- A Brooklyn startup called Launcher has made its rocket engine’s entire combustion chamber in one 3D print.
- Launcher received $1.5m in Air Force funding during a call for launch technology—the Air Force is considering rockets as a way to transport cargo on Earth.
- Large 3D printers are costly, but Launcher claims this single piece technology still reduces their cost.
A rocket startup called Launcher has made the largest liquid-fuel combustion chamber ever 3D printed in a single piece, requiring a custom-made 3D printing setup. The chamber is part of Launcher’s all-3D-printed rocket engine, designed to lower cost barriers for launching private small satellites into low Earth orbit.
Launcher says one-piece manufacture lowers the cost of its part, compared with those printed in pieces and joined. To do this, the Brooklyn-based startup teamed with 3D printer companies to build a space large enough for its entire copper-alloy part, which itself is a huge investment.
In 2015, Harvard Business Review explained that the cost of using 3D printers scales with how much interior space they have: “[P]rinting costs per part are highly sensitive to the utilization of the ‘build room,’ the three-dimensional area inside the 3D printer where the laser fuses the metal or plastic powder. Printing just one part raises unit cost considerably.”
This special printer may be used to print other parts as well, but if it’s not utilized fully and maximized, it could become an albatross. Launcher says its entire 3D-printed engine is the most efficient in its sector of the private space launch market, and its rocket purports to carry more payload than any other rocket nearly its size. The entire Voyager spacecraft weighed about 1,800 pounds at launch.
Satellites range from the size of a city bus to almost as small as a Rubik’s cube, but “small” satellites like the ones Launcher plans to put in orbit are 1,100 pounds or less. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s flagship satellites are 6,000 pounds, but it’s moved to add a variety of smaller models for different purposes in recent years. Some of these are tiny and intended only to stay in orbit temporarily.
Launcher won $1.5 million in funding grants at a recent Air Force Pitch Day focusing not just on space technology, but on launcher setups in particular. The relationship between private, for-profit spaceflight and government resources has grown murkier by the year, especially as funding for NASA and other space initiatives has stagnated. NASA’s budget is now the lowest percentage of the total budget that it’s been since before the Mercury missions. Launcher and other private spaceflight companies launch from facilities like Kennedy Space Center.
The Union for Concerned Scientists maintains a database of the satellites in orbit. As of March 2019, there were 1,338 satellites in low Earth orbit, out of a total of just over 2,000 satellites in all orbits. The U.S. has 901 satellites, over 500 of which are commercial—more than the number of civil, government, and military satellites combined.
There’s an interesting silver lining to the decentralization of spaceflight: Very few countries have launch facilities, but dozens more countries have satellites in orbit today than in decades past. Treating launchpads as facilities that can be rented by private companies or shared to enrich diplomatic relationships can bring positive attention to spaceflight even within NASA’s tiny current budget.
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