This morning, small satellite launcher Rocket Lab unveiled the details of its future, more powerful Neutron rocket — a launch vehicle optimized to carry satellites into orbit for future mega-constellations. Made out of a special carbon composite that Rocket Lab created, Neutron will also be mostly reusable, designed to land on a landing pad after launch — similar to how SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets.
“This is not a conventional rocket,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said during the unveil, livestreamed on YouTube. “This is what a rocket should look like in 2050. But we’re building it today.” As of now, Neutron is slated for its first flight in 2024.
Rocket Lab already has one rocket called Electron, which the company has been launching to orbit since 2017. Electron is meant to carry relatively small satellites into low Earth orbit to capitalize on the small satellite revolution. But in March, Rocket Lab announced its intention to build another bigger rocket called Neutron, along with plans to go public via a SPAC merger. It was a big change for the company since Beck once vowed he’d “eat his hat” if he ever made a reusable rocket or a larger rocket. During the March announcement, he did, indeed, eat an actual hat from a blender.
Neutron will stand at 131 feet (or 40 meters) tall, towering much higher than Electron, which is just 59 feet (18 meters) tall. Propelled by seven new main engines called Archimedes, the rocket will be capable of putting between eight and 15 tons into low Earth orbit. Rocket Lab claims the vehicle will be perfect for launching medium-sized satellites that are part of proposed mega-constellations, massive satellite initiatives aimed at providing broadband coverage to the Earth below. However, Beck envisions other opportunities for Neutron, such as human spaceflight and even interplanetary flight.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t go to all this trouble to make a launch vehicle that wouldn’t be able to be human certified and capable of human spaceflight,” Beck tells The Verge.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the Neutron design is that it will be reusable, meaning practically every single part of the rocket will be returned to Earth after launch. It also bucks modern convention of how most orbital rockets work nowadays. Typically, rockets are launched in “stages” or parts that are stacked on top of each other. During launch, as a rocket rapidly gobbles up its propellant, the first stage of the rocket — or most of the rocket’s body — will eventually break away and fall back to Earth. Depleted of fuel, the stage becomes needless weight. As the rocket body falls away, the upper portion of the rocket — or the second stage — will ignite its engine (or engines) and propel the payload farther into space and deploy it into orbit.
Neutron will be a little different. Rather than stack the stages on top of each other, Rocket Lab plans to put the second stage inside of the first one. The second stage, propelled by one Archimedes engine, will be attached to the payload and stay housed inside of the full body of the rocket, completely protected during launch. Once in space, the top of the rocket will open up, releasing the second stage / payload combo. The two then continue their journey into orbit.
And that’s where things get weird. For most typical rockets these days, the main payload or satellite being launched is encased inside of a nosecone, or fairing, during flight. The bulbous structure on top of the rocket protects the payload during the climb through Earth’s atmosphere. Once in space, the fairing then breaks apart and falls back to Earth, where it’s usually lost. That won’t be the case with Neutron. Instead, the fairing will hinge open, allowing the payload to deploy into space while keeping the fairing attached to the rocket. That way, the fairings never leave the rocket.
“The answer is not throwing away the fairings or even trying to catch them,” Beck said during the video. “The best way is never get rid of them in the first place.” Rocket Lab refers to the fairings as the “Hungry Hippo” fairing design.
Once the second stage and payload are on their way, the main body of Neutron — with fairings in tow — will return to Earth and land upright on a landing pad. An animation of the process is very reminiscent of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landing on a launch pad after takeoff. Beck says the entire process is meant to minimize operations costs. “Operations far dwarf the actual cost of putting something on orbit than actually the building material or the components of the rocket,” Beck tells The Verge.
During the presentation, there were plenty of subtle digs at SpaceX. For one, Rocket Lab does not plan to land Neutron on ships in the ocean, like SpaceX does. Plus, the fairing design seems to be in direct response to SpaceX, which tried for years to catch the fairings of its rocket using big nets attached to boats. While the company was successful in catching the fairings a handful of times, ultimately, SpaceX abandoned the initiative due to poor reliability. Instead, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in April that SpaceX would retrieve the fairings out of the water and refurbish them for reuse.
Another nod to SpaceX came when Beck discussed the material from which Neutron would be made. Beck knocked stainless steel, the main material SpaceX is using to build its new Starship rocket. To further his point, he used a battering ram to hit a sheet of stainless steel, showing how it bends. Instead, Neutron will be made out of a special carbon composite material created by Rocket Lab, which the company insinuated is sturdier. (The battering ram, of course, didn’t bend that one.)
Ultimately, Beck says he wasn’t singling out any company in particular. “Certainly, there was no intention to make any references to SpaceX,” he tells The Verge. “It just so happens that, what, SpaceX uses stainless steel, but by the way, so does ULA.”
However, one thing that Rocket Lab can’t quite claim is that Neutron is fully reusable. Just like with the Falcon 9 rocket, the second stage will not return to Earth once it puts the payload into orbit. Beck says the company didn’t see any clear benefit in making the second stage reusable versus manufacturing one at a “really, really low cost.”
But if it works, it will be a unique type of vehicle that’s not on the market yet. Rocket Lab says it’s already working on prototypes and that the Archimedes engine will do its first test ignition sometime next year. Until then, Neutron may look cool, but it’s still just an animation.
Update December 2nd, 12PM ET: This story was updated to include an interview with Peter Beck.