Private space launch company Rocket Lab is making a huge leap, figuratively and literally, with its new Neutron launcher. With a claimed payload capacity of 8 Tons (8000 Kgs.), the rocket will compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9.
After successfully developing a rather diminutive Electron rocket, Rocket Labs has set its sights on the rapidly growing third-party satellite launch industry. The company’s CEO Peter Beck announced the company will enter the medium-lift-to-orbit market with the new Neutron rocket.
Rocket Lab’s Neutron is a small payload delivery system:
Currently, Rocket Lab has the Electron rocket. It is a two-stage, light-weight carbon composite rocket. The launcher has a flight-ready electric pump-feed engine, known as the Rutherford.
The Electron rocket stands 17-meters (56-feet) tall. It can launch multiple but small satellites.
However, it has a very limited payload capacity of 300 kilograms (660 pounds). The Electron rocket can only go up as far as the Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
A new, rotating animation of Rocket Lab's Neutron rocket shows that that the current plan is to use just four engines on the first stage – not five or seven as speculated before. https://t.co/BeILjAdnZL
— Everything Rocket Lab (@Rocketlab360) March 9, 2021
However, Rocket Labs promises a very quick turnaround for the Electron launcher. And the company also claims a low-cost production of $7.5 million USD per launch.
Rocket Lab has launched Electron 16 times to orbit. The Mahia Launch Complex One site based on New Zealand’s North Island is the company’s chosen launchpad.
The company has also successfully recovered an Electron first stage booster using two different recovery solutions. It first used a parachute and helicopter recovery system during a drop test in early 2020. Later, on November 20, 2020, the company made the first successful water retrieval of a booster during Flight 16 ‘Return to Sender’.
How is the Rocket Lab’s Neutron launcher better than the Electron rocket?
The Rocket Lab Neutron is in an altogether different league of players. Compared to the Electron’s 300 Kg payload, the Neutron launcher has a claimed capacity of 8 tons (8000 Kgs or about 17,600 Pounds). Incidentally, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has a capacity to deliver 22,800 kilograms (50,300 pounds) payload to LEO.
Rocket Lab’s CEO hasn’t revealed the pricing per launch aboard the Neutron. However, he clearly indicated that customers hoping to place their satellites aboard the Neutron launcher should expect pricing which is lower than SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
Interestingly, the Neutron rocket will be “human-rated.” It means that the company could attach a module that can accommodate humans. However, the company indicated it has “no immediate plans to work on a crew capsule.”
With an 8 Ton payload capacity and 40 meters height, the Neutron launcher is a big rocket. Hence, it is not clear how the company will quickly and reliably recover the first-stage propulsion system to keep the launch prices down.
Despite the size of the rocket, the Neutron will be reusable. The rocket’s structure will be metallic “to better withstand first-stage atmospheric reentry heating”. The CEO of the company did hint that Rocket Labs will be using propulsive landing for safe recovery.
I spoke to @Peter_J_Beck about Rocket Lab's new Neutron rocket, and he is serious about reusability.
"We want Neutron to be not just serviceable, but truly reusable."
— Thomas Burghardt (@TGMetsFan98) March 7, 2021
Although the CEO has offered substantial information, Rocket Labs is still deciding on an optimal number of first-stage engines. Moreover, the company has just begun tackling engineering and development challenges for commercial launches.
Rocket Labs plans to launch Neutron starting in 2024. Given the specifications, it is amply clear the company wants to be a major player in hoisting the next generation of mega-constellation payloads, similar to SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s constellation of satellites into orbit.