Rocket Lab appears to have made significant progress since revealing the state of hardware development for its next-generation Neutron rocket in a September 2022 investor update.
At the time, the company shared photos of early work on prototypes of smaller Neutron structural elements, as well as progress building the giant molds that will be used to ‘lay up’ the rocket’s carbon fiber composite tanks and airframe. Rocket Lab also showed off acquisitions of some of the supersized manufacturing equipment that will be used to build the giant rocket, as well as the beginnings of a dedicated Neutron factory in Virginia.
Four months later, photos shared by CEO Peter Beck show that Rocket Lab has progressed to full-scale carbon fiber hardware manufacturing. In December 2022, Beck shared a photo of a full-size Neutron tank dome in the middle of production. A month later, Beck shared a photo of work on both halves of a Neutron booster tank dome. Measuring around seven meters (23 ft) wide, the latter component is already on track to become one of the largest carbon fiber structures ever prepared for a rocket once the halves are joined. And once two more halves are built and assembled, Rocket Lab could soon be ready to start testing full-scale Neutron tank hardware – a crucial milestone for any new rocket.
Announced in March 2021 and properly unveiled in December 2021, Neutron is a partially-reusable two-stage rocket designed to launch up to 15 tons to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using liquid methane and oxygen propellant. Neutron measures 42.8 meters (140.4 ft) tall and up to seven meters (23 ft) wide. Its stout, ballistically-optimized design means that it’s simultaneously 40% shorter and up to 190% wider than SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
Design differences aside, Neutron is the first rocket that has been obviously designed as an answer to Falcon 9, which has become one of the most prolific, cost-effective, and routinely reusable rockets in the world over the last five or so years. Depending on how much Rocket Lab can sell Neutron for while still breaking even, Neutron has the potential to give Falcon 9 a serious run for its money – or at least force SpaceX to lower its prices. Like Falcon 9, Neutron will have a reusable booster, a reusable payload fairing, and an expendable upper stage. Its booster will also have nine (Archimedes) engines and the upper stage will be powered by one engine. At liftoff, Neutron will produce up to 674 tons (1.49M lbf) of thrust to Falcon 9’s 770 tons (1.7M lbf).
Unlike Falcon 9, Neutron’s similarly-sized reusable fairing is integral, meaning that it will stay permanently attached to the booster. But despite the added mass of the integral fairing and the rocket’s significantly shorter layout, Rocket Lab says that Neutron will be able to launch up to 13 tons (~28,700 lb) to LEO if the booster lands on a barge downrange. Using the same approach with a deployable fairing, Falcon 9 has launched up to 16.7 tons (~36,800 lb) to LEO. That 23% performance gap may seem significant, but the reality is that only SpaceX’s own Starlink and Dragon missions have ever needed Falcon 9 to launch more than 13 tons to orbit.
If Neutron can consistently launch ~25% less payload than Falcon 9 to all Earth and near-Earth orbits, virtually every commercial launch contract that’s currently a SpaceX shoo-in could be within reach of Rocket Lab within several years. The challenge, of course, is building Neutron and making sure the ambitious rocket and its clean-sheet Archimedes engine work as expected and can be reused as easily as Falcon 9.
The company is attempting to get there with its far smaller Electron vehicle, but Rocket Lab has never reused a rocket. And five and a half years after Electron’s debut, the company has never launched more than nine times in one year. SpaceX is about to reuse a Falcon booster for the 140th time and launched 61 times in 2022 – a lead that may prove almost impossible to close. There’s also the fact that the size gap between Rocket Lab’s rockets is so extreme that Neutron could likely launch a fully-fueled Electron into orbit.
But again, SpaceX serves as a demonstration that what Rocket Lab hopes to achieve is not impossible. SpaceX went directly from Falcon 1 (about twice as large as Electron) to Falcon 9 V1.0 (about 30% smaller than Neutron) after just two successful launches of the smaller rocket. Electron has successfully launched 29 times since May 2017 and Rocket Lab is already learning about reusability through the smaller rocket. The challenges facing Rocket Lab are huge, but Neutron still remains the most promising SpaceX competitor currently in development. Kicking off full-scale Neutron tank testing just 2-3 years after the rocket was revealed would only reiterate its strengths. Stay tuned to see how much Neutron progress Rocket Lab can make in 2023.