Rocket Lab has announced plans to develop a new medium-lift, human-rated launch vehicle, capable of lifting payloads weighing up to 18,000 pounds (8,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit. The Long Beach, Calif.-headquartered smallsat launch provider—whose in-service Electron booster has already completed 16 successful missions out of 18 attempts since May 2017—revealed Monday that the new rocket will be called “Neutron” and its first-stage hardware will be recovered on a floating landing platform downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.
Current projections are for Neutron to commence formal flight operations from Launch Complex (LC)-2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., no sooner than 2024.
Standing 130 feet (40 meters) tall, in terms of height at least the two-stage Neutron is expected to closely mirror Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Antares booster, which has also launched out of MARS on 14 occasions—with a single in-flight failure—between April 2013 and last month. Neutron’s payload fairing wil be 15 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter and according to Rocket Lab it promises to fulfil a wide portfolio of mission tasks, ranging from the emplacement of satellite “mega-constellations” in orbit to interplanetary payloads and even human spaceflights.
Fueled by a mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene, Neutron is expected to draw substantially upon the proven processing and flight experience gained from Rocket Lab’s Electron small-class booster, which has so far flown 18 times between May 2017 and January 2021 out of Launch Complex (LC)-1 at the southern tip of the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island. The 56-foot-tall (17-meter) Electron was lost on its first mission due to a ground software issue, but the vehicle went on to launch 11 successful times between January 2018 and June 2020, placing dozens of small payloads into orbit for civilian, military and commercial customers, including its first classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. It can reportedly lift up to 660 pounds (300 kg) to low-Earth orbit.
Last summer, an Electron was lost during second-stage flight, due to an electrical connector malfunction, but Rocket Lab subsequently launched five more missions without incident between August 2020 and January 2021.
In its Monday announcement, Rocket Lab stated that Neutron “will build on” the experience developed through the Electron program. “Where Electron provides dedicated access to orbit for small satellites…Neutron will transform space access for satellite constellations,” it explained, “and provide a dependable, high-flight-rate dedicated launch solution for larger commercial and government payloads”.
“Rocket Lab solved small-launch with Electron,” said the organization’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “We’ve listened to our customers and the message is clear: biggest doesn’t always meant best when it comes to constellation deployment.
Efficiently building the mega-constellations of the future requires launching multiple satellites in batches to different orbital planes. 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. Neutron’s 8-ton lift capacity will make it ideally sized to deploy satellites in batches to specific orbital planes, creating a more targeted and streamlined approach to building-out mega-constellations.”
It is also expected that the flexibility of Neutron will permit a “dedicated service to orbit” for larger civil, defense and commercial payloads “that need a level of schedule control and high-flight cadence not available on large and heavy-lift rockets”. The new rocket will have the capability to lift 98 percent of all satellites currently forecasted to launch through 2029 and aims to lower its overall cost structure by leveraging the heritage, launch sites and architecture already in-place for Electron.
Specifically, by utilizing already-built processing and LC-2 pad facilities at MARS on the Virginia coastline, Neutron is expected to follow a fast-track timeline to its first launch, which may occur as early as 2024. The booster is scaled to lift up to 18,000 pounds (8,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit, 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg) to the Moon and 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) to Mars or Venus.
And like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 fleet—which has supported 52 successful Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) touchdowns since April 2016—it is expected that Neutron first-stage cores will return to the deck of an oceanic platform, “enabling a high launch cadence and decreased launch costs for customers”.
Rocket Lab’s reusability program got underway in early 2019 and kicked off more than 18 months of tests, including mid-air helicopter recovery trials over open ocean in New Zealand last spring. Two missions in December 2019 and January 2020 saw a pair of Electron first-stage cores successfully perform guided, fully-telemetered re-entries.
Their recovery instrumentation featured a suite of guidance and navigational hardware, including S-band telemetry and on-board flight computers for live-gathering of data during re-entry, together with a Reaction Control System (RCS) for orientation and control. This successfully oriented the first stages 180 degrees for final descent and achieved dynamic stability and maintained the correct angle-of-attack before impacting the ocean.
More recently, last 20 November, the first stage of an Electron aptly called “Return to Sender” completed a soft, parachute-aided oceanic splashdown and was recovered intact for the first time. Subjected to thermal extremes of over 2,400 degrees Celsius (4,350 degrees Fahrenheit) and attaining speeds of 5,250 mph (8,460 km/h) during re-entry—a potentially destructive process which Rocket Lab nicknames “The Wall”—the hardy booster achieved exceptional positioning thanks to timely inputs from its RCS thrusters. Below Mach 2, a drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and achieve stability, before the main parachute opened and brought the Electron to a smooth splashdown at only 20 mph (32 km/h).
Recovered by Rocket Lab’s recovery vessel, it later became clear that the booster had handled the duresses of its 13-minute-long flight well, with its carbon composite structure fully intact and some heat damage at its base. However, the organization plans to “requalify and refly some components” from the Return to Sender mission on another flight. That reusability philosophy is expected to take center-stage as Neutron enters service later this decade.
In the meantime, in February 2019 construction began on the LC-2 complex at Wallops and it was officially opened only ten months later. This location was reportedly selected as the second Electron launch site on account of the wide range of orbital inclinations it can support, as well as a rapid construction timeframe. Last September, Rocket Lab was granted a five-year Launch Operator License by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for Electron missions from LC-2. Rocket Lab aims to fly up to 12 missions annually from the complex, including flights by Neutron when it comes online a few years from now.