Rocket Lab Reveals Details of New Reusable Neutron Launcher – .

Rocket Lab Reveals Details of New Reusable Neutron Launcher – .

This morning, small satellite launcher Rocket Lab unveiled details of its future, more powerful Neutron rocket, a launcher optimized to carry satellites into orbit for future mega-constellations. Made from a special carbon composite created by Rocket Lab, Neutron will also be primarily reusable, designed to land on an airstrip after launch – the same way SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets.

“This is not a conventional rocket,” said Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, during the unveiling, which was broadcast live on YouTube. “This is what a rocket should look like in 2050. But we’re building it today. For now, Neutron is expected to make its first flight in 2024.

Rocket Lab already has a rocket called Electron, which the company has launched into orbit since 2017. Electron is intended to transport relatively small satellites into low earth orbit, in order to capitalize on the small satellite revolution. But in March, Rocket Lab announced plans to build another larger rocket called Neutron, as well as plans to go public through a SPAC merger. This was a big change for the company, as Beck once swore he would “eat his hat” if he made a reusable rocket or a bigger rocket. During the March announcement, he did eat a real hat from a blender.

Neutron will be 131 feet (or 40 meters) tall, much taller than Electron which is only 59 feet (18 meters) tall. Powered by seven new main engines called Archimedes, the rocket will be able to put between eight and 15 tons into low earth orbit. Rocket Lab says the vehicle will be perfect for launching mid-size satellites that are part of the proposed mega-constellations, massive satellite initiatives aimed at providing broadband coverage to the Earth below. However, Beck is considering other opportunities for Neutron.

“It’s great for geostationary deployments, manned spaceflight, and of course my favorite, interplanetary,” Beck said.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Neutron’s design is that it will be reusable, meaning virtually every part of the rocket will be sent back to Earth after launch. It also goes against the modern convention of how most orbital rockets work today. Typically, rockets are launched in “stages” or in pieces stacked on top of each other. During launch, as a rocket quickly engulfs its propellant, the rocket’s first stage – or most of the rocket’s body – will eventually break loose and fall back to Earth. Running out of fuel, the stage becomes unnecessary weight. As the rocket body falls, the top of the rocket – or second stage – will ignite its engine (or engines) and propel the payload further into space and deploy it into orbit.

Neutron will be a little different. Rather than stacking the floors on top of each other, Rocket Lab plans to put the second floor inside from the first. The second stage, powered by an Archimedes engine, will be attached to the payload and will remain housed inside the entire rocket body, completely protected during launch. Once in space, the top of the rocket will open, releasing the second stage / payload combo. The two then continue their journey into orbit.

An animation of Neutron’s “Hungry Hippo” fairing design.
Image: Rocket lab

And this is where things get weird. For most typical rockets these days, the main payload or launched satellite is enclosed inside a nose, or fairing, during flight. The bulbous structure at the top of the rocket protects the payload during the ascent into Earth’s atmosphere. Once in space, the shroud then shatters and falls back to Earth, where it is usually lost. This will not be the case with Neutron. Instead, the fairing will be hinge open, allowing the payload to deploy into space while keeping the fairing attached to the rocket. This way the fairings never leave the rocket.

“The answer isn’t to throw the fairings or even try to grab them,” says Beck. “The best way is to never get rid of it in the first place. Rocket Lab calls the fairings the “Hungry Hippo” fairing design.

With the second stage and payload underway, Neutron’s main body – 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 take-off.

Beck with the ram and stainless steel.
Image: Rocket lab

During the presentation, there were many subtle digs at SpaceX. On the one hand, Rocket Lab does not plan to land Neutron on ships in the ocean like SpaceX does. Additionally, the fairing design appears to be a direct response to SpaceX, which for years tried to catch its rocket fairings using large nets attached to ships. While the company managed to grab the fairings a few times, SpaceX ultimately abandoned the initiative due to poor reliability. Instead of, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in April that SpaceX would salvage 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 hit stainless steel, the primary material SpaceX uses to build its new Starship rocket. To take it a step further, he used a ram to strike a sheet of stainless steel, showing how it bends. Instead, Neutron will be made from a special carbon composite material created by Rocket Lab, which the company has implied is more robust. (The ram, of course, didn’t bend that one.)

However, one thing Rocket Lab can’t quite say is that Neutron is fully reusable. Much like with the Falcon 9 rocket, the second stage will not return to Earth once the payload is in orbit. But if it works, it will be a unique type of vehicle that is not yet on the market. Rocket Lab says it is already working on prototypes and that the Archimedes engine will do its first ignition test next year. Until then, Neutron may look cool, but it’s still just an animation.


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