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.