WASHINGTON — Rocket engine startup Ursa Major is targeting the solid rocket motors market, the company announced Nov. 20. 

CEO Joe Laurienti said the company sees an opportunity to use additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3D printing,  to disrupt an industry constrained by outdated processes. 

The production of solid rocket motors in the United States is “plagued by a broken supply chain and an overextended industrial base,” Laurienti said. “Most folks weren’t really paying attention to the industrial base around this until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Solid rocket motors use solid propellants rather than liquid fuels, and are most widely used in military weapon systems like missiles and rockets. 

Northrop Grumman and L3Harris’ Aerojet Rocketdyne are the nation’s primary suppliers of solid rocket motors. 

The conflict in Ukraine has exposed cracks in the U.S. industrial base, which has struggled to meet surging demand for critical munitions like the Javelin and Stinger missile systems that depend on solid rocket motors. Experts say replacing depleted stocks can take years under current production rates.  

Additively manufactured small motor cases and components for tactical missiles. Credit: Ursa Major

Laurienti said traditional solid rocket motor providers rely on production lines that are expensive to retool and ramp up, and contends that 3D printing techniques — which Ursa Major adopted to build liquid rocket engines — can bring agility to solid propulsion manufacturing.  

The company intends to develop motors from 2 to 22.5 inches in diameter, sizes that cover many in-demand tactical weapon systems. It recently tested a six-inch pathfinder prototype, Laurienti said. 

Ursa Major manufactures liquid engines for small rockets in Berthoud, Colorado, and has a 3D printing lab in Youngstown, Ohio.

Laurienti said the company has an undisclosed U.S. government customer for its solid rocket motors. The goal is to supply motors to the Department of Defense, he said, and also to partner with other manufacturers.

New suppliers of solid rockets

Ursa Major is one of at least three startups that are attempting to break into the solid rocket motors business despite the longstanding dominance of incumbents Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne. 

Seven-year-old X-Bow Systems specializes in additive manufacturing of solid rocket propellant, and plans to build a production facility in Luling, Texas. The company recently announced Lockheed Martin Ventures as one of its investors.

Another new entrant, Adranos, manufactures tactical solid rocket motors in coastal Mississippi and was recently acquired by the defense contractor Anduril.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...