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SpaceX has new competition from Rocket Lab's reusable Neutron rocket

The company behind the second biggest US commercial launcher aims to fund its next stage by going public.

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- 02:35
neutron-peter-beck

Beck standing in front of the fairing, or nose cone, of a Neutron rocket.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, a space startup based in the US and New Zealand, announced big plans Monday that founder Peter Beck once said would never come to pass, forcing him to eat his own hat.

Beck simultaneously announced the company's next rocket, the reusable medium-lift Neutron, and its plans to fund this next stage by going public on the Nasdaq stock exchange through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

Beck once said he would eat his own hat if his company ever built a reusable rocket. Holding to that promise, the above video announcing Neutron also features Beck blending up a cap and sampling it.

Beck's moment turning headwear to an hors d'oeuvre has been in the making for a while. Last year Rocket Lab announced plans to try recovering its spent Electron rockets using parachutes and a helicopter.

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Size comparison of an Electron and Neutron rocket.

Rocket Lab

Now, the recyclable Neutron launcher -- which will be designed to land on an ocean platform -- will allow Rocket Lab to compete more directly with SpaceX and other commercial companies for contracts to boost a variety of satellites to orbit; send small payloads to the moon, Mars or Venus; and even launch humans to space. 

The company's Electron rocket launches using 3D-printed Rutherford engines have become the second most prolific US commercial launcher since 2019, trailing only the SpaceX Falcon 9. The Electron is much smaller than Falcon 9 and Rocket Lab has so far focused on launching cubesats and other small satellites.

"Rocket Lab solved small launch with Electron," Beck said in a statement. "Now we're unlocking a new category with Neutron." 

Beck says Rocket Lab's target customer is companies building out mega-constellations of satellites that can fly on smaller rockets. While Neutron will be able to lift over 25 times the weight Electron is capable of sending to low-Earth orbit, it will only have about 35 percent of the payload capacity of a Falcon 9.

"Neutron's 8-ton lift capacity will make it ideally sized to deploy satellites in batches to specific orbital planes, creating a more targeted and streamlined approach to building out mega constellations," Beck explains.

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The UK's OneWeb and Canada's Telesat are among the companies launching satellite mega-constellations that could be potential customers. SpaceX and Amazon are also working on their own such ventures, with SpaceX Starlink already operating. Both of these companies have their own launch capability, however: SpaceX in-house and Amazon through its sister company Blue Origin. 

So the Neutron's competition may be pretty fierce. Blue Origin is already planning to do multiple launches for Telesat. But the landscape may change before Neutron finally flies. Beck says it will launch in 2024.

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