rockets could, for example, be used to loft science experiments into orbit around Mars or return samples to Earth.
Ellis, 29, and his cofounder, 26-year-old Jordan Noone, have been building rockets since college, where they worked on the University of Southern California’s prestigious rocketry team before taking jobs at Blue Origin and SpaceX. At Blue Origin, Ellis helped set up the company’s additive manufacturing program. While there, he began to envision a robotic rocket factory that barely needs a human’s hand.
First, though, he needed to get some giant 3D printers. At the heart of Relativity’s robotic rocket factory is Stargate, which Ellis claims is the largest metal 3D printer in the world. The first version of Stargate is about 15 feet tall and consists of three robotic arms. The arms are used to weld metal, monitor the printer’s progress, and correct for defects.
To print a large component, such as a fuel tank or rocket body, the printer feeds miles of a thin, custom-made aluminum alloy wire along the length of an arm to its tip, where a plasma arc melts the metal. The arm then deposits the molten metal in thin layers, orchestrating its movements according to patterns programmed in the machine’s software. Meanwhile, the printer head at the tip of the arm blows out a non