Are we seeing the dawn of a Chinese version of Relativity Space? For some context, the latter is a launch company based in California which is known to exploit additive manufacturing (aka 3D Printing) to build its rockets. While 3D Printing is now more and more common practice for making rocket parts, especially for complex rocket engine parts, Relativity Space is unique in the sense that they plan to fully 3D print their rockets ( ~95%).
In China, launch companies that are all-in on 3D Printing like Relativity Space are very rare - but they exist: SpaceTai (太瀚航天), a Chinese launch company founded in March 2021, indeed plans to 3D print ~90% of its rockets. Last week, it announced its plans to design 2 rockets: the Feitian,
a 2-stage medium-lift rocket (putting 4 tons into LEO), and the Feitian X
, a heavy lift rocket putting 15 tons into LEO. Both rockets would naturally be reusable, performing VTVL.
At the core of any 3D printing rocket company is the mastery and the design of sophisticated 3D printing machines that are able to satisfy spaceflight requirements, as well as the according software. SpaceTai does have a 3D printer (the Xingchen S480), and has created a 3D printing rocket parts production line in Xi’an. They are also designing the Xingkong W450, which will be able to print pieces that are 4.5m x 4m. Although such capabilities may be below Relativity Space’s Stargate printer, it is still a good starting point to 3D print rocket bodies.
SpaceTai is aiming for a maiden launch in 2024, which is probably a bit (too) ambitious when we look at the time that Relativity Space has taken to do the same. Lastly, in terms of pricing, SpaceTai has said that each rocket should cost 10 million RMB, or roughly 1.5 million USD, for a rocket that puts 4t into LEO – which seems very cheap (375$/kg) and is merely a theoretical figure. We will keep an eye on the developments of this company, and in the meantime, you can check our weekly episode for a more in-depth analysis.