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Rocket Lab Gives First Look at Plans for Bigger, Reusable Neutron Rocket as It Takes on SpaceX

Rocket Lab
  • Rocket Lab revealed more about the Neutron rocket it is developing.
  • Neutron is targeting a maximum payload capacity of 15,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which puts it in competition with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket that can lift up to 22,800 kilograms to the same orbit.

Rocket Lab on Thursday revealed more about the larger, more powerful Neutron rocket it is developing.

"This is Neutron. It is an absolute beast," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a webcast presentation.

Neutron is designed to be 131 feet tall and 23 feet in diameter, and it's targeting a maximum payload capacity of 15,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. For reusable launches, Neutron will be able to carry up to 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. These are the first details given about the new rocket since the company announced it announced plans for it earlier in the year.

Beck, in an interview with CNBC on Thursday, said that Rocket Lab is still targeting to get Neutron on the launchpad by 2024, and hopes to launch a commercial customer on the rocket by 2025.

The launch marketplace is divided into three sections: small, medium and heavy lift. Neutron will target that middle section, while Rocket Lab's existing Electron rocket fits in the small segment.

While SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket can lift up to 22,800 kilograms to low Earth orbit, Neutron will compete to launch many of the same spacecraft that Elon Musk's company is currently delivering to space.

Beck declined to comment on the price tag of a Neutron launch, but said the rocket "would be a pointless exercise" if Rocket Lab "didn't think that we would be very cost competitive with with anything that's currently in the market or or being proposed." For comparison, Rocket Lab's small Electron rocket goes for about $7 million per launch, Firefly's medium-sized Alpha rocket goes for $15 million per launch, and SpaceX's Falcon 9 is advertised at $62 million per launch.

Neutron's design

Rocket Lab

Similar to the Falcon 9, the first stage of Neutron is reusable — but that's where most of the similarities end. While SpaceX occasionally lands its Falcon 9 boosters back near the launch site but typically lands on a drone ship in the ocean, Neutron is designed to return to the launch site for all its reusable missions.

Beck did not rule out "ever landing on a drone ship," noting that there are "a bunch of use cases were landing on a drone is advantageous," but emphasized that returning to the launch site is "the most cost effective" approach.

"I would never say never to anything anymore," Beck said, after earlier this year eating a physical hat after having said that Electron would not be reusable.

Beck described Neutron as "a very fat vehicle," which he said gives it "a big ballistic coefficient" and makes it ideal for launching, landing, and launching again.

"If you've got something that's fat in diameter and lightweight, it decelerates really, really quickly. So you [reduce] the thermal loads and [the amount of] propellant requirements to deal with those thermal loads on a return to launch site trajectory," Beck said.

Instead of landing legs that unfold, Neutron will have a "static base" with no mechanisms in place. The rocket will have "shock absorbers" built into that base for the impact of landing, Beck said.

Rocket Lab is also developing a new engine for Neutron called Archimedes. Beck touted Archimedes' design as "very simple," with "all the things you want when you have to build an engine that can be reused over and over again."

Seven Archimedes engines power Neutron's first stage to space, with an eighth one propelling the upper stage once in orbit.

"Archimedes will breathe its first fire next year," Beck said.

Another unique feature of the Neutron's design is the fairing, or nosecone. Nicknamed the "Hungry Hippo fairing," the company designed it to stay connected to the rocket's body, rather than disconnect and fall back into the atmosphere as current rockets do.

Rocket Lab

Neutron's fairing will open, deploy the upper stage, then close for the return trip to land.

"The answer is not throwing away the fairings where you're trying to catch them – the best way is to never get rid of them in the first place," Beck said.

The only part of Neutron that is not reusable is the upper stage, which deploys from within the rocket once in space. Its design enables it to be very lightweight, Beck emphasized, with a "super thin structure."

"That stage is hung inside the fairing, so there is no thermal aero load, there is no bucking load, there is no structural load – it's just literally hung like a balloon underneath the payload," Beck said.

Designed for 24-hour turnaround

Rocket Lab

Neutron is designed to be turned around from landing to another launch within 24 hours.

"Not because I actually want to cycle the vehicle in 24 hours, but because that drives all of the requirements that we want in a positive direction," Beck said.

Realistically, Rocket Lab will start off with a "conservative" launch rate, Beck said, like the company did with Electron.

But the tight turnaround time requirement for the design is a cost-driven decision, as Beck emphasized that "the cost of components is not the driving factor" in the rocket business, but it's instead the operational costs.

"If it takes three weeks or a month to refurbish the vehicle, that's a month worth of time that people have got to be working on it," Beck said.

More Neutron announcements to come

Rocket Lab has yet to announce the location of the Neutron production facility, but the company previously said it will be near NASA's Wallops flight facility in Virginia where it plans to launch the rocket. Beck said the company is "running a very competitive process" for the manufacturing plant and is "close to nailing that down."

One crucial aspect of the Neutron facility is that it needs to be close to the launch site, as Beck said the company will not flip it horizontal to ship it to a location.

"It starts off out of the factory vertical and it spends it's whole life vertical," Beck said.

That furthers Rocket Lab's reusability goals, as it eliminates the need for infrastructure at the launchpad such as a strong back to hold the rocket vertical before launch.

Rocket Lab is also designing Neutron within the requirements necessary to launch a spacecraft that carries people. While the company is "focusing on delivering cargo at this point in time," Beck said that the company' is "making sure we don't preclude ourselves" from using Neutron to launch astronauts at some point.

"I've eaten enough hats now," Beck said, laughing.

For now, Rocket Lab is not internally developing a crew capsule, with Beck emphasizing that he believes the market for flying astronauts needs to grow further.

"We need to see more growth on the customer side, as there's really one customer – that's NASA – and they're well served," Beck said.

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