Rocket engines are tricky pieces of hardware to build, but 3D printing them may be the next big thing. Relativity certainly thinks so and has raised around $1 billion – now Launcher is ready to take your money too, after demonstrating the full power of its 3D-printed E-2 engine.
Although they are still a long way from going into orbit, a successful test like this is a big step towards a working launch vehicle. The lightweight launcher will be small and highly efficient, aiming for a low cost to orbit and a fast turnaround time. But of course, you need working engines first.
Last week saw the E-2’s first full-scale thrust test, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The test demonstrated approximately 22,046 foot-pounds of thrust (approximately 10 metric tons) using LOX/kerosene at 100 bar combustion pressure.
That’s what they were aiming for in the datasheets and toward other metrics, and they achieved it “without the material melting,” said founder and CEO Max Haot. This is considered a suboptimal condition and there are many opportunities for it to occur in these tests. But it ran for four 10-second stretches and was still in “perfect condition” afterwards, showing its potential for reuse.
The combustion chamber is fully 3D printed in copper alloy rather than milled or cast like traditional ones. Things have come a long way since the MakerBot; Launcher is working with AMCM to make the part on an M4K printer, and the injector was made on a Velo3D Sapphire.
This is just one step of many to come for the engine; a turbopump with the necessary pressure 3x of the nominal combustion pressure is tested in parallel. They will be integrated after being tested individually, and the resulting integrated engine will then begin its own testing phase.
As for reuse, Launcher Light will be expendable (if cheap) – “But we plan to upgrade to a nine-engine version that will have a reusable first stage,” Haot said. “The first step, however, is to prove that we can deliver 150 kg of payload into orbit with an expendable Launcher Light.”
It should be a big 2022 for Launcher: the Light’s tanks and fairing should be visible by the end of the year, perhaps even a largely assembled vehicle. And the company’s other big project, Orbiter, will head to space for in-orbit testing in October aboard a Falcon 9 carpool.
You can watch the test below: