Last week, we covered RocketLab and their spectacular new means of recovering their Electron rocket. Reading that article, one will likely understand that they want to achieve cost-effectiveness and short turnarounds. On December 2, they announced new details on their Neutron rocket, making it clear that they're serious. And there's several exciting features.
“Neutron is not a conventional rocket. It’s a new breed of launch vehicle with reliability, reusability and cost reduction is hard baked into the advanced design from day one. Neutron incorporates the best innovations of the past and marries them with cutting edge technology and materials to deliver a rocket for the future,” said Peter Beck, CEO and RocketLab founder.
When looking at the Neutron, the most prominent and unique feature is that it opens its fairings, releasing the second stage before returning to earth. While giving Neutron a striking resemblance to SPECTRE's rocket from You Only Live Twice (EON Productions, 1967), RocketLab describes their fairing solution with the somewhat less menacing term of "Hungry Hippo."
Being completely encased during launch, the upper stage is touted to be the lightest in history, giving it excellent performance. While currently disposable, the solution could enable retrieval in the future. Of course, as the fairings aren't jettisoned, there's no risk that they'll become hazardous space debris. And finally, it contributes to the craft's tapered shape, which is created to be thermodynamically beneficial during reentry.
But the fairings are the result of a clear ambition: Neutron was developed for reuse within 24 hours. As they're retained, time is saved by not reattaching said component. This requirement has led to other characteristics of note.
The craft doesn't need any expensive infrastructure to take off, such as strongbacks and launch towers. And instead of landing in the ocean or even on barges at sea, it'll return to the launch site. And instead of landing on extendable legs, Neutron will quite simply land on its broad base.
The craft will use a new rocket engine known as Archimedes. Rather than having impressive performance, it's designed for durability, reusability, and the aforementioned short turnaround times. By running on methane fuel rather than kerosene, the buildup of soot is eliminated, something that normally needs to be cleared between each takeoff.
This all sounds innovative and ambitious, but it's not as remote as you might believe. According to RocketLab themselves, the craft is scheduled to take off for the first time in 2024. We'll keep you posted on further progress.