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Rocket Lab moves to challenge SpaceX and Starship head-on with Neutron

The plucky upstart takes some not so subtle digs at Elon Musk's company in its latest hype video.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
2 min read

The new Neutron, Rocket Lab's answer to Starship.

Rocket Lab

Forget about the battle of the space billionaires for a minute. The real battle for the future of space could be shaping up between the world's richest person and a lesser-known New Zealander who never went to college. 

On Thursday, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck provided an update on his startup's plans for its upcoming Neutron rocket, and those plans included plenty of references to SpaceX and its Starship without ever naming either. 

The below video features Beck walking through the design of Neutron, which will include a "wide static base" instead of deployable landing legs like those used on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. 

Beck also highlighted plans to use lightweight carbon composite materials instead of the steel that Starship is made with. Rocket Lab is using a process called "automated fiber placement," which is similar to 3D printing, for its materials. 

"This is what a rocket should look like in 2050, but we're building it today," Beck said in the prerecorded video. 

Rocket Lab so far has only launched its smaller Electron rocket, which is designed for lofting smaller satellites and isn't so much of a direct competitor to SpaceX. But Neutron would give the company the ability to launch more and bigger satellites, and to start to approach human spaceflight and even interplanetary missions.

Starship will still be a bigger, more powerful beast, with the capacity to lift over six times more mass to low Earth orbit than Neutron.

Neutron will be powered by seven of Rocket Lab's new Archimedes engines, which Beck said will be test-fired for the first time in 2022. 

He also highlighted Neutron's retractable fairing, or nose cone, which opens and closes to reveal the payload without completely detaching. By comparison, SpaceX has so far dropped its fairing halves and has worked to catch them or fish them out of the ocean later for reuse. 

In one final dig at Musk's company, Beck noted that Neutron will be designed to return for a landing at its launch site rather than landing on "a barge," a clear reference to SpaceX's droneship landing pads. 

Beck didn't provide an updated timeline for the first Neutron launch, but in the past the target has been set at 2024. 

SpaceX didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.