SpaceX has competition in the form of space startup Rocket Lab, as the firm plans an ambitious Venus mission, develops a rocket that can send humans into space and also launch mega-constellation satellites into orbit.
This move comes off the back of a $4.1 billion listing on the Nasdaq exchange that has allowed the California firm to move away from small-scale satellite launches.
Founder, CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, told MailOnline the goal is to bring down the cost of getting small satellites into space, and make it cheaper for universities to send experiments to the moon, Mars and Venus.
The firm started with its Electron rocket, but has diversified into building satellites, running launch pads and are now working on a new, larger rocket dubbed Neutron.
Beck, a charismatic Kiwi, gives off an air of confidence and a passion for his industry and a real desire to make space more accessible.
He has previously claimed Rocket Lab would never make a reusable rocket and would never create a larger launch vehicle than the Electron – but that changed with a new version of the small rocket with a reusable first stage.
The next few years are going to be busy for the California-based firm including going public, launching the Neutron and planning a mission to look for life on Venus.
Funding for this massive expansion will come from the merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation, a special purpose company designed to help firms go public – it will see Rocket Lab valued at $4.1 billion and listed on the Nasdaq.
Founder, CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck (pictured), originally setup the firm with the goal of bringing down the cost of getting small satellites into orbit
NEUTRON: MEDIUM LIFT PARTIALLY REUSABLE ROCKET
The medium-lift Neutron rocket will be a two-stage launch vehicle that stands 40 meters tall with a 4.5-metre diameter fairing.
It will have a lift capacity of up to 8,000 kg to low-Earth orbit, 2,000 kg to the Moon, and 1,500 kg to Mars and Venus, makers Rocket Lab confirmed.
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.
In a video to mark the launch of the new, larger rocket Neutron, Beck can be seen literally eating a hat, something he told MailOnline was ‘very unpleasant’, and that he had to eat more than it looked as it took multiple takes to get right.
The Neutron is a major departure for both Rocket Lab and the space startup sector as the firm started by working out the average payload actually going into space.
The California and New Zealand based firm has merged with a special-purpose acquisition company to go public, valuing the joint venture at $4.1 billion.
The firm expects to generate more than $1 billion in revenue by 2026, in part due to the significant growth forecast for the launch, space systems and space applications market- which is forecast to grow to $1.4 trillion by 2030.
Rocket Lab will use its new position and a $740 million cash balance to develop the new 8-Ton Neutron rocket that can launch mega-constellations of satellites.
The Neutron rocket will be 40 metres tall, have a reusable first stage and capable of taking up to 8,000 kg of material to orbit on each flight.
It isn’t direct competition for the SpaceX Falcon 9, which can take up to 22,800 kg per trip, but Rocket Lab says its Neutron launcher will work out cheaper than the larger alternatives because it won’t have to go up half empty.
The spaceship is inspired by the most successful launch vehicle of all time – the Soyuz – a family of Russian launch vehicles with over 1,700 flights under its belt since its debut in 1966, with a similar relatively small payload capacity.
For nearly a decade between the final flight of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 and the 2020 launch of the crew Dragon on a SpaceX Falcon 9, Soyuz was the sole vehicle able to transport astronauts to the ISS.
‘The Soyuz is one of the most reliable rockets ever made and so we were inspired by it when developing the Neutron,’ Beck told MailOnline.
He added that their research revealed that ‘eight tonnes was the right point to be.’
Space startup Rocket Lab is taking on Elon Musk’s SpaceX with a huge new reusable rocket called Neutron that could be used to transport humans to space
The Neutron rocket will be 40 metres tall, have a reusable first stage and capable of taking up to 8,000 kg of material to orbit on each flight
ROCKET LAB: SPACE LAUNCH STARTUP
Rocket Lab is an American/New Zealand space startup initially designed to sent small satellites into orbit using small booster rockets.
Founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, they became the first Southern Hemisphere firm to launch to space with the Atea-1 rocket in 2009.
Its Electron rocket started launching small satellites in 2018 including launches for NASA’s ELaNa program.
Up until 2020 they had focused on small scale launches with the Electron able to carry payloads up to 300kg.
Going public and a period of major expansion in 2021 will see the firm make Electron partially reusable and launch a new heavier rocket.
The Neutron will be able to carry up to 8,800kg into orbit including crew.
The Neutron will also be rated to take astronauts up to the International Space Station or other orbiting space facilities due to come online in the near future.
Beck told MailOnline he ‘wanted to make the rocket human certified as it is expected more and more people will be going into space in the coming decades, including to the ISS and even on to the moon.’
Neutron can take loads of up to 8,000kg into orbit, but can also send loads of up to 2,000kg to the Moon and 1,500kg to Mars or Venus.
Sending payloads to the Moon is a market likely to grow in the coming years as NASA builds a new space station in lunar orbit and eventually a base on the Moon.
The vehicle will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as well as the Rocket Lab launch pad in New Zealand where it currently hosts Electron launches.
Launching constellation-class satellites is a controversial topic, with astronomers complaining that the trains of Starlink satellites make observations harder.
One example is the wide-field telescope of the upcoming Vera C Rubin observatory that will take whole sky pictures throughout the night.
Beck told MailOnline he took the issue very seriously and through its satellite component business was also working to ensure they didn’t interfere with astronomers or cause problems for people trying to enjoy or study the night sky from planet Earth.
The firm is planning to be able to send missions from low Earth orbit and out as far as interplanetary missions to Venus and Mars in the future
He says he has also spoken to the UN about the wider issue of space junk, adding that all of the equipment they launch is designed to de-orbit when no longer needed, reducing the impact on the massive space debris problem.
‘I have been very vocal about this and we need a coming of minds from both industry and government to tackle the growing problem,’ Beck told MailOnline.
‘We have fundamental rules at Rocket Lab to ensure we don’t leave junk behind into orbit, Electron is the only rocket that de-orbits components after they are used.’
Beck said a large proportion of space junk was spent rocket components rather than satellites no longer in use, so that was a major issue to tackle.
Successful space launch system Electron has sent 97 satellites into low Earth orbit since it first came online in 2017, specialising in small satellites and CubeSats
ELECTRON: SMALL ROCKET LAUNCHER
Height: 18m (59ft)
Payload to LEO: 300kg (661lb)
Succesful launches: 97
Cost: $100 million
Cost per launch: $7.5 million
Launch sites: Mahia LC-1 (active), MARS (planned), Sutherland (proposed)
First flight: 2017
‘We need a wide discussion to find ways to mitigate the issues and get everything under control before the problem gets any worse,’ he added.
When asked whether he felt there would be a space junk cleanup industry, with firms employed to force ‘scrap’ to de-orbit, he said ‘that would be a failure’.
‘We need to work to ensure rockets can de-orbit themselves when no longer needed, that satellites can remove themselves when out of commission, if we get to a point where we are paying people to remove the junk, we have failed.’
The Electron will continue to operate for small scale satellite launches after the Neutron rocket is launched as there is still a viable market for small sats.
This small rocket is 17m high, costs about $7.5 million per launch and can carry payload of about 300kg to low Earth orbit and has made 97 successful launches since its introduction in 2017.
There are dozens of space startups seeking to compete with Rocket Lab in the small launch vehicle market – including UK-firm Skyrora.
Skyrora plans to launch the XL from Scotland in the next year or so. IT is 22.7 metres high and can carry payloads of up to 315kg, putting it in direct competition with the Electron, which may also launch from Scotland in the future.
Rocket Lab Electron rocket (pictured) has been operating since 2017 and will be joined by the larger Neutron by 2023
COMPARISON: SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEMS AND THEIR PRICE
Since the launch of Sputnik-1 – the first human made object to orbit the Earth – atop a Sputnik rocket in 1957, the world of rocketry has grown dramatically.
Once the preserve of national or pan-national space agencies, rocketry is now increasingly in the hands of commercial manufacturers.
This includes old-guard players like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, as well as startups like SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Blue Origin.
Launch vehicles range in size from the currently in development Space Launch System from NASA to the tiny Electron from Rocket Lab.
The various sized vehicles can take objects from the very edge of space, to low Earth orbit and even out as far as the edge of our own solar system.
|Name||Cost per KG||Cost per launch||Height||Payload to LEO||Operator|
|Delta IV Heavy||$12,195||$350 million||72 metres||28,700 kg||United Launch Alliance|
|Atlas V||$5,360||$110 million||58.3 metres||20,520 kg||United Launch Alliance|
|Ariana 6||$17,800||$89 million||63 metres||5,000 kg||ArianeGroup|
|Falcon 9||$2,192||$50 million||70 metres||22,800 kg||SpaceX|
|Soyuz-2||$6,908||$48.5 million||46.3 metres||7,020 kg||Roscosmos|
|SLS||$15,384||$2 billion||111.25 metres||130,000 kg||NASA|
|Starship||$20*||$2 million*||122 metres||100,000 kg*||SpaceX|
|Neutron||0||0||40 metres||8,000 kg||RocketLab|
|* Estimated or aspiration values|
The plethora of small launch vehicle startups don’t worry Beck, who says competition is a good thing but it is a very difficult industry to break into.
‘When we launched Electron there was a crowded market but a lot of other firms trying to do it fell by the wayside as running a rocket launch regularly is difficult,’ Beck told MailOnline over Zoom.
‘We got to orbit, which turned out to be the easier part, sadly the business of producing the rocket for commercial launch is much harder,’ Beck said.
‘Launching that first flight into orbit gets you about half way to a sustainable business at best.’
Beck told MailOnline: ‘Running a rocket company is like running in a maze at night where there is someone with a shotgun standing at every dead end.
The Photon space system can take satellites to other worlds and will be sending a NASA CubeSat to the Moon later this year
‘You have to run as fast as you can to get to the end in order to survive.’
Rocket Lab and SpaceX are the two major new players in the sector, having regular functional launches for paying customers.
‘We compete in the same market for the same customers, but the market is big, you can’t expect just one commercial launch company,’ said Beck.
Rocket Lab is starting to work with NASA and will launch a CubeSat into lunar orbit later this year as part of a pathfinding mission to support the Artemis program.
They will launch on Electron and then use the Photo Lunar spacecraft to launch NASA’s CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) into a unique lunar orbit.
Rocket Lab has put 97 satellites into orbit so far and hopes to dramatically expand that number as it launches the larger Neutron lunch system in the next few years
This is the first stage in a wider mission to ‘open up access to deep space missions for small satellites,’ Beck explained to MailOnline.
Through its Photon spacecraft, Rocket Lab is also working on a mission to Mars and Venus in the next few years, with the Venus mission to search for signs of life.
The cheapest mission to Mars ever launched was the Indian space agency Mars Orbiter Mission, launched in 2013 and costing just $74 million.
The recent United Arab Emirates Hope probe cost $200 million and the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission cost $720 million.
Rocket Lab says it ensures parts flown into orbit are able to be de-orbited safely to prevent the build up of space junk
Beck is confident he can deliver space science missions for a fraction of the cost of the Indian MOM probe and if his Venus probe works, Rocket Lab will become the first private company to launch an interplanetary mission.
Talking about the future of interplanetary space travel, and planetary science missions made Beck light up, it is clearly a subject close to his heart.
He said the goal was to bring the cost of space science down to a point where a university could pay for its own equipment to go to another world without having to rely on a large scale NASA launch – which may only happen once a decade.
‘We are funding the mission to Venus to look for phosphine in the atmosphere and have been working with the team that discovered it in 2020,’ Beck told MailOnline.
NASA’s CubeSat will launch on Electron and then use the Photo Lunar spacecraft to launch NASA’s CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) into a unique lunar orbit
Scientists detect traces of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus
Traces of phosphine gas detected in the clouds above Venus could be an indication that the planet supports microbial life, a study has concluded.
On Earth, phosphine — a colourless gas that smells like garlic, or decaying fish — is naturally produced mainly by certain microorganisms in the absence of oxygen.
It can also be released in small amounts from the breakdown of organic matter, or industrially synthesised in chemical plants.
Experts from the UK, however, found signs of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere — suggesting the planet must support unknown chemical processes, or even life.
The second-closest planet to the Sun, Venus is inhospitable — with a surface temperature around 867°F (464°C) and pressure 92 times that of on the Earth.
However, its upper cloud deck — 33–38 miles (53–62 kilometres) above the surface — is a more temperate 120°F (50°C), with a pressure equal to that at Earth sea level.
The clouds are also highly acidic — meaning that the phosphine would be broken down very quickly and must therefore be being continually replenished.
The researchers have cautioned, however, that life is only one possible explanation for the source of the phosphine — with further investigation needed.
NASA is presently considering two missions to Venus that propose to study the planet’s atmosphere and geochemistry — dubbed ‘DAVINCI’ and ‘VERITAS’.
He didn’t outline how much it would cost, but said it would launch in the next few years on the Neutron launch vehicle and using the Photon spaceship.
In September 2020 British planetary scientists claimed to have detected trace amounts of phosphine gas in the planet’s acidic clouds.
Phosphine is often released by microorganisms on Earth that don’t use oxygen to breath, which led scientists to speculate Venus could be harbouring life.
A new study, published earlier this year seemed to pour doubt on the findings, with a team saying the phosphine wasn’t really there and was just sulphur dioxide, blaming it on the miscalibration of a radio telescope used in the original discovery.
Beck is keen to continue with the mission but says he is ‘not naive enough to think we might find life’, but added the goal was to ‘move the needle forward.’
‘It shows that small spacecraft can move forward in lots of different ways, allowing scientists to study other worlds faster than is possible with NASA,’ he added.
‘In the future we could allow a university to send their own mission to Mars or Venus, dramatically faster than the decade or so planetary missions from NASA.’
The merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation, a special purpose company designed to help firms go public, will value the joint venture at $4.1 billion.
Founded in 2006, since its inception Rocket Lab has deployed 97 satellites for governments and private companies using the partially reusable Electron rocket.
There are no plans to build a cargo or crew vessel similar to the SpaceX Dragon, despite Neutron being rated to send humans into orbit, Beck told MailOnline.
‘I’ve learn to never say never, but for now we are focused on building a launch system, one that can be reused and bring costs of launches down,’ he said.
‘We decided if we were building a rocket of this size it made sense to have it rated to send humans into space, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it yet.’
When asked if he would go to space atop his own rocket, he said ‘I think I’m of more use down on Earth than floating about in space.’
WHAT IS SPACE JUNK? MORE THAN 170 MILLION PIECES OF DEAD SATELLITES, SPENT ROCKETS AND FLAKES OF PAINT POSE ‘THREAT’ TO SPACE INDUSTRY
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.
But only 22,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.
Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.
Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.