Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced in comedic fashion today that the company will be developing a medium lift launcher, Neutron. The system is, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, built to propulsively land on an ocean platform. Rocket Lab states this will lead to a decrease in downtime between launches and an increase in launch cadence. The first launches will be from Wallops, VA (MARS launch facility) in 2024.
Rocket Lab is billing Neutron as “The Mega Constellation Launcher.” The primary design of this launcher is for rapid deployment of mega-constellations. The addition of a “medium-lift” class reusable rocket to their lineup will put Rocket Lab in prime position to cash in on the potential mega-constellation market, not only for initial installations, but also for constellation maintenance as satellites age; as between Electron and Neutron they will be able to support 98% of satellite launches through 2029.
With Neutron, Rocket Lab has the potential to undercut the price of other launch providers, becoming a direct competitor of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, not in terms of payload, but in terms of Price per KG to orbit. Rocket Lab did not announce a price for a Neutron launch yet, but seems confident that Neutron will be a competitively priced pathway to orbit. SpaceX may have unintentionally locked itself out of much of the prime mega-constellation launching business by creating its own mega-constellation; Starlink.
With a payload to LEO rating of 15.6 tonnes, the Falcon 9 nearly doubles the Neutron’s 8 tonnes to LEO, however, Neutron will find itself placed squarely between Electron and Falcon 9 in launch class. This would be the perfect weight class for resupply missions to the future Axiom Commercial Space Station. This weight class would likewise be good for a resupply mission of consumables to the ISS in case a larger resupply mission hits a long postponement.
Neutron is also billed as being capable of sending 1.5 tonnes to Venus or Mars. While not a huge amount, it could be extremely useful for lower cost, narrowly focused missions by Universities or Governments. In the future, a fleet of Neutron rockets could send many small resupply missions to the Moon or Mars.
While a larger rocket is big news for Rocket lab, the biggest “mic drop” of the announcement is that Neutron will be capable of human spaceflight. As for whether they will be designing their own capsules or potentially retrofitting to someone else’s, that remains unclear.
This announcement came as part of an overall announcement of a merger between Rocket Lab and Vector Acquisitions SPAC, which values the company at a worth over $4 billion. Once the merger is complete, Vector will change its name to Rocket Lab USA and begin public trading on the NASDAQ under the ticker RKLB.
Rocket Lab is not the first space company to go public in this manner. Virgin Galactic started the trend and Astra recently announced the same SPAC tactic to going public. Rocket Lab is, however, the most valuable space company to go public to date, with an initial valuation at $4 billion. Virgin Galactic was initially valued at 2.3 billion (currently worth $8.9 billion), and Astra’s upcoming SPAC will value them at $2.1 billion.
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