Relativity Seeks to Disrupt Smallsat Launch Industry

A startup named Relativity has conducted more than six dozen test firings of a new liquid oxygen/liquid methane rocket engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, CEO Tim Ellis told a Senate subcommittee last week.

“Relativity is a stealth-mode startup re-imagining the way orbital rockets are built and flown,” said Ellis, who co-founded the company. “We are creating a new launch service for orbital payloads enabled by never-seen-before technologies, allowing for a high degree of launch schedule certainty at significantly reduced cost.”

The Los Angeles-company aims to build small satellite boosters with “zero human labor” to bring down launch costs.

Relativity has been in stealth mode since it was founded in December 2015. Last week CEO Tim Ellis provided some details about the company when he testified with other industry officials before the Senate Subcommittee on Space.

Ellis said he and co-founder Jordan Noone met seven years ago while students at the University of Southern California in the Rocket Propulsion Laboratory. After stints at Blue Origin and SpaceX, the pair founded Relativity.

In January 2016, the company entered a three-month program run by Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based startup accelerator. Documents filed with Securities and Exchange Commission indicate the company has raised $9.5 million from investors.

“In February 2016, Relativity was contacted by the DoD accelerator MD5 to be one of their pilot companies. MD5 is a public-private partnership between the DoD, NYU, and other top research universities that accelerates startups by helping provide and facilitate access to government infrastructure,” Ellis told the committee. “As a result, Relativity signed a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA Stennis Space Center in mid-2016 for an extensive engine test campaign on an existing test stand.”

Ellis said there is a lack of accessible West Coast launch sites for launches into polar and sun-synchronous orbits is causing satellite owners to launch from Russia, India and Europe.

“One potential near-term option is to help create a small launch vehicle pad similar in design to KSC’s 39C at Vandenberg Airforce Base in California, or another suitable West coast location,” Ellis said.

Relativity is also exploring the development of off-shore launch platforms that would be smaller than the modified oil rig used by Sea Launch for Zenit boosters. The platforms would be “more akin to the reverse of the drone ships and barges SpaceX and Blue Origin have pioneered for landing recovered boost stages,” he said.

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  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Speaking of LC39C, I never understood it. Who asked for it? Does it see frequent use? Wikipedia has a picture of a Scout launching from it, but…

  • TheKirkster

    Another small-sat launcher company, that makes four of them I know of that are active (and a fifth, Firefly Aerospace, went out of business last year): Rocket Lab, Vector Space, Virgin Orbit, and now Relativity. It seems unlikely they’ll all survive, unless there’s a much larger market for small-sat launches than it seems…

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Still not happy with the obvious inefficiency of small sat launchers. I think SpaceX, or poss BO, could all but throttle the small sat launch market with FH/BFR/NG, in combination with and SEP tugs refuelled on orbit.

  • passinglurker

    There’s a lot more than that but most seem less than credible. And the ones that are credible are either government, mega corp, or billionaire backed just like with larger launch vehicles. Unless you have some capital sitting around these little investment seekers aren’t worth paying attention to until they make orbit.

  • Gunter Krebs

    The Scout has nothing to do with LC-39C (i have removed this image in Wikipedia). If i understand correctly, it was built on speculation, that users may come, if the multi-user launch pad is there. Until now, no launches have taken place.

  • duheagle

    Smallsat launch demand is rising very briskly, actually. Look at Doug’s post two notches down from this one. It reports on a new study that predicts 16 times the total mass of 500 kg. or smaller smallsats will launch over the next decade than launched in the last ten years. The total value of the sats and their launches is predicted to be north of $30 billion.

    It is not entirely impossible, by any means, that all the companies you named will survive and thrive. Maybe even the definitely dodgy ARCA if they can actually build their vehicle.

    Oh yeah, I guess you can add ARCA to your list, though they are admittedly a long-shot.

  • duheagle

    ARCA certainly has credibility problems.

    But I don’t see any serious ones for Vector, Rocket Lab or Virgin Orbit. I think it all but certain that the first Virgin vehicle to cross the Karman Line is going to be LauncherOne, not SpaceShipTwo. This new Relativity outfit has some big claims to actualize, but it seems to have solid underpinnings. I’m not inclined to pre-emptively throw any shade.

    I’m also not aware of any billionaires, mega-corps or governments behind any smallsat launcher company except Virgin Orbit. NASA has agreed to buy services from one or two of them once they actually go into service, but there’s no money in the here and now from that.

    Because of U.S. nanny-state investment regulations, investing in these guys is strictly reserved for the people who already have plenty of money, not we Ordinary Joe hoi polloi types.

    All those regulations, of course, come courtesy of the Democratic Party, The Friend of the People and Champion of the Common Man.

  • duheagle

    A bulldozer can move a lot of dirt, but it’s not very well-adapted to, say, digging post holes.

    Big rockets are good for initial gang deployments of big constellations. They’re much less efficient for smaller constellations that need as many different orbits as the more populous ones. They’re complete non-starters for putting up “spackle-sats” to replace infant mortality and in-service failures in any size constellation.

    Even if Vector, Rocket Lab, Relativity and Virgin Orbit only get 10% of the projected $14.5 billion in smallsat launch revenues over the next decade, that’s still close to a billion and a half bucks. Virgin Orbit might wind up with the largest share of this pie – or it might not. But even if it does, there will be plenty left on which the others may live large based on their humble origins and rather less grand expectations.

    And the big boys aren’t the only ones who can play the SEP tug game.

  • duheagle

    I don’t think it has any committed users yet, but that will probably change. I don’t know what Kennedy management is asking for its use or on what basis. There is still a considerable inventory of weed-grown disused pads just over the fence at Canaveral. Some of the smaller of these might be more attractive as fixer-uppers to new smallsat launch outfits than a spandy-new pad at Kennedy. But I think it’s too early to call LC-39C a white elephant. If it’s still unused in two more years, I’d be a lot more inclined to call it an “oops.”

  • passinglurker

    Could have sworn rocket lab had a billionaire… But either way they’ve actually launched full scale hardware with at least the intent to orbit.

    Virgin and RL are as far as credible small lv’s go state side. As for government backing I know that at least japan is backing a small sat launcher (converted from an existing sounding rocket) but like RL at least they’ve launched with the intent to orbit even if they failed. Most of these start ups do sub scale and low altitude model rocket launches and call them tests like vector and that one that launched from a weather balloon.

    As for the politics stringing the common man along into casually investing in one form or another was a contributing factor to some pretty big economic crisis’s like the great depression or the houseing market collapse so… Maybe some things can be optimized in this modern day and age, but at the end of the day I don’t think I’ll lose sleep over some red tape

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “They’re much less efficient for smaller constellations that need as many different orbits as the more populous ones.”
    What exactly do you mean by “efficient”?.

  • duheagle

    Vector is basically Garvey plus a decent, but not extravagant, amount of money. Garvey did a lot of quite impressive stuff for a long time on literal nickels and dimes. Now that there’s some actual money on hand, the Vector vehicles are scale-ups using Garvey stuff that are within the span of the somewhat greater financial resources now available. Even now, it’s not exactly as though Garvey is sitting on a pile more than a fraction the size of what Elon Musk had in-hand when he started his own modest little smallsat launcher firm 15 years ago.

    If Vector doesn’t launch again by year’s end then I’ll agree there may be something funny going on. In the meantime, they’re quite new as a greater-than-serious-hobby-level rocket outfit and I’m inclined to cut them a bit of slack. SpaceX hadn’t launched even a model rocket a year after it formed up.

    Oh yeah – you have no idea what caused either the Great Depression or the housing market collapse.

  • duheagle

    I’m talking about economic efficiency, though physics certainly plays a role too. A rocket is most economically efficient placing a maximum payload mass into a single orbital altitude and inclination.

    For big constellations that include a lot of birds in each of their many orbital inclinations and/or altitudes, big rockets are a good match.

    But plane change maneuvers are expensive in terms of delta-V, hence of upper stage propellant. A rocket that can handily put, say two dozen smallsats in a single orbit of a given inclination would not likely have sufficient 2nd stage propellant to put those same 24 birds, six at a time, into four different orbital inclinations even at a common orbital altitude.

    A smaller, and much cheaper, vehicle would be a better choice with which to make multiple launches of smaller loads of sats, each mission going to a single orbit of a particular inclination. Thus, for deployments of small constellations, smaller launch vehicles might be a better pick even if more of them are required to get the job done.

    Still smaller and even cheaper vehicles would be most economically efficient as a way of doing what I call “spackle-sat” launches – putting up individual birds to “fill holes” – replacing those that have died on-orbit for any size constellation.

  • passinglurker

    I said contributing factor not the be all end all cause no one comes here for discourses on economic history.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The Sea Launch platform with a smaller control ship could be a great way to boot-strap the way to off shore launching. Vandenberg is a military reservation, so there is miles of red tape to unravel to launch there and smaller companies that lack dedicated staff with experience in working with mess may find it too expensive in terms of man hours. I did some work on launching from the Cape with a supervisor that has the experience and it was still a challenge. They would ask how much MMH we would have on board the craft and when we replied “none”, the answer was unacceptable. “Everybody uses MMH so we have to know how much you are using.” That’s just one example of developing technology different from everybody else or flying a different mission. They don’t get it and their forms don’t allow for it.

    A barge is much more lively on the sea and launching from one may be much harder than landing one one. The Sea Launch platform appears much more stable. This is massively important for tight launch windows.