Space startup Rocket Lab is taking on Elon Musk’s SpaceX with a huge new reusable rocket called Neutron that could be used to transport humans to space.
The California and New Zealand based firm has merged with a special-purpose acquisition company to go public, valuing the joint venture at $4.1 billion.
Rocket Lab will use its new position and a $740 million cash balance to develop the new 8-Ton Neutron rocket that can launch mega-constellations of satellites.
The Neutron rocket will be 40 metres tall, have a reusable first stage and capable of taking up to 8,000 kg of material to orbit on each flight.
It isn’t direct competition for the SpaceX Falcon 9, which can take up to 22,800 kg per trip, but Rocket Lab says it will work out cheaper than the larger alternatives.
Space startup Rocket Lab is taking on Elon Musk’s SpaceX with a huge new reusable rocket called Neutron that could be used to transport humans to space
NEUTRON: MEDIUM LIFT PARTIALLY REUSABLE ROCKET
The medium-lift Neutron rocket will be a two-stage launch vehicle that stands 40 meters tall with a 4.5-metre diameter fairing.
It will have a lift capacity of up to 8,000 kg to low-Earth orbit, 2,000 kg to the Moon, and 1,500 kg to Mars and Venus, makers Rocket Lab confirmed.
Neutron will feature a reusable first stage designed to land on an ocean platform, enabling a high launch cadence and decreased launch costs for customers.
Initially designed for satellite payloads, Neutron will also be capable of International Space Station (ISS) resupply and human spaceflight missions.
Founded in 2006, since its inception Rocket Lab has deployed 97 satellites for governments and private companies using the partially reusable Electron rocket.
The new Neutron launch vehicle will ‘transform space access’, according to the firm, as it will provide a ‘dependable, high-flight-rate dedicated launch solution’.
Unlike the smaller Electron, Rocket Labs’ current launch vehicle, the new rocket will be able to lift more than 90% of all satellites forecast to launch up to 2029.
While the cost of the rocket and the cost of each launch hasn’t been revealed, Rocket Lab says it will be at a ‘highly disruptive lower cost’.
It is expected to come online and be ready to start launching satellites and other payload into orbit by 2024, according to Rocket Lab.
‘There are some things we said we would never do, but we’re going to build a big rocket,’ CEO Peter Beck said in a video announcing the new launch vehicle.
This is a big change for the firm, which has previously focused on launching relatively tiny satellites from the small boosters of its Electron rocket.
Their first pivot from simply launching small rockets came last year when the firm followed SpaceX in making the Electron more reusable to bring costs down.
The Neutron launch vehicle will ‘transform space access’, according to Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck (pictured), as it will provide a ‘dependable, high-flight-rate dedicated launch solution’
In comparison to the 40 metre tall Neutron, the smaller Electron stands at 18m and can only carry up to 300kg satellites for launch into orbit.
As well as being able to launch Starlink or OneWeb style mega-constallation satellites into orbit, it claims to do so in a more efficient and cost-effective way.
‘Efficiently building the mega constellations of the future requires launching multiple satellites in batches to different orbital planes,’ said Beck.
‘It’s a requirement that all too often sees large launch vehicles fly with payloads well below their full lift capacity, which is an incredibly expensive and inefficient way to build out a satellite constellation.’
The Neutron rocket will be 40 metres tall, have a reusable first stage and capable of taking up to 8,000 kg of material to orbit on each flight
ROCKET LAB: SPACE LAUNCH STARTUP
Rocket Lab is an American/New Zealand space startup initially designed to sent small satellites into orbit using small booster rockets.
Founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, they became the first Southern Hemisphere firm to launch to space with the Atea-1 rocket in 2009.
Its Electron rocket started launching small satellites in 2018 including launches for NASA’s ELaNa program.
Up until 2020 they had focused on small scale launches with the Electron able to carry payloads up to 300kg.
Going public and a period of major expansion in 2021 will see the firm make Electron partially reusable and launch a new heavier rocket.
The Neutron will be able to carry up to 8,800kg into orbit including crew.
It can take loads of up to 8,000kg into orbit, but can also send loads of up to 2,000kg to the Moon – a market likely to grow in the coming years as NASA builds a new space station in lunar orbit and eventually a base on the Moon’s surface.
The vehicle will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and will be ‘human rated’, meaning it will be able to launch astronauts into space in future.
Rocket Lab is also scouring locations across America to establish a new state-of-the-art factory to support large-scale Neutron manufacturing.
The company plans to launch a small satellite into lunar orbit for NASA this year on its Electron rocket, as a precursor to the Gateway space station.
This is a Moon-orbiting outpost for NASA’s Artemis mission that will see the first woman and next man land on the Moon and a permanent base established.
Through its ‘Photon’ spacecraft, Rocket Lab is also working on a mission to Mars and Venus in the next few years, with the Venus mission to search for signs of life.
The firm expects to generate more than $1 billion in revenue by 2026, in part due to the significant growth forecast for the launch, space systems and space applications market- which is forecast to grow to $1.4 trillion by 2030.
The merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation, a special purpose company designed to help firms go public, will value the joint venture at $4.1 billion.
Alex Slusky, CEO of Vector and Founder & Chief Investment Officer of Vector Capital, described Rocket Lab as a ‘once-in-a-generation company’.
‘Rocket Lab is ideally positioned to continue to capture market share in the rapidly expanding space launch, systems and applications markets.
‘Vector is thrilled to partner with Rocket Lab as it seeks to capitalize on unprecedented commercial and government spending in the bourgeoning space economy.’
NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology.
NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 – including the first woman and the next man.
Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars.
Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond.
During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.
It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission.
Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission
Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before.
With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars.
The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.
The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons.
Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.
Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.
The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.