Rocket Lab will build Neutron, a next-gen reusable booster, in Virginia
rocket lab will build its next-generation Neutron launch vehicle on Wallops Island, Va., at a site adjacent to the company’s U.S. coastal launch pad.
“Its position on the east coast is the perfect place to support both Neutron’s expected frequent launch cadence and the rocket’s return-to-Earth capability of landing at its launch site after liftoff,” CEO Peter Beck said in a company announcement Feb. 2. 28.
California-based Rocket Lab has for several years sent small satellites into the air using its Electron rocket, which has launched exclusively from New Zealand to date. (The company launched a new launch pad at its New Zealand site on Feb. 28 with a successful liftoff.) Neutron will be built near Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on the ‘Island of Wallops, which is expected to begin operational Electron will be launched this year.
The reusable Neutron will be able to send larger payloads into orbit. The rocket will be particularly useful for launching satellite megaconstellations, launching interplanetary missions (which require more fuel) and, potentially, human missions, the company said.
Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)
The Virginia Neutron Complex will include a facility for rocket production, assembly and integration, all a short distance from Rocket Lab’s new launch pad on the southern end of Wallops Island. Rocket Lab estimates the facility will cover 250,000 square feet (23,000 square meters).
Neutron is designed to be reusable and to land on the launch pad after a mission. (Electron is currently expendable, but Rocket Lab is working to make the launcher’s first stage reusable.) Newly returned rockets will be brought back to the complex for refurbishment before sending them into the air with new satellites.
The facility will also include “automated fiber placement robotic production systems,” which will create carbon composite structures that will be used for Neutron, Rocket Lab representatives said. In general, composites are expected to be lighter and stronger than other materials, allowing for use in the extreme environments of space and launch activities.
Other features of Neutron include reusable rocket engines (called Archimedes) and an “advanced upper stage” to support complex satellite deployments, company officials said in the statement.
The Virginia area selection generated $45 million in local support. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia will provide Rocket Lab with $30 million as part of the spaceport’s “infrastructure and operational systems” upgrade, according to the Feb. 28 release. There will also be money available from a $15 million fund, from a state government group called the Major Employment and Investment Approval Commission.
Neutron itself attracted a $24 million development contract from the US Space Force‘s Space Systems Command “to support Neutron’s ability to assist national security and defense missions,” Rocket Lab said. Neutron is expected to launch various types of Space Force missions, such as national security payloads and science and experimental satellites.
Rocket Lab is committed to seeing more Neutron expansion happen as the program prepares for its first scheduled launch in 2024.