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Why the upcoming SpaceX Starship launch matters to AM

Besides its largely 3D printed engines, all space exploration is highly reliant on AM to get to other planets and stay there

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SpaceX is targeting as soon as Monday, April 17 at 8:00 a.m. CT for the first flight test of a fully integrated Starship and Super Heavy rocket from Starbase in Texas.

Starship is a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond. With a test such as this, success is measured by how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances the development of Starship.

SpaceX Starship launch matters to AM for its 3D printed engines, but all space exploration is reliant on AM to get to other planets and stay Why is this directly relevant to the AM community? The genuine interest from most AM users is driven by the unprecedented engineering and advanced manufacturing feat that Starship represents. In addition, SpaceX has been, is and will increasingly continue to be a major user of AM, with investments in 3D printer OEM Velo3D and many SpaceX employees regularly reading this website. But the main reason why it’s so relevant is that Starship’s mission to open access to space is going to be a huge driver of AM use.

That’s why, incidentally, Redwire – a company specializing in manufacturing systems for space exploration – including several different 3D printers – is doing so well. AM is fundamental for space exploration in three ways. One is to make it easier to get to orbit by enabling the construction of lighter and more efficient propulsion systems. Current-gen rocket engines as well as next gene propulsion systems such as the hypersonic scramjets feature such intricate geomtries in order to optimize power output that they can only be produced by AM

The second area that AM plays a key role in will be for long term, deep space mission. Here it will be necessary to be able to use on-board 3D printers to produce spare parts (for both spaceships and humans). That’s because carrying every possible necessary replacement parts would be entirely unfeasible, while carrying a limited amount of material and 3D models of every possible spare part is several orders of magnitude more efficient.

SpaceX Starship launch matters to AM for its 3D printed engines, but all space exploration is reliant on AM to get to other planets and stay

The final key role of AM in space exploration is the construction of interplanetary habitats. It is impossible to imagine carrying crews of astronauts dedicated to assembling living structures. So it will be necessary to bring 3D printers and use them to build using locally sourced materials. If Starships will be successful in taking humans to the Moon and Mars, future missions will need to bring many 3D printers along.

To date, the SpaceX team has completed multiple sub-orbital flight tests of Starship’s upper stage from Starbase, successfully demonstrating an unprecedented approach to controlled flight. These flight tests helped validate the vehicle’s design, proving Starship can fly through the subsonic phase of entry before re-lighting its engines and flipping itself to a vertical configuration for landing.

SpaceX Starship launch matters to AM for its 3D printed engines, but all space exploration is reliant on AM to get to other planets and stay

In addition to the testing of Starship’s upper stage, the team has conducted numerous tests of the Super Heavy rocket, which include the increasingly complex static fires that led to a full-duration 31 Raptor engine test – the largest number of simultaneous rocket engine ignitions in history. The team has also constructed the world’s tallest rocket launch and catch tower. At 146 meters, or nearly 500 feet tall, the launch and catch tower is designed to support vehicle integration, launch, and catch of the Super Heavy rocket booster. For the first flight test, the team will not attempt a vertical landing of Starship or a catch of the Super Heavy booster.

A live webcast of the flight test will begin ~45 minutes before liftoff. As is the case with all developmental testing, this schedule is dynamic and likely to change, so be sure to stay tuned to our social media channels for updates.

More on Starship

Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and Earth, Lunar, or Martian landing sites. The uncrewed Starship allows for the transport of satellites, large observatories, cargo, refueling tanks or other unmanned assets.

SpaceX was founded with the goal of making life multi-planetary. The Starship program is realizing this goal with the crew configuration of Starship. Drawing on experience from the development of Dragon for the Commercial Crew Program, the Starship crew configuration can transport up to 100 people from Earth into LEO and onto the Moon and Mars. The crew configuration of Starship includes private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery.

Fully-reusable Starship and Super Heavy systems are expected to allow for space-based activities that have not been possible since the retirement of the Space Shuttle and Space Transportation System or have never been possible before. With a fully reusable Starship, satellites can be captured and repaired in orbit, returned to Earth, or transferred to a new operational orbit.

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