Relativity launches first Terran 1

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WASHINGTON — Relativity Space’s first Terran 1 rocket successfully got off the launch pad March 22 but failed to reach orbit because of an upper stage malfunction.

The Terran 1 rocket lifted off at 11:25 p.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a test flight dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun” by the company. Liftoff was delayed by nearly 90 minutes because of upper-level winds as well as a boat that strayed into restricted waters.

The rocket’s first stage, powered by nine Aeon 1 methane-fueled engines, appeared to operate as planned, passing through the region of maximum dynamic pressure known as “Max-Q” 80 seconds after liftoff. Getting through Max-Q was a major goal for this launch to demonstrate the integrity of the rocket’s 3D-printed structure.

Stage separation took place 2 minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, and the rocket’s single Aeon Vacuum upper stage engine ignited. However, footage from a camera on the stage showed the plume flickering seconds after ignition, and telemetry on the company’s webcast of the launch indicated the vehicle was slowing. Mission control declared an anomaly with the upper stage five minutes after liftoff, but didn’t immediately disclose additional details about the failure.

Despite failing to reach orbit, the company was pleased with the performance of the earlier phases of flight. Before the launch the company emphasized that simply getting through Max-Q would be a major milestone. “This will essentially prove the viability of using additive manufacturing tech to produce products that fly,” wrote Tim Ellis, chief executive and co-founder of Relativity, in a series of tweets before the first launch attempt. The rocket did not carry a satellite payload, only a small 3D-printed component from the company’s first printer.

“Although we didn’t reach orbit, we significantly exceeded our key objectives for this first launch, and that objective was to gather data at Max-Q, one of the most demanding phases of flight, and achieve stage separation,” said Arwa Tizani Kelly, technical program manager for test and launch at Relativity, during the webcast. “Today’s flight data will be invaluable to our team as we look to further improve our rockets, including Terran R.”

Terran R is a much larger, fully reusable launch vehicle that Relativity is developing for a first launch as soon as 2024. Terran 1, which can place up to 1,250 kilograms into orbit, is a technology pathfinder for Terran R, with a payload capacity of about 20,000 kilograms.

Relativity scrubbed its first Terran 1 launch attempt March 8 because of a problem with ground systems that were unable to get liquid oxygen propellant in the rocket’s upper stage to the right temperature. The company tried again three days later only to abort two countdowns during a three-hour window, one because of a sensor reading just 0.5 seconds before liftoff and the other because of a drop in fuel pressure in the upper stage at T-45 seconds.

The company was able to correct both problems but had to work around airspace limitations on the Eastern Range during the busy spring break travel season. Moving from an afternoon launch window, used for the first two launch attempts, to one at night reduced airspace conflicts.

Relativity did not announce plans before the launch when, or even if, they would perform another Terran 1 launch. Before the first launch attempt, Ellis suggested the company might skip ahead to Terran R even if the launch failed, depending on the feedback the company got from its customers. “Do they want us to continue down the path of producing more Terran 1’s to solve for those issues on this vehicle? Or, would like us to solve the remaining rocket science problems on the vehicle they are actually most interested in, Terran R?”

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