By Carol Vaughn —
Rocket Lab USA, Inc., gave its first major update on the development of its Neutron rocket Thursday.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in a virtual event revealed details about Neutron’s design, materials, propulsion, and reusability architecture for the first time.
“This is not a conventional rocket. This is what a rocket should look like in 2050 — but we’re building it today,” said Beck, calling Neutron “an absolute beast.”
Beck did not speak about where the rocket will be built.
“Rocket Lab is currently working through a competitive process to select launch site, rocket production facility and Archimedes engine test facility on the U.S. East Coast. Rocket Lab expects to create around 250 new jobs to support the Neutron program with many roles open for application now,” according to a press release that came out just after Beck’s announcement.
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors in July approved rezoning 28 acres on Wallops Island Road for industrial use and approved two conditional use permits for a planned rocket production and testing facility, in hopes Rocket Lab will decide to manufacture the Neutron rocket there.
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, also called Virginia Space, purchased the property from TWD, LLC, a Maryland company, for $550,000 in April, with plans to demolish existing poultry houses and to construct a building between 100,000 and 140,000 square feet, along with parking and other amenities.
Rocket Lab previously announced both its 57-foot Electron rocket and the 130-foot Neutron rocket will launch from Wallops Island.
Rocket Lab has three launch pads at two locations, including two in New Zealand and the site on Wallops, which is expected to become operational by the end of the year.
Construction on Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops started in February 2019 and the complex officially opened in December 2019, but no launches have happened there yet.
Launch Complex 2 is designed to support “rapid call-up missions,” according to a release from the company, which said “the ability to deploy satellites to precise orbits in a matter of hours, not months or years, is increasingly important to ensure resilience in space.”
Launch Complex 2 includes a pad made from more than 1,400 cubic yards of concrete, a 66-ton launch platform, and a 44-foot, 7.6-ton “strongback,” which lifts the rocket into launch position.
The company also built an integration and control facility at Wallops Research Park for processing payloads and Electron rockets before liftoff.
The 490-ton Neutron will be made of carbon composite, a strong but lightweight material.
It will be the first large launch vehicle made of the material.
3-D printing technology and an automated fiber placement system has made use of the material more efficient, according to Beck.
The rocket is designed to be reusable and to return to the launch site after missions.
It can lift 8 tons into low-Earth orbit in reusable mode or up to 15 tons otherwise.
“Neutron does not land on a barge. It is a return-to-launch-site vehicle,” Beck said.
The rocket is designed to launch constellations of satellites, which Beck said have unique deployment needs.
“Up until now, there hasn’t really been a vehicle that’s optimized to do that,” he said.
More than 80% of satellites to be launched in the next decade are expected to be constellations.
The rocket also could be used for geostationary deployments, human spaceflight, “and of course my personal favorite, interplanetary” missions, according to Beck.
The Neutron rocket has a wide static base and an upper stage that hangs from the payload separation plane, “which makes it incredibly strong — it also makes it the lightest upper stage ever in history,” according to Beck.
Seven of Rocket Lab’s new Archimedes engines, also reusable, will propel the first stage.
Where Electron provides dedicated access to orbit for small satellites up to 660 pounds, Rocket Lab expects Neutron will further expand space access for satellite constellations and provide a dependable, high-flight-rate dedicated launch solution for larger commercial and government payloads, according to Morgan Bailey, Rocket Lab communications director.
Rocket Lab was founded in 2006.
Since its first launch in January 2018, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has become the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket annually and has delivered 107 satellites to orbit for private and public sector organizations.
Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platform was selected to support NASA missions to the Moon and Mars, as well as the first private commercial mission to Venus.