In the private space industry, it may seem like there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems capable of attracting the same degree of attention. And Blue origin has not even passed the suborbital space yet.
Rocket Lab may soon have something to say about this duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., Is second after SpaceX in launch frequency – the two are apparently the only US companies that regularly go into orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered nearly 100 satellites into space, with just two failed launches.
On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer by unveiling plans for a new rocket called Neutron. Standing 40 meters tall and capable of supporting 20 times the weight of Electron, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into the markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions on the Moon and Mars. Even more enticing, Rocket Lab claims that Neutron will also be designed for human spaceflight. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among small startup companies,” says Roger Handberg, space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are now entering the territory of the largest and most established launch companies, especially SpaceX.”
This ambition was helped by another news announced on March 1: the merger of Rocket Lab with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly allows another company to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuen $ 4.1 billion. Much of that money is spent on developing and testing Neutron, which the company wants to fly in 2024.
It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a bigger rocket that could launch larger payloads and potentially deliver launches for several clients at the same time.
But the satellite market has embraced in-orbit carpooling missions, especially given the rise of mega-constellations satellites, which will likely make up most of the satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of carrying 8,000 kilograms in low earth orbit, which means it could orbit dozens of payloads at once. As a lightweight mea culpa, Neutron’s intro video showed Beck eating his own hat.