United Launch Alliance held a grip on the medium-to-the-heavy-lift launch industry in the United States for years when Boeing and Lockheed Martin merged their launch vehicle companies into a joint venture. SpaceX would eventually contest this, but winning a national security launch business will take years of hard work, including a lawsuit. Last year, SpaceX and ULA formed a duopoly that beat off Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin to obtain National Security Space Launch Phase 2 deals.
SpaceX and ULA may confront considerably stronger competition the next time around. Apart from the possibility of Blue Origin and possibly Northrop Grumman bidding on upcoming contracts, tiny launch vehicle entrepreneurs are aiming to expand into wider markets. Both Rocket Lab and Relativity Space have announced plans for medium-class payload rockets for commercial and government clients in recent months. While the two businesses have similar goals, their methodologies for producing larger vehicles are somewhat different.
For most of its existence, Rocket Lab and its creator, Peter Beck, were uninterested in rockets larger than the Electron, which can send up to a maximum of 300 kilograms into the low-Earth orbit. Beck got closest to mentioning a larger rocket when he tweeted a picture of himself standing beside an Electron Heavy with 3 first stages, similar to the Falcon Heavy and Delta 4 Heavy. This was an April Fool’s joke, of course.
In March, that changed. Rocket Lab revealed Neutron at the same time it revealed it was going public via a merger with the special-purpose acquisition corporation (SPAC). That rocket will be much more powerful than Electron, with the ability to launch up to 8,000 kilos into space.
Neutron is depicted as a very unremarkable vehicle with a 4.5-meter-diameter conical payload fairing. The main distinguishing features are what appear to be folding landing legs at the base of the very first stage, similar to those on the Falcon 9. (Rocket Lab intends to land the first stage on the ship and later reuse it.)
Those public photographs, however, do not accurately depict Neutron’s exact shape. “The image of Neutron that you see there is a deception. “Neutron doesn’t look like that,” Beck stated in an early August webcast hosted by the Space Generation Advisory Council. “Basically, we’re tired of others always duplicating us.” He stated that the business would reveal Neutron’s true design “in time.”
Given the company’s reluctance to showing what Neutron appears like, it’s no surprise that little technical facts about the rocket, such as its engines, have been released. The business claims that Neutron will employ the same liquid oxygen and kerosene propellant combination as Electron, but it hasn’t specified the efficiency or even the quantity of engines on every stage of the rocket.