You’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat: Why Rocket Lab is Building the Neutron Launch Vehicle

Note: Story updated with information about ABL Space Systems’ RS1 booster.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Rocket Lab’s announcement that it is developing the medium-lift Neutron rocket focused on launching satellite constellations was an inevitable consequence of SpaceX getting into the rideshare business.

In January, Elon Musk’s company launched a record 143 satellites aboard a single Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is planning additional rideshares missions over the the next year.

Those flights will soak up a lot of the small satellite business that Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Firefly Aerospace, Relativity Space and other launch providers hoped to capture. SpaceX also has the ability to undercut its rivals on price.

A Falcon 9 can launch up to 15,600 kg to LEO when its first stage is recovered for reuse. An expendable Falcon 9 can lift 22,800 kg to LEO. Launch vehicles fielded by Rocket Lab and its competitors are tiny by comparison.

Selected Small Satellite Launch Vehicles

CompanyLaunch VehiclePayload to LEO (kg)Payload to SSO (kg)
Astra SpaceRocket 3?150
Rocket LabElectron300200
Virgin OrbitLauncherOne500300
Firefly AerospaceAlpha1,000630
Relativity SpaceTerran 11,250900
ABL Space SystemsRS11,350?

Rocket Lab unveiled its answer to SpaceX’s threat on Monday.

“The medium-lift Neutron rocket will be a two-stage launch vehicle that stands 40 meters (131 feet) tall with a 4.5-meter (14.7 ft) diameter fairing and a lift capacity of up to 8,000 kg (8 metric tons) to low-Earth orbit, 2,000 kg to the Moon (2 metric tons), and 1,500 kg to Mars and Venus (1.5 metric tons), “Rocket Lab said in a press release.

“Neutron will feature a reusable first stage designed to land on an ocean platform, enabling a high launch cadence and decreased launch costs for customers. Initially designed for satellite payloads, Neutron will also be capable of International Space Station (ISS) resupply and human spaceflight missions,” the company added.

SpaceX isn’t the sole reason Rocket Lab is developing a larger launch vehicle. It faces competition from other smallsat launch companies.

Neutron will be in direct competition with the Firefly planned Beta rocket. “Beta is a 2-stage launch vehicle capable of delivering 8,000 kg to a 200 km (125 mile) Low Earth Orbit and has the capability of achieving Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits,” Firefly said on its website.

Last week, Relativity Space unveiled plans for its fully reusable Terran R booster, which will be able to launch more than 20,000 kg into low Earth orbit. The rocket would have more lift capacity than the mostly reusable Falcon 9 and slightly less than an expendable Falcon 9.

The prospect of Virgin Orbit scaling up the air-launched LauncherOne is uncertain. There is only so much space between the Boeing 747’s fuselage and its inboard jet engine. One option would be to develop a larger booster for launch from Stratolaunch’s Roc aircraft, which sits just down the flight line at the Mojave Air and Space Port.