Hazegrayart Shows how Rocket Lab's Reusable Neutron Rocket Could Work

Credit: Rocket Lab

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.

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Rocket Lab Launches NASA’s CAPSTONE Mission to the Moon

An image of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, launching aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Credits: Rocket Lab

A microwave oven–sized cubesat launched to space today from New Zealand by commercial company Rocket Lab and their Electron rocket. The small satellite will conduct tests to make sure the unique lunar orbit for NASA’s future Lunar Gateway is actually stable.  

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, mission launched at 5:55 a.m. EDT (09:55 UTC) on Tuesday June 28 from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. The Electron has now flown 27 times with 24 successes and 3 failures.

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They Did It! Rocket Lab Uses Copter to Catch (and Release) a Rocket

Rocket Lab Electron launch
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket rises from its New Zealand launch pad. Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter

Rocket Lab has just joined SpaceX in the club of space companies that can launch an orbital-class rocket booster and bring it back alive.

In a sense, the California-based company one-upped SpaceX by having a helicopter snag the first-stage booster of its Electron rocket with a cable and a hook as it floated past on the end of a parachute, 6,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

So what if the pilots of the customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter had to release the booster moments later, due to concerns about the way their load was behaving as it swung from the hook?

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Rocket Lab Shows off its new Reusable Neutron Rocket, due for Launch in 2024

Credit: Rocket Lab

On December 2nd, 2021, the commercial space company Rocket Lab unveiled the detailed architecture of their Neutron rocket for the first time. In a live-streamed event, the company showcased all the new elements that will make this “megaconstellation” launcher a serious contender in the coming years. These include updated details about the rocket’s design, materials, propulsion, and reusability architecture.

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NASA Will be Sending two More Missions to Mars in 2024, Costing Just $80 Million

One of the biggest ongoing changes in space exploration is the introduction of commercial methods into the field.  Commercial launch providers like RocketLab and SpaceX have fundamentally changed the way the industry does business.  Now researchers are taking their “move fast and break things” approach to another part of the industry – actual mission design.  

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Electron Rocket’s 13th Launch Failed, Destroying its Satellite Payload

Launch! Electron's inaugural flight. Credit: Rocket Lab.

This past weekend (June 5th), the California and New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab suffered a terrible accident. During the 13th launch of their Electron rocket, an anomaly caused the second stage of the rocket to explode in midair. Luckily, there were no injuries, but the explosion did claim the mission payload, which consisted of satellites and commercial payloads for three different companies.

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Rocket Lab was Able to Catch Falling Inert Rocket Stage With a Helicopter, Continuing Their Path to Reusability

Launch! Electron's inaugural flight. Credit: Rocket Lab.

In the summer of 2017, the company Rocket Lab officially tossed its hat into the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) ring with the first test flights of their two-stage Electron Rocket. Dedicated to providing cost-effective launch services for the small satellite market, the company began conducting commercial launches from their complexes in New Zealand and California using the lightweight Electron.

Looking to cut the costs associated with individual launches further, Rocket Lab has decided to pursue reusability as well. In early March, before the isolation orders were issued, the company achieved a major milestone when it conducted a successful mid-air recovery of the test stage of an Electron Rocket – which involved a helicopter catching the test stage after its parachute deployed.

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Rocket Lab is Going to try to Re-use its First Stage Booster, Catching it in Mid-air With a Helicopter

Rocket Lab's protoytpe Electron rocket taking off from the company's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on Wednesday, May 24th. Credit: rocketlabusa.com

In 2006, Peter Beck founded the US and New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab with the vision of reducing the costs of individual launches. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have sought to do this through the development of reusable rockets, Beck’s vision was to create a launch service that would use small rockets to send light payloads into orbit with regular frequency.

However, in a recent statement, Mr. Beck revealed that his company plans to begin recovering and reusing the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle. This change in direction will allow Rocket Lab to further increase the frequency of its launches by eliminating the need to build first stage rockets from scratch for every individual mission.

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Perhaps the Best Part of Electron’s Successful Launch was its Payload: the Humanity Star

Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, is shown with the Humanity Star. Credit: Rocket Lab

This past weekend, the New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab reached another milestone. On Sunday, January 21st, the company conducted the second launch – the first having taken place this past summer – of its Electron booster. This two-stage, lightweight rocket is central to the company’s vision of reducing the costs of individual launches by sending light payloads to orbit with regular frequency.

This mission was also important because it was the first time that the company sent payloads into orbit. In addition to several commercial payloads, the launch also sent a secret payload into orbit at the behest of the company’s founder (Peter Beck). It is known as the “Humanity Star“, a disco-like geodesic sphere that measures 1 meter (3.3 ft) in diameter and will form a bright spot in the sky that will be visible to people on Earth.

The Humanity Star is central to Beck’s vision of how space travel can improve the lives of people here on Earth. In addition to presenting extensive opportunities for scientific research, there is also the way it fosters a sense of unity between people and nations. This is certainly a defining feature of the modern space age, where cooperation has replaced competition as the main driving force.

The Electron rocket prepping for its second launch last weekend. Credit: Rocket Lab

As Beck explained to ArsTechnica in an interview before the launch:

“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet. This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”

Like the Electron rocket, the Humanity Sphere is made of carbon fiber materials and it’s surface consists of 65 highly-reflective panels. Once it reaches an orbit of 300 by 500 km (186 by 310 mi), it will spend the next nine months there reflecting the light of the Sun back to Earth. Whether or not it will be visible to the naked eye remains to be seen, but Rocket Lab is confident it will be.

According to Beck, the sphere will be more visible than a Iridium flare, which are easily spotted from the surface. These flares occur when the solar panels or antennae of an Iridium satellite reflect sunlight in orbit. “Most people will be familiar with the Iridium flares, and this has got much, much more surface area than an Iridium flare,” Beck said. “In theory, it will be easy to find.”

The payload will last for about nine months in orbit. Credit: Rocket Lab

Beck got the idea for the project from talking to people about where they live. In his experience, people tend to think of their locality or nationality when they think of home. Whereas many people he had spoken to were aware that they lived on planet Earth, they were oblivious to where the Earth resided in the Solar System or the Universe at large. In this respect, the Humanity Sphere is meant to encourage people to look and think beyond.

As he states on the website the company created for the Humanity Sphere:

“For millennia, humans have focused on their terrestrial lives and issues. Seldom do we as a species stop, look to the stars and realize our position in the universe as an achingly tiny speck of dust in the grandness of it all.

“Humanity is finite, and we won’t be here forever. Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognize we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together. The Humanity Star is to remind us of this.

“No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky. My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

“Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.”

The Electron rocket launching on Sunday afternoon, 2:42pm, New Zealand time. Credit: Rocket Lab

The Humanity Star can also be tracked via the website. As of the penning of this article, it is moving south of the equator and should be visible to those living along the west coast of South America. So if you live in Colombia, Peru or Chile, look to the western skies and see if you can’t spot this moving star. After passing south over Antarctica, it will reemerge in the night skies over Central Asia.

Without a doubt, the Humanity Sphere is an inspired creation, and one which is in good company. Who can forget the “Blue Marble” picture snapped by the Apollo 17 astronauts, or Voyager 1‘s “pale blue dot” photo? And even for those who are too young to have witnessed it, the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon still serve to remind us of how far we’ve come, and how much still awaits us out there.

Further Reading: ArsTechnica