Move Over, Electron: Rocket Lab Introduces Its New Neutron Rocket

Peter Beck announces an addition to the Rocket Lab family, with the Neutron rocket.

Private space launch company Rocket Lab revealed that it will go where it promised not to, both here on Earth and in space.

Peter Beck, CEO for the American aerospace company Rocket lab made the announcement on Monday, March 1st, stating that the company will enter the medium-lift-to-orbit market, with the development of the Neutron rocket.

This comes as the company also plans to go public and merge with special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Vector Acquisition Cooperation to become Rocket Lab USA Inc. The $4.1 billion dollar merger is expected to finalize by the end of the second quarter of 2021.

“Since day one, our talented Rocket Lab team has demonstrated stellar execution and a keen ability to seize growth opportunities,” says Beck during a announcement on the recent merger. “This milestone accelerates Rocket Lab’s ability to unlock the full potential of space through our launch and spacecraft platforms and catalyzes our ambition to create a new multi-billion-dollar business, vertical in space applications.”

Founded in 2006, Rocket Lab started with the launch of its small ?tea sounding rocket in 2009, before entering the orbital launch business with the first successful launch on its Electron rocket to low-Earth orbit (LEO) on the ‘Still Testing’ mission on January 21, 2018.

Electron is a two-stage, light-weight carbon composite rocket, complete with the first flight-ready electric pump-feed engine, known as the Rutherford. Standing at 17-meters (56-feet) tall, Electron can hoist small satellite payloads up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds) into LEO. With a quick turnaround, low-cost production of $7.5 million USD per launch, Rocket Lab touts a potential for a high annual launch cadence. To date, Rocket Lab has launched Electron 16 times to orbit from its Mahia Launch Complex One site based on New Zealand’s North Island. Rocket Lab also successfully recovered an Electron first stage booster via a parachute and helicopter recovery system during a drop test in early 2020, and later made the first successful water retrieval of a booster during Flight 16 ‘Return to Sender’ on November 20, 2020.

Mahia Launch Complex One. Credit: Rocket Lab.

The announcement of Neutron came as a surprise to many a space pundit. “There’s a lot of things at Rocket Lab that we said we’re going to do, that we’ve done,” said Beck during a recent video press release from the company. “…and a few things at Rocket lab that we said we’d never do, that we have also done. So I really think with this project, that it’s about time I finally ‘ate the hat.’”

…and ‘eating his hat’ is just what Beck did during the video announcement, while seated inside a large mock-up of the Neutron rocket payload faring. The two-stage Neutron is Rocket Lab’s answer for a launcher capable of hoisting the next generation of mega-constellation payloads, similar to SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s constellation of satellites into orbit.

Introducing: Neutron. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Standing at 40 meters (130 feet) tall, Neutron will carry an 8,000 kilogram (17,600 pound) payload. Rocket Lab plans to launch Neutron starting in 2024. For comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket (Full Thrust version) stands 70 meters (230 feet) tall, and can launch a 22,800 kilogram (50,300 pound) payload to LEO. And yes, like the Falcon-9 rocket, Neutron will be large enough to possibly include a crewed capsule for human spaceflight missions.

Neutron vs. Electron vs. Falcon-9. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab is coming to the United States East Coast as well in 2021, with its Launch Complex Two site at NASA’s Wallops Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport facility on the Virginia Coast. Construction of the Wallops site for Rocket Lab is now complete, and the first mission—STP-27RM for the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program with an experimental satellite known as Monolith—is set for liftoff perhaps as early as April 2021.

Launch Complex 2 at Wallops. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab also has aspirations beyond low-Earth orbit. The company successfully launched its prototype satellite bus named Photon Pathfinder on June 13, 2020. Photon is essentially an Electron kick-stage with an added Curie liquid-rocket engine. Rocket Lab plans on sending smallsat payloads to the Moon using Photon in late 2021 or early 2022, and perhaps even sending a mission to Venus using a modified Photon platform with an engine known as Hyper-Curie perhaps as early as 2023.

Rounding out 2021, Rocket Lab has 10 upcoming missions on the schedule, including the ‘They Go Up So Fast’ rideshare mission coming right up in late March, and the launch of NASA’s Cis-lunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) in late 2021. CAPSTONE is a precursor proof-of-concept for the full up Lunar Gateway station, which is part of the crewed Artemis initiative.

This comes as the private space launch business gets into high gear in the coming years. This year, SpaceX is poised to launch another flight of Crew Dragon to the International Space Station next month on April 22nd, along with the first launch on space tourists aboard Crew Dragon for Axiom Space later this year. Aevum also plans to start carrying out orbital launches via its Ravn X drone out of Jacksonville Space Port in Florida this summer, and BluShift Aerospace may launch its Red Dwarf rocket from Maine starting in 2023.

Rocket Lab’s Neutron rocket will be a player in the orbital space launch business to watch for, in the years to come.

Lead image: Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck inside a mock-up of the Neutron rocket payload fairing. Credit: Rocket Lab