Because news of its SPAC-fueled public market debut wasn’t enough, Rocket Lab also unveiled a new class of rocket it has in development on Monday. The launch vehicle, called Neutron, will be able to carry 8 metric tons (around 18,000 lbs) to orbit, far exceeding the cargo capacity of Rocket Lab’s current Electron vehicle, which can host only around 660 lbs. Neutron will also have a fully reusable first-stage, designed to launch on an ocean landing platform, not unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.
Rocket Lab says that Neutron will be designed to service increased demand from customers launching large multi-satellite constellations. The heavier lift will mean that it can take more small satellites up at one time to get those constellations in orbit more quickly. Its cargo rating also means it should be able to deliver up to 98% of all currently-forecasted spacecraft launching through 2029, according to Rocket Lab, and provide resupply services to the International Space Station. Rocket Lab also says it’ll be capable of human spaceflight missions, indicating an ambition to make it the company’s first human-rated spacecraft.
Neutron could significantly expand Rocket Lab’s customer base, and it’ll also improve costs and economics vs. what Electron can do now, thanks to a design focus don efficiency and reusability. The rocket will launch from Rocket Lab’s Wallops, Virginia facility, and since there’s already a launch pad in place for it, the company expects it’ll be able to fly Neutron for the first time by 2024. In addition to its LA-based HQ and the Wallops launch site, Rocket Lab anticipates it’ll be building a new Neutron production facility somewhere in the U.S. to build the new rocket at scale.
While it won’t have the launch capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it’s still intended to be a rocket that can also carry smaller payloads to the Moon and even deep space beyond. The medium-lift category in general is generating a lot of interest right now, given the projections in the amount and variety of constellations that both private and public organization are expected to put into orbit over the next decade. Constellations are offering advantages in terms of cost and coverage for everything from communications to Earth observation. Another rocket startup, Relativity Space, just unveiled similar plans for a larger launch vehicle to complement its first small rocket.