Rocket Lab’s Neutron reusable rocket update: competing with SpaceX

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

“This is Neutron. This is a real beast, ”said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck in his webcast.

Neutron is 131 feet high and 23 feet in diameter, and is aimed at a maximum payload of 15,000 kg into LEO. For reusable launches, Neutron will be able to deliver up to 8,000 kg to LEO. These are the first details about the new rocket since the company announced its plans earlier in the year.

Beck told CNBC on Thursday that Rocket Lab is still aiming to get Neutron to the launch site by 2024 and hopes to attract a commercial customer for the rocket by 2025.

The launch market is divided into three sections: small, medium and heavy. Neutron will target this middle section, while Rocket Lab’s existing Electron rocket fits into a small segment.

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can lift up to 22,800 kg into low-earth orbit, Neutron will compete to launch many of the same spacecraft that Elon Musk’s company currently supplies into space.

Beck declined to comment on the price of Neutron’s launch, but said the rocket “would be a pointless exercise” if Rocket Lab “didn’t think we would be very cost competitive with anything currently on the market or offering. By comparison, Rocket Lab’s small Electron rocket costs about $ 7 million per launch, the mid-range Firefly Alpha rocket costs $ 15 million per launch, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is advertised at $ 62 million per launch.

Neutron design

Like the Falcon 9, Neutron’s first stage is reusable, but that’s where most of the similarities end. While SpaceX occasionally lands its Falcon 9 boosters back near the launch pad, but usually lands on a drone in the ocean, Neutron is designed to return to the launch pad for all of its reusable missions.

Beck did not rule out that he “ever landed on a drone,” noting that “there are many use cases where boarding a drone is beneficial,” but stressed that returning to the launch site is the “most cost effective” approach.

“I would never say anything to anything again,” Beck said after ate a physical hat earlier this year after saying Electron would not be reusable.

Beck described the Neutron as “a very fat machine,” which he says gives it a “high ballistic coefficient” and makes it ideal for launching, landing and re-launching.

“If you have something that is thick in diameter and light, it slows down very, very quickly. So you [reduce] thermal loads and [the amount of] – fuel requirements to cope with these heat loads when returning to the trajectory of the launch pad, ”said Beck.

Instead of expanding support legs, the Neutron will have a “static base” without any mechanisms. According to Beck, “shock absorbers” will be built into the base to protect against impact upon landing.

Rocket Lab is also developing a new engine for Neutron called Archimedes. Beck touted Archimedes’ design as “very simple,” with “everything you need when you need to create an engine that can be used over and over again.”

Seven Archimedes engines propel the first stage of Neutron into space, and the eighth launches the upper stage upon entry into orbit. The Archimedes engines will be built at the Rocket Lab plant in New Zealand.

“Archimedes will breathe his first fire next year,” Beck said.

Another unique feature of the Neutron design is the fairing, or nose. Nicknamed the Hungry Behemoth Fairing, the company designed it to remain connected to the rocket’s body, rather than shutting down and falling back into the atmosphere like modern rockets do.

The Neutron fairing will open, deploy the upper stage, then close for the return flight to landing.

“The answer is not to throw the fairings where you are trying to catch them – the best way is to never get rid of them at all,” Beck said.

The only part of the Neutron that cannot be reused is the upper stage, which is deployed from the inside of the rocket after going into space. Its design allows it to be very light, Beck emphasized, with a “super thin structure.”

“This stage is suspended inside the fairing so there is no thermal aerodynamic load, no counter load, no structural load — it literally hangs like a balloon under the payload,” Beck said.

Designed for round-the-clock turnover

Neutron is designed to transition from landing to next launch within 24 hours.

“Not because I actually want to drive 24 hours, but because it drives all our demands in a positive direction,” Beck said.

In fact, Rocket Lab will start at a “conservative” launch speed, Beck said, as will Electron.

But tight design deadlines are a cost-based decision, as Beck emphasized that “component cost is not a driving factor” in the rocket business, but rather operating costs.

“If it takes three weeks or a month to repair a car, people have to work on that month,” Beck said.

There will be more Neutron announcements

Rocket Lab has yet to announce the location of the neutron plant, but the company previously said it would be near NASA’s Wallops flight complex in Virginia, where the rocket is slated to launch. Beck said the company is “in a very competitive process” for the manufacturer and “is close to solving this problem.”

One of the most important aspects of the Neutron facility is that it needs to be close to the launch site, as Beck said the company will not flip it horizontally to send it to a specific location.

“He starts in the factory vertical and spends his entire life in the vertical,” Beck said.

This contributes to the achievement of Rocket Lab’s reuse goals as it eliminates the need for infrastructure at the launch site, such as a strong support to hold the rocket upright prior to launch.

Rocket Lab is also developing Neutron to meet the requirements for launching a spacecraft that transports people. While the company is “focused on delivering cargo at the moment,” Beck said the company is “making sure we don’t get in the way” of using Neutron to launch astronauts at some point.

“I’ve had enough of my hats,” Beck said, laughing.

Rocket Lab is not engaged in internal development of the crew capsule at the moment, and Beck emphasizes that, in his opinion, the flying astronaut market should continue to grow.

“We should see more growth from the customer side because there is actually one customer – NASA – and they are well served,” Beck said.

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