Relativity to launch Impulse Space’s Mars Lander as early as 2024

by Thomas Burghardt

Impulse Space has announced that the company will launch the first commercial payload to Mars on board Relativity Space’s Terran R rocket. Under the new partnership, Relativity will launch Impulse’s Mars Cruise Vehicle and Mars Lander from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of an exclusive agreement until 2029.

The earliest anticipated launch window occurs between 2024 and 2025 and would make use of Relativity’s fully reusable Terran R rocket launching from Space Launch Complex 16 (SLC-16) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Terran R is planned to complete the trans-Mars injection burn to place the cruise vehicle, carrying the lander, on a trajectory toward Mars. The cruise vehicle will then separate from the lander that, protected by an aeroshell, will enter the Martian atmosphere and attempt to propulsively land on the surface of the red planet.

Landing a spacecraft on Mars has been attempted by several international space programs, and many attempts have failed. Never before has it been attempted without the involvement of a government space agency, although it is possible that the Impulse lander could carry a government research payload from NASA or another customer.

The first mission intending to land on Mars was Sputnik 24 in 1962 (also known as Mars 2MV-3-1), a Soviet mission that failed to depart low Earth orbit due to an upper stage failure on its Molniya rocket. Another Soviet mission, Mars 2, unsuccessfully landed on Mars in 1971.

The first successful landing was the Mars 3 mission, less than a week after Mars 2. The lander’s mission was cut short, with communications failing less than two minutes after landing, but the spacecraft was the first to successfully soft land on Mars.

All told, the overall success rate of missions that have lifted off from Earth with the intent to land on Mars is currently 58%. Excluding launch failures, missions that have attempted to land on the red planet have succeeded only 65% of the time. American missions have a 90% success rate, with the only failure being the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999.

The Impulse Space lander will include payload capacity intended to support the research and development required for future crewed missions to Mars. This comes as no surprise based on the engineer that founded the company: founding SpaceX member Tom Mueller.

Render of an Impulse Space vehicle in Earth orbit. (Credit: Impulse Space)

Mueller created the propulsion team at SpaceX, leading the development of the Merlin engine used on the Falcon rocket family and creating the division of the company that has developed the Draco, SuperDraco, and Raptor engines. After leaving SpaceX, Mueller founded Impulse Space to develop in-space transportation services for the inner solar system, including orbital transport vehicles and, now, a Mars lander.

“This is a major milestone for both Impulse and Relativity, as well as the entire space industry,” said Mueller. “One of the most challenging aspects of landing on Mars is the ‘glide stage,’ which involves an aeroshell to encapsulate the lander for the survival of Mars entry. With the power of our combined teams, experience and passion, I am confident this historic mission will be just one of many to come.”

Enabling interplanetary transport is a shared goal of Impulse and Relativity. Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Relativity, previously worked at Blue Origin and has stated interplanetary transport as a goal for the company.

“We believe building a multiplanetary future on Mars is only possible if we inspire dozens to hundreds of companies to work toward a singular goal,” said Ellis. “This is a monumental challenge, but one that successfully achieved will expand the possibilities for human experience in our lifetime across two planets.”

Relativity is developing the Terran rocket family, consisting of Terran 1 and Terran R. Both vehicles are entirely 3D printed, which aligns with future needs of constructing components of vehicles and other systems on Mars.

Relativity’s first rocket, Terran 1, is on track for its first launch this year, with the first vehicle completing a spin-start test on its Cape Canaveral launch pad on July 18. Terran 1 is an expendable small launch vehicle capable of delivering 1,250 kg to low Earth orbit.

The vehicle that will launch the Impulse Mars mission is the successor to Terran 1, named Terran R. While also 3D printed and planned to launch from SLC-16 in Florida, Terran R will be fully reusable, and offer over 20,000 kg to low Earth orbit as well as flights to the moon and Mars.

Five customers have signed contracts for Terran R launches, including satellite internet provider OneWeb. This deal comes after OneWeb’s launch plans for Russian Soyuz rockets were terminated due to the war in Ukraine, and the company has partnered with not only Relativity but also SpaceX and New Space India Limited, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, for future launches.

Terran R is the second and most recently announced fully reusable launch vehicle, behind SpaceX’s Starship launch system. And, like, Starship, Terran R is intended to serve a variety of missions, from OneWeb in Earth orbit to Impulse Space’s Mars mission.

Side-by-side comparison of Terran 1 and Terran R. (Credit: Relativity Space)

“With the delivery capabilities of Terran R coupled with Impulse’s in-space transportation, we are bringing humanity one step closer to making Mars a reality,” said Ellis. “This is a historic, impactful partnership with Tom and the entire Impulse team through the collaboration of two low-cost commercial providers that will establish and expand our presence on Mars.”

Terran R’s first flight is slated for no earlier than 2024, the same year that the launch window for the Impulse Mars mission opens. While work on future Terran vehicles is ongoing, such as creating the fourth generation of Relativity’s Stargate metal 3D printer that offers a tenfold improvement in printing time, Ellis recently said the company is focused on flying Terran 1 first.

“Lots of progress. Will be even more rapid after Terran 1 launch where our focus is and should be, but we have teams in parallel right now maturing both.”

(Lead image: Render of Relativity Space’s Terran R rocket. Credit: Relativity Space)

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