Rocket Lab highlighted its growing ambitions as a spaceflight company this week when it announced NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as the launch site for upcoming missions using its next-generation Neutron rocket.
Rocket Lab said it will also build Neutron at Wallops and use the location to prepare and conduct Neutron missions.
Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, commented on Monday’s announcement, saying: “Neutron is a new generation of rocket that will advance the way space is accessed, and Virginia makes perfect sense as a significant site for Neutron’s early development.”
NASA said it was delighted that Rocket Lab had selected Wallops for its Neutron operation. “We welcome Rocket Lab’s expansion on the Shore and look forward to working with them in bringing this new launch capability to reality,” Wallops director David Pierce said in a statement.
Rocket Lab unveiled the design of its two-stage Neutron rocket in March 2021 and is targeting its first orbital launch for 2024. Similar to SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, Neutron’s first-stage booster is designed to return to Earth in an upright landing so that it can be used for multiple missions. Such a system will help Rocket Lab to cut costs and offer competitive prices to companies wishing to deploy satellites in space. Rocket Lab says Neutron will also be capable of interplanetary missions and even crewed spaceflight.
On the launch pad the Neutron rocket will stand 40 meters tall and be able to carry payloads of up to 8,000 kilograms into low-Earth orbit. For comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is 70 meters tall and can carry payloads of up to 22,800 kilograms.
Based in New Zealand and the U.S., Rocket Lab has been making a name for itself as a SpaceX competitor, with 24 launches using its less powerful Electron rocket since 2017 — 14 of them taking place in the last two years. Missions mostly involve satellite deployments for a range of private customers, though its Neutron rocket should see it dramatically expand its operations. To date, all of Rocket Lab’s missions have launched from a facility in New Zealand, though two years ago it also received permission to use Wallops as an additional launch site.
Wallops is a well-established space launch facility, with more than 16,000 launches having taken place there since the first one in 1945.