New Zealand space startup Rocket Lab has been busy working on a large reusable rocket called Neutron since the company went public on Nasdaq in March. On Thursday, Rocket Lab revealed the first details about the rocket, which could be a serious rival of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in future commercial launch market.
Neutron belongs to a category called medium-class launch boosters. It’s designed to be 131 feet tall and 23 feet in diameter with a maximum payload capacity of 15,000 kilograms (33,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit. (For reusable launches, Neutron will be able to carry up to 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.)
While it’s not quite as big as Falcon 9, which stands at 230 feet tall and can lift up to 22,800 kilograms (50,000 pounds) of payloads to low Earth orbit, it’s powerful enough to launch many cargo missions Falcon 9 is currently used for.
Neutron also has a few distinct features. It will be the world’s first launch booster of its size completely made of carbon composite, which is about 40 percent lighter than aluminum, the most common material used to build rockets today. Rocket Lab’s smaller reusable rocket, Electron, is made of the same material. A complete two-stage Neutron rocket is about two-third the height of a Falcon 9, but weighs only a third (480 tons vs. 1,420 tons).
The rocket’s light weight makes it easier to design its engine—a main challenge in building large rockets as seen with SpaceX’s Starship. Rocket Lab is currently developing an engine called Archimedes to power Neutron. The rocket’s first stage will require seven Archimedes engines to reach orbit, and then an eighth engine will propel the upper stage into its final trajectory.
“Neutron’s lightweight carbon composite structure means Archimedes does not need the immense performance and complexity typically associated with larger rockets and their propulsion systems,” Rocket Lab said in a press release on Thursday. “By developing a simple engine with modest performance requirements, the timeline for development and testing can be drastically accelerated.”
Another unique feature in Neutron’s design is its fairing, or nosecone. Fairings on current reusable rockets are designed to disconnect from the booster after releasing the upper stage and fall back to Earth’s atmosphere. Neutron’s fairing will stay connected to the rocket’s body the whole trip, simply opening when deploying the upper stage and then closing for return to Earth.
“The answer is not throwing away the fairings where you’re trying to catch them – the best way is to never get rid of them in the first place,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab didn’t announce a date for Neutron’s first flight on Thursday. The company previously said it expects to launch the first test before 2024. It is in the process of selecting facilities for rocket and engine production, as well as a launch site, on the East Coast, the company said.