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Rocket Lab goes large with Neutron – a big rocket for big constellations. Oh, and it confirms a merger proposal
Something for rocket fans and rocket financiers to chew on
The merger, which the New Zealand rocket maker said gives the combined entity a "implied pro forma enterprise value of $4.1 billion", will have woken up the bean counters. However it is the Neutron rocket that would appeal to rocket fanciers.
When The Register last spoke to Rocket Lab boss, Peter Beck, he was focused on the relatively inexpensive Electron booster, the Photon spacecraft (an evolution of the company's kick stage) and ramping up the launch cadence.
The Neutron is an altogether heftier beast. Where the 18m tall and 1.2m wide Electron currently being launched by the company can send 300kg of payload to Low Earth Orbit, the Neutron will be capable of lofting 8,000kg. It would also dwarf the Electron at 40m in height and a 4.5m diameter payload fairing.
While not challenging the payload capabilities of SpaceX's Falcon 9, the new booster could well lead to some sleepless nights in Russia. The Soyuz-2 launcher can carry a similar mass to orbit.
Beck told us last autumn that the Neutron would build on lessons learned from the Electron. "There's a huge chunk of the vehicle development already done," he said. "In some cases, it's harder to build a little launch vehicle than it is a big one!"
As well as the inevitable mega-constellations for which the booster is being designed, Rocket Lab has also mooted human spaceflight missions or International Space Stations jaunts for the rocket. 2,000kg payloads being sent to the Moon and 1,500kg to Mars or Venus are additionally on the cards.
Rocket Lab expect the first flight in 2024 and will be launching the booster from Virginia's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility (where it will leverage existing launchpad and integration infrastructure.) The company also expects the first stage of the booster to be reusable and make a propulsive return to an ocean platform after launch.
Perhaps taking aim at SpaceX, Beck posted today: "Biggest doesn't always mean best when it comes to constellation deployment."
He also talked of the need to launch multiple satellites in batches to difference 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."
In answer to those remembering Beck's promise to chow down on his hat should the company pursue reusability or the like, Rocket Labs' chief exec also managed to consume a few strands of material from one of the company's branded caps.
Judging by Beck's expression, it did not go well.
One can but hope the same will not be said for Rocket Lab's medium-lift plans over the next three years. ®