Rocket Lab's futuristic Neutron emerges as rival to Elon Musk led SpaceX
Rocket Lab USA Inc. offered several design updates Thursday for its newest rocket, Neutron, which place it in direct competition with Elon Musk’s SpaceX for launching larger satellites. The Neutron, introduced earlier this year, will use a carbon fiber composite body along with a reusable payload fairing that’s attached to the launch vehicle.
“This is what a rocket should look like in 2050 but we’re building it today,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive officer, said in a video update. “It is an absolute beast.”
Rocket Lab expects to begin Neutron flight tests in 2024 and its commercial debut the following year, Beck said in an interview after the presentation. The company is also holding a competitive bidding process for a manufacturing and launch site on the U.S. East Coast, with a decision expected “fairly soon,” he said.
Neutron will be 40 meters (131 feet) long with a 5-meter fairing size and carry a maximum payload of 15,000 kg (33,000 pounds) to low-earth orbit. The rocket is also designed to carry humans and to handle deep space missions.
The rocket will be powered by seven new engines, called Archimedes, that will run on liquid oxygen and methane. The first firing of that motor is planned for next year, Beck said. The fairing, which Rocket Lab dubbed Hungry Hippo, will retract at one end to allow the payload and second-stage rocket to emerge. The second-stage won’t be reusable initially, Beck said.
Aside from its carbon composite frame, the Neutron will resemble SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket in several major respects, with a wide base, a re-entry profile that sheds heat and the ability to launch more than once per day.
Rocket Lab said it has been able to surmount engineering problems using carbon composite because of newer, metallic 3D manufacturing techniques that can produce the material faster than previous methods.
“Carbon composites are an ideal material for an orbital rocket,” Beck said. “Thanks to Neutron it’s going to really come into its own as a rocket material for the future.”
The company portrayed stainless steel -- SpaceX’s material of choice for its massive Starship rocket -- and aluminum as too fragile for the requirements of a futuristic rocket that can fly nearly as often as an airplane does today.
Rocket Lab, based in Long Beach, California, with much of its design and launch work in New Zealand, predicts that 80% of the satellite market in the next decade will be smaller models for constellation deployments.
The company’s shares declined 1.1% to $15.02 at 9:37 a.m. Thursday in New York.