There’s little doubt that we live in a new Space Age, defined by increasing access, greater competition, and the commercial space industry. The titans of this industry are well known and have even become household names. There are old warhorses like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and United Launch Alliance and fast-rising stars like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, and others. But New Zealand and California-based company Rocket Lab has also made a name for itself in recent years, moving from low-cost expendable rocket launches to reusable rockets.
In particular, their new Neutron Rocket design has been turning some heads since it first debuted in late 2021. The most recent design of this rocket features some very interesting features, which include a new engine, a new shell, and a “Hungry-Hippo” reusable fairing built from advanced carbon composites. Beginning in 2024, Rocket Lab hopes to conduct regular launches with Neutron to service the growing “satellite megaconstellation” market. Thanks to an animator who goes by the handle Hazegrayart, we now have a video of what this might look like.
The animation (above) opens on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), a launch complex located within the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops island off the coast of Virginia. According to a statement issued in February 2022, this facility is where the Neutron rocket will be launching beginning in 2024. The company also announced its plan to build an additional 23,225 m2 (250,000 ft2) manufacturing and operations facility known as the Neutron Production Complex. Construction of the complex began in earnest in April 2022 with a groundbreaking ceremony.
The rocket then ascends to orbit using its seven Archimedes Engines, which cut out once it reaches deployment altitude. At this point, we see the payload nose cone opening to release its second stage with the payload (a satellite) into orbit. The animation transitions to space to show the second stage flying off as the rocket reorients and closes its fairing for the return trip. The animation transitions again to the surface to show the Neutron rocket performing atmospheric re-entry (using a pair of lateral thrusters) and then reigniting its central Archimedes engine to descend on the launch pad at MARS.
One look at the animation gives the impression that the animation was largely inspired by footage of the Starship prototype tests. The way the point-of-view transitions from the ground to space and back again, the realistic sound effects, and the descent stage are all similar. The way the central engine fires up to bring the rocket’s tail around for a landing is highly reminiscent of the “belly-flop maneuver” SpaceX performed. During every flight test with the SN prototypes, the three-engine Starships would reignite a single engine that would gimble to maneuver the tail end downward.
Once complete, the Neutron rocket will stand 40 meters (131 ft) tall and measure 7 meters (23 ft) in diameter. Its 5-meter (16.4 ft) diameter fairing will give it an impressive payload capacity for a medium-lift rocket, allowing it to accomplish multiple mission profiles – from satellite deployment and deep-space missions to human spaceflight. Like the Starship, the Neutron rocket’s Archimedes engines rely on liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid methane fuel and provide 5,960 kilonewtons (kN) or 1.3 million pound-force (lbf) of lift-off thrust – 7,530 kN (1,640,000 lbf) of peak thrust – and payload capacity of 13,000 kg (lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
The key feature of the updated design is the captive fairing design, which consists of four nose cone segments that open and close rather than break off and fall away. This allows for a fully-reusable rocket and fairing design, which SpaceX has also experimented with by making their fairings retrievable. In addition, Rocket Lab has developed a mid-air recovery technique for their (previously disposable) Electron rocket, where they “catch” the spent first stage using parachutes, a customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, and a cable and hook.
The company has successfully tested this system multiple times since 2019, though the last one went a bit awry due to the way the first stage swung from the hook. Nevertheless, these tests and the new Neutron rocket have put Rocket Lab on the path to full reusability and greater cost-effectiveness. In the coming years, they will likely secure a sizable chunk of the satellite launch market and may even secure contracts to launch crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and LEO.