When we talk about reusable rockets’ it’s usually because SpaceX has accomplished another unheard-of feat. This time it’s California-based Rocket Lab talking a big game about reusable rockets. The company says its upcoming Neutron rocket will be ideal for deploying mega-constellations, and it’ll have a reusable first-stage a la the Falcon 9.
Rocket Lab’s current launch vehicle is called Electron, a small-lift rocket that has completed 16 launches, including one successful soft landing in the ocean after which the first stage was recovered for refurbishment. Neutron will up the ante in several ways.
For starters, Neutron will be a lot larger. The 4.5-meter diameter is even larger than the Falcon 9 at 3.7 meters. However, Neutron will be just 40 meters tall. That’s bigger than the 17-meter Electron, but the Falcon 9 is 70 meters tall. As you might expect, the Neutron won’t be able to heft as much mass into orbit as heavy-lift vehicles — Rocket Lab says it’ll have a capacity of 8 tons to the Falcon 9’s 25 tons. The company’s Electron rocket has a capacity of just 660 pounds, so this is still a big step up for Rocket Lab.
Rocket Lab believes there’s a place for medium-lift rockets like the Neutron. As more companies have started deploying constellations of low-cost satellites, some large rockets are launching without a full payload. Neutron could help these firms get their hardware into space without spending as much as they might on another rocket. SpaceX is the exception, of course, as it uses the Falcon 9 to deploy up to 60 Starlink satellites at a time. Most companies don’t have their own rockets, and even Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is a long way from launching big batches of satellites.
The timeline currently on the table sounds ambitious considering Rocket Lab’s reusable design. SpaceX has nailed reusable rockets with the Falcon 9, which has helped it to lower launch costs while still making a hefty profit. Rocket Lab plans to launch Neutron from its existing facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. Following second-stage separation, the Neutron booster will land on a sea platform, not unlike SpaceX’s drone ships. There are no details on exactly how that will work yet, and it may be a while before we find out. Rocket Lab believes it will be able to launch its first Neutron around 2024. That’s assuming everything goes as planned.
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