New Zealand’s space startup Rocket Lab has been busy working on a large recyclable rocket called Neutron since the company was listed on the Nasdaq in March. On Thursday, Rocket Lab unveiled the first details of the rocket, which could become a serious rival to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the future commercial launch market.
Neutron belongs to a category called medium-class launch boosters. It is designed to be 131 feet high and 23 feet in diameter with a maximum payload capacity of 15,000 kg (33,000 pounds) for low orbit around the earth. (For reusable launches, Neutron will be able to transport up to 8,000 kg to low orbit around the Earth.)
Although not quite as large as the 230-foot-tall Falcon 9, which can lift up to 22,800 kilograms (50,000 pounds) of payload for low orbit around the Earth, it is powerful enough to launch many cargo missions currently used by the Falcon 9. to.
Neutron also has a few distinct features. It will be the world’s first launch booster of its size made entirely of carbon composite, which is approx 40 percent lighter than aluminum, the most common material used to build rockets today. Rocket Lab’s less recyclable rocket, Electron, is made from the same material. A complete two-stage neutron rocket is about two-thirds the height of a Falcon 9, but weighs only one-third (480 tons versus 1,420 tons).
The light weight of the rocket makes it easier to design its engine – a major challenge in building large rockets as seen with SpaceX’s Starship. Rocket Lab is currently developing an engine called Archimedes to power the Neutron. The first stage of the rocket will require seven Archimedes engines to reach orbit, and then an eighth engine will propel the top stage into its final orbit.
“Neutron’s lightweight carbon composite structure means Archimedes does not need the sheer performance and complexity typically associated with larger rockets and their propulsion systems,” Rocket Lab said in a news release Thursday. “By developing a simple engine with modest performance requirements, the timeline for development and testing can be drastically accelerated.”
“This is not a conventional rocket. This is what a rocket should look like in 2050. But we are building it today,” said Rocket Labs CEO Peter Beck during a virtual event Thursday morning.
Another unique feature of Neutron’s design is its hood or nose cone. Fairings on current reusable rockets are designed to disconnect from the booster after releasing the top step and falling back into Earth’s atmosphere. The neutron mantle will remain attached to the rocket’s body throughout the trip, simply opening when the upper stage is exposed, and then closing to return to Earth.
“The answer is not to throw the robes away 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 did not announce a date for Neutron’s first flight on Thursday. The company has previously said it expects to launch the first test by 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.
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