Relativity Space to Launch Satellite 'Tugs' on 3D-Printed Rocket

An illustration of Relativity Space's Terran 1 rocket launching into space.
An illustration of Relativity Space's Terran 1 rocket launching into space. (Image credit: Relativity Space)

Relativity Space, a company that builds and lofts 3D-printed rockets, will launch a half-dozen missions for the in-orbit shuttle service company Momentus beginning in 2021. 

Relativity Space unveiled the launch service agreement on Sept. 11 at the 2019 World Satellite Business Week in Paris. According to statements from both companies, the agreement calls for a first Momentus launch in 2021 using Relativity's Terran 1 rocket, with options for five more flights.

According to the agreement, Relativity's Terran 1 rocket — "the world's first and only entirely 3D-printed rocket," according to company officials — would carry Momentus' Vigoride service vehicle into space. That vehicle is designed to ferry small and medium-sized satellites from low Earth orbit (LEO) into their final geosynchronous orbit around Earth using a water plasma propulsion system. This technology could provide more flexibility for satellites launching on ride-share missions, because otherwise, satellites that launch together have to enter similar orbits.

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"Relativity's advances in rocket manufacturing and launch combined with our proprietary orbital shuttle capabilities opens [sic] new opportunities for microsatellite revolution beyond low Earth orbit," Momentus CEO Mikhail Kokorich said in a statement.

According to the Momentus website, Vigoride can move satellites from below the orbit of the space station, about 220 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth, all the way up to an altitude of 1,243 miles (2,000 km). 

"With Momentus' innovations ... we look forward to working together to expand Terran 1's flexibility and offering beyond LEO, offering small and medium satellite launch opportunities with industry-defining lead time, flexibility and cost," Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis said in the statement. "This partnership will enable us to build the space economy faster and accelerate the future of humanity in space."

Relativity Space is positioning itself to be an important player in the future of spaceflight. The company has agreements with NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for a nine-year lease on a 220,000-square-foot (20,438 square meters) factory and exclusive use of the 25-acre (10 hectares) E4 Test Complex at the NASA facility. Relativity Space's's expanding workforce includes a former executive at SpaceX and Virgin Orbit. The startup also has contracts with Thai startup mu Space and Canadian satellite communications company Telesat. 

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Doris Elin Urrutia
Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.