After developing a successful small booster, named Electron, US-based launch company Rocket Lab recently announced plans to develop a much larger rocket.
It’s a big step up. Whereas Electron can loft a maximum of about 300 kg to low-Earth orbit, the company’s planned Neutron booster will be capable of lifting eight tons—a mass that is more than 25 times greater.
So why is the company making this great leap? Ars caught up with the company’s chief executive officer, Peter Beck, to get some answers.
Beck said he believes the future of the launch industry lies in constellations, be it mega-constellations or smaller clusters of satellites. Beck estimates that 80 percent of all future launches will be satellites that are bound for constellations. “It’s pretty simple math,” Beck said. While Electron is useful for getting small satellites into precise orbits, a bigger rocket is needed to become a player in the constellation satellite market.
To better understand the ideal size of a new rocket, Beck looked across the history of launch and determined that the average payload size for all rockets was about 4.5 tons. This falls between the small launch category, which generally can loft about one ton or less to orbit, and medium-lift rockets, which have capabilities ranging from about 12 to 20 tons. The most commercially successful medium-lift rocket currently flying, the Falcon 9, can lift as much as 22.8 tons to low-Earth orbit in fully expendable mode.
“The really successful commercial launch vehicles of today are never full,” Beck noted. “So while cost per kilogram is a useful metric, it’s less useful if a rocket is rarely filled up.”
Taking all of this into account, Beck and his engineering team have settled on an 8-ton rocket design that hits the sweet spot between affordable launch and just enough—but not too much—carrying capacity. This new rocket could make its debut launch as early as 2024.
The Electron rocket currently has a sticker price of $7.5 million. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket costs somewhere around $60 million, although there are discounts for flying on a used first stage. Beck said he’s not yet ready to discuss pricing for Neutron, but it should be less than the Falcon 9, offering direct competition. “We wouldn’t be embarking on this unless we thought it was going to be highly competitive,” he said.
Rocket Lab plans for Neutron to be reusable, although it’s too large for the kind of air-capture the company is testing out with the smaller Electron rocket. Rather, it will use propulsive landing. The rocket’s structure will be metallic, not composite, to better withstand first-stage atmospheric reentry heating. The company is still deciding on an optimal number of first-stage engines and is only beginning work on their development.
Neutron will also be capable of human spaceflight, Beck said. He noted that the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, with its three modules, weighs just under eight tons. But although Neutron will be “human rated,” Rocket Lab has no immediate plans to work on a crew capsule. The company’s near-term focus is on serving the constellation market.
So how will Rocket Lab pay for this? Beck said that, over the company’s history, Rocket Lab has raised about $280 million and spent “much less” than that. However, rocket development is not cheap, so the company also announced plans to go public via a special purpose acquisition company, Vector Acquisition Corporation. This will provide Rocket Lab the capital it needs to scale to build Neutron while continuing with its own efforts to build low-cost satellites.
It will need the money. In building an 8-ton rocket, the company will be directly taking on SpaceX and its low-cost Falcon 9 rocket. That is a daunting challenge. But Beck realizes that to succeed in the space industry with competitors like SpaceX, one needs to be bold. “We’re in this for the long haul,” Beck said.
Listing image by Rocket Lab