Rocket Lab offers next-day shipping to space

It wasn’t long ago that orbital launches were something that took years of planning and months of tests and careful preparation. But Rocket Lab’s new program will enable customers to show up at the launch site with their payload in the boot and have it in orbit 24 hours later. Premium next-day rates will apply, of course.

The Responsive Space Program is actually a bit more formal than that, but the very idea of going from zero to launch in a day or less is pretty impressive.

“Responsive launch capability was baked into the design of Electron and our launch sites since day one, and we’ve made strategic investments into vertical spacecraft manufacturing to enable this,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. And as the release states: “From arrival at the launch site, payload integration, encapsulation and launch can be completed in as little as 24 hours.”

Your company will, of course, have to be part of the program, and collaborate ahead of time with Rocket Lab on the exact specifications, orbit and other variables necessary to any successful launch. So although you can’t just show up at the launch complex with a few million bucks and a satellite, you can give them all the relevant details and say you might show up like that some time in the next six months.

Although the company has made some very quick turnarounds in the past and launched on fairly short notice for customers like the National Reconnaissance Office, it has not yet accomplished this ultra-fast turnaround, but the company is confident that it’s possible. Indeed, as Beck points out, this has been one of the capabilities it has chiefly aspired to from the start. And a company representative told me that customers have asked for this kind of ultra-short-turnaround option numerous times.

Naturally, it’s also unlikely that the payload will arrive on the back of a pickup — Rocket Lab emphasizes its ability to build, maintain and otherwise operate or prepare satellites and support systems at its own facilities. It’s more likely that if you’re part of this new program, your satellite would be waiting in a clean room somewhere in New Zealand (or starting in December, Virginia) while you iron out the last of its code or wrestle with red tape.

Then when you get the all-clear, you’d call up Peter and he’ll put your bird into orbit before the sun goes down tomorrow. They might even catch the first stage on the way down.

GitHub sunsets Atom, the software dev environment it launched in 2011

GitHub today announced that it will sunset Atom, the text editor for software development that the company introduced in 2011. In a blog post, GitHub said that it will archive the Atom repository and all other repositories remaining in the Atom organization on December 15, 2022.

Atom served as the foundation for the Electron framework, which paved the way for thousands of apps including Microsoft Visual Studio Code, Slack, GitHub’s own GitHub Desktop. But GitHub asserts that Atom community involvement has declined as new tools have emerged over the years. Atom itself hasn’t seen significant feature development for the past several months beyond maintenance and security updates.

“When we introduced Atom in 2011, we set out to give developers a text editor that was deeply customizable but also easy to use — one that made it possible for more people to build software,” GitHub wrote in a blog post published this morning. “[R]eliability, security, and performance are core to GitHub, and in order to best serve the developer community, we are archiving Atom to prioritize technologies that enable the future of software development.”

GitHub Atom

Image Credits: GitHub

GitHub says that it’ll refocus its efforts on Microsoft Visual Studio Code (VS Code) and GitHub Codespaces, its cloud-powered development environment, going forward. “We recognize that Atom is still used by the community and want to acknowledge that migrating to an alternative solution takes time and energy,” the company continued.

Curiously, VS Code launched in 2015 as something of an answer to Atom. Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub in 2018 brought Atom and VS Code under one roof, cannibalizing the latter. But VS Code’s popularity continued to grow. According to Stack Overflow’s 2021 developer survey, just 13% of developers use Atom as their primary environment; VS Code is used by 71%.

It’s not the end for Atom, necessarily. Once archived, the code will be available for developers to inspect and build on. And one of the project’s core contributors, Max Brunsfeld, is leading an effort to launch a spiritual successor called Zed, which will launch in private alpha this week.

Watch Rocket Lab send a pair of BlackSky satellites to space

Rocket Lab will embark on its 25th mission using the Electron rocket on Friday, this time to send two Earth imaging spacecraft to orbit for BlackSky. The launch, the second of 2022 for Rocket Lab, will bring BlackSky’s high-resolution satellite constellation to 14.

The mission, named “Without Mission A Beat,” will embark from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 12:35 UTC (8:35 AM EST). The pair of BlackSky satellites will be deployed at a 430 kilometer (270 mile) orbit.

The company will not attempt to recover Electron’s first stage during this mission, though Rocket Lab has been working on first-stage reuse for Electron since 2018. The company’s long-term vision is to recover the first stage via a mid-air helicopter capture, a maneuver its been inching toward over the past few years. Last November, Rocket Lab executed its third recovery of the booster (the only other company besides SpaceX to achieve reusability), with a chopper stationed in the recovery zone to monitor the booster’s descent.

Beck told reporters that the company will likely attempt the mid-air catch within the first half of this year.

This is not the first time Rocket Lab has delivered payload to space for BlackSky. The launch company has delivered the majority of BlackSky’s satellites currently in orbit, with the first launch for the geospatial intelligence company taking place in 2019.

The launch will stream on the company’s website and on its YouTube channel, and TechCrunch will throw the stream at the top of this page once it goes live.

Rocket Lab reimagines rocket design with its Neutron launch vehicle

Rocket Lab finally pulled the cover off its Neutron rocket, a medium-lift vehicle that CEO Peter Beck calls “a rocket of 2050,” as the company looks to take a greater share of the launch market currently dominated by SpaceX.

This is the first major update on the project from the company since Neutron was announced in March. Since then, Rocket Lab’s been busy, going public via a merger with a blank-check firm, continuing to develop its Electron reusability program, and expanding its space services division. All the while, the company has managed to stay mum about Neutron – until now.

Carbon composites

Neutron features a number of surprising innovations that depart from other rockets of its class in both operation and development. The first is materials: the 131-foot rocket will be made out of a special carbon composite, much like its sibling rocket Electron.

It’s an interesting choice, particularly as SpaceX famously decided to ditch carbon composites for its Starship system in favor of stainless steel. But this is not Rocket Lab’s first rodeo with carbon composites; not only do they make up the bulk of the Electron rocket, Beck has been working with advanced composites and materials since the start of his career at a New Zealand government research facility.

“If you’re someone who is used to working in metallics, actually moving into composites is really challenging,” CEO Peter Beck told TechCrunch. “But if you’ve always been in composites and your experience is there, then actually, they’re pretty simple.”

Metallic structures are heavy and low-performance; while that can be made up for with high-performance engines, this doesn’t lead to high margins or high reliability for reuse, he added. Lighter structures avoid what he called “the rocket spiral of doom”: a never-ending arms race between heavier structures requiring more propellant, which then requires a larger propellant tank, which increases the weight and requires even more propellant — ad infinitum.

“This is the first time in my career ever, where the spiral of doom is inversed. The spiral of doom is inversed because of the lightweight structures, and it’s not just important from a launch perspective, it’s actually really important from a reentry perspective,” he said. Why? According to Beck, Neutron’s large diameter at 23 feet and light weight gives it a large ballistic coefficient, a measure of an object’s ability to resist air drag. So the focus on structure means using less propellant on reentry, less air drag (and less heat as a consequence), and a simpler engine.

The Neutron will also be finished in a new type of graphite composite for added thermal protection, a new addition that will be coming to future Electron rockets as well.

The ‘Hungry Hippo’

Another major departure from conventional rocket design are Neutron’s fairings, a piece of equipment that traditionally sits at the top of the rocket like a nose cone, protecting the payload inside. Historically, fairings separate and fall back to Earth and are generally considered expendable, though SpaceX retrieves them from the ocean for refurbishment and reuse.

Rocket Lab has instead attached the four fairings to the first stage, where they will mechanically open (imagine a strange, robotic flower). This is yet another design decision that has been driven by the use of composite materials, Beck said.

“Normally you don’t have the mass margins to be able to hold onto fairings and do things like that. You have to get rid of the fairings as quick as you can, because you can’t afford that parasitic mass. But when the parasitic mass is really low, then it allows you to be able to do these kinds of things.”

Neutron will be capable of carrying a maximum of 15,000 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit, putting it right in competition with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Relativity Space’s in-development Terran R rocket.

But what about the second stage?

Not only is there no nose cone payload fairing, Rocket Lab also decided to overhaul the second stage as well. Conventional rocket design integrates the second stage by sandwiching it between the first stage and the payload. But with Neutron, the second stage will hang inside the first stage. When the rocket needs to deploy the payload, the ‘Hungry Hippo’ fairing design will open and release both the second stage and payload to orbit.

Rocket Lab intends to use Neutron for different types of missions, including human spaceflight. In the case of a crewed launch, Beck said they could simply remove the fairings and the capsule holding the crew would go on top.

The second stage is designed to be expendable. While other rocket companies are working on full reusability, Beck said the jury was still out on whether second stage reusability makes sense, particularly considering the increased mass requirements of reusability and the associated operational costs of recovery.

Returning to Earth

Once the second stage is deployed, the first stage will return to Earth to land right back on its launch pad. That means no touchdown on an ocean barge, another choice that will save on operational costs, Beck said.

Neutron will get to orbit and back using seven new engines Rocket Lab has developed, which it calls Archimedes. These low-pressure engines will run on liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane, rather than LOX and kerosene. Just like the decision to return the first stage to the launch site, the propellant choice was designed to minimize turnaround time between missions.

“Engines have typically in the past required a lot of refurbishment. And they require a lot of refurbishment because the propellants chosen have been LOX and kerosene. Kerosene creates a lot of sooting, a lot of coking,” he said. “So that’s what drove the decision to use methane, is that you can run an engine on methane and it’s perfectly clean and still shiny after you’ve finished burning it.”

Neutron will eventually take off from somewhere in the United States, and Rocket Lab is in the middle of a competitive process to choose a launch and manufacturing site. Much has been made of the auspicious absence of any specific launch date for Neutron – Rocket Lab had previously said 2024, which was not mentioned in this morning’s update – but Beck said that omission wasn’t intentional.

“We’re aiming to get one on the pad in ’24 and get a commercial customer up in the sky in ’25,” he confirmed. “But we also acknowledge it’s a rocket program. So it’s a lot of work to do but we’re working hard and that’s the plan.”

Rewatch the company’s Neutron update in here:

Rocket Lab aims to catch Electron rocket booster mid-air with a helicopter next year

Fresh on the heels of Rocket Lab’s third successful booster recovery, CEO Peter Beck said the next step will be attempting to catch the booster mid-air using a helicopter, likely within the first half of next year.

Rocket Lab recovered the first stage of its Electron launcher during an ocean splashdown last week, after the rocket delivered two BlackSky geospatial imaging satellites to low Earth orbit. The company stationed a helicopter near the splashdown area during that mission, but only for reconnaissance purposes. The ultimate goal for the company’s reusability program has always been to actually recover the booster in mid-air, and now it’s nearly upon them.

The main work to be done between now and then is helicopter readiness, Beck said during a call with reporters Tuesday. The aircraft that will be used for the mid-air catch attempt will be significantly heavier, and will have a significantly heavier payload capacity, than the one that was present at last week’s launch (the first stage weighs around 980 kilos).

“The other part of it is slotting that flight and with a very, very busy manifest,” he said. “A priority is always making sure we deliver our customers on time. So that that’s the next thing, but we certainly hope to have that flight within the first half of next year or as soon as practically possible, really.”

The company is planning a number of commercial flights between now and the mid-air recovery attempt, but these will be non-recovery missions. The next big learning opportunity for Rocket Lab will be once it is able to catch the booster and return it dry to the factory, Beck added.

Looking to next year, Beck said he foresees a busy year for the company, in part as a response to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand that have restricted Rocket Lab’s launch cadence throughout this year. While he didn’t speculate on how many launches the company might complete next year, he said he anticipated 2022 being the busiest year so far for the company.


Max Q: Elon Musk talks Starship, envisions first orbital launch in January 2022

Hello and welcome back to Max Q, your very favorite space news digest. A ton happened this week — launches, financing deals, contract awards, etc., etc. — so let’s dive in.

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Starship stacking

Source: SpaceX

Musk: SpaceX to conduct first orbital flight of Starship in January

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a talk at the National Academies’ first virtual joint fall meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday night, followed by a Q&A session with Academy members on the technical and operational aspects of Starship, SpaceX’s ultra-super-heavy launch system.

First, the logistical details: Musk said he anticipates conducting the first orbital flight of Starship in January, followed by dozens or possibly more launches through the rest of the year. He added candidly that while the first orbital launch is not likely to be successful, he’s “comfortable” Starship will reach orbit at some point next year.

This is significant and not totally unsurprising. While Musk has made a handful of predictions before about when Starship might attempt an orbital launch, all of that has been dependent on the Federal Aviation Administration completing its regulatory review of SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site, Starbase. Well now, the FAA has officially confirmed that it anticipates the review will be complete by December 31, so a January launch is looking more likely than ever.

Musk also reaffirmed his vision of Starship as a tool that can make humans truly multi-planetary for the first time in history. He described the vehicle as “a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system” — that means the moon, Mars and even beyond.

Rocket Lab acquires PSC, recovers booster after sending BlackSky satellites to orbit

Rocket Lab was busy this week. First, the launch company announced it was acquiring spacecraft separation systems company Planetary Systems Corporation, Rocket Lab’s third acquisition in around 18 months or so. Then there was the company’s third-quarter earnings call. On Wednesday evening, the company — drumroll, please — successfully recovered the first stage of its Electron launcher for the third time.

Rocket Lab has successfully recovered the first-stage booster twice in its history. During all three flights, this booster made a splashdown via parachute. But Wednesday night’s recovery included an additional element: the presence of a helicopter, which hovered near the splashdown area to track and observe the booster as it made its descent. While the helicopter didn’t actually assist with recovery, its presence is significant, as it indicates that Rocket Lab is also a step closer to executing its ultimate reusability plan: using a parachute to slow the velocity of the booster and capturing it mid-air.

Finally, Rocket Lab finished out the week with even more news: It has entered into an exclusive license agreement with Johns Hopkins University to commercialize small spacecraft telemetry and control radio technology. It’s calling the software-defined radio product “Frontier-S by Rocket Lab.”

More news from TC and beyond

Blue Origin reportedly upped its offer to cover the costs of developing a lander for NASA’s Human Landing System program from $2 billion to $3 billion in an effort to receive a contract. NASA has said that budgetary issues were partly to blame for why it chose a single bidder — SpaceX — for the HLS contract.

Hydrosat, a geospatial data startup, has closed $10 million in seed funding to accelerate the commercialization of its ground temperature analytics product. The startup plans on sending a satellite equipped with a thermal infrared sensor to orbit next year.

Fleet Space raised $26.4 million in Series B financing led by existing investors Artesian Venture Partners, Blackbird Ventures, Grok and Horizons Ventures. The Australian startup is manufacturing and launching satellites for Internet of Things devices, with the goal of operating a 140-satellite constellation.

Intuitive Machines landed a $77.5 million contract with NASA under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Intuitive Machines will deliver four research payloads to the moon in 2024 using its Nova-C lander.

Inversion, a startup developing a space capsule to send and return small payloads from orbit, raised a $10 million seed round led by Spark Capital.

Northrop Grumman is leading a team that includes AVL, Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Michelin to design a crewed lunar terrain vehicle. That vehicle design will very likely be submitted as a bid to NASA for a forthcoming contract.

Sierra Space — the company that has plans to build a commercial space station along with Blue Origin, Boeing and others — has raised $1.4 billion in new capital, bringing its valuation to $4.5 billion. There were a lot of questions about how the company was going to finance the space station, and its Dreamchaser space plane and well… looks like we’re getting an answer.

Starlink satellite dishes have been spotted at some Supercharger locations. There’s been no comment from Tesla or SpaceX, but it’s a notable development.

The agenda for TC Sessions: Space is here

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.

Check out a sneak peek of the early agenda by clicking here. Suffice to say, you won’t want to miss it.

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Rocket Lab’s Electron booster splashes down in the Pacific Ocean

Rocket Lab’s reusability program advanced one more step on Wednesday night when the company recovered the booster from its Electron launcher for the third time.

The successful mission comes after a period of delays due to weather, but all went according to plan, with the “Love at First Insight” mission taking off at 8:39 PM EST from the company’s launch facility on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Separation occurred at around 8:41 PM EST and the first stage splashing down at around 9:24 PM EST, according to a tweet from Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.

Rocket Lab has successfully recovered the first-stage booster twice in its history – the only other company besides SpaceX to achieve reusability. The first successful recovery took place November 2020 and then again in May 2021, though that latter mission resulted in the destruction of the payload.

Like those flights, this booster made a splashdown via parachute. But the recovery included an additional element: the presence of a helicopter, which hovered near the splashdown area to track and observe the booster as it made its descent. While the helicopter didn’t actually do anything related to the recovery, its presence is significant, as it indicates that Rocket Lab is also a step closer to executing its ultimate reusability plan: using a parachute to slow the velocity of the booster and capturing it mid-air with a helicopter.

The Electron sent two BlackSky Earth geospatial imaging satellites to low Earth orbit, part of a rapid five-launch agreement on behalf of BlackSky between Rocket Lab and launch services provider Spaceflight Inc. These satellites were originally scheduled to go to LEO in August, part of a three-launch schedule that ended up being delayed due to a small resurgence of the coronavirus in New Zealand and subsequent lockdown measures.

The two BlackSky satellites will join seven others already in orbit, as the geospatial intelligence company’s aims to grow its constellation to 14 satellites by the end of this year. Earlier this year, two BlackSky satellites were lost due to a significant anomaly that occurred shortly after the Electron’s second-stage ignited.

This mission marks Rocket Lab’s twenty-second Electron launch and the fifth mission this year.

Rewatch the launch here:

Rocket Lab’s order backlog tops $141M as the company inks five-launch deal with Kinéis

It was a busy first half of the year for U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab, which posted earnings for the first six months of 2021 on Wednesday – the first such reporting since the company went public last month.

Rocket Lab reported revenues for the six-month period of $29.5 million. Its order backlog also grew to $141.4 million as of June 30, up 136% from $59.9 million compared to the same period last year.

While the general trend seems to be positive, executives emphasized the continued impact of COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, the site of one of the company’s key launch facilities. CFO Adam Spice said the third quarter has already been impacted by the pandemic, after New Zealand introduced strict lockdown restrictions in response to an 855-person outbreak of the Delta variant. Those restrictions resulted in “no further launch activity planned” for the quarter, Spice said, and will likely result in a $10-15 million impact on revenues for the year.

Despite these setbacks, executives said they anticipated a yearly revenue of $50-54 million. GAAP operating expenses, meanwhile, hit $29.3 million for the six-month period, up from $11.9 million for the first half of last year. The majority of that increase was from R&D spending, including the development of an automated flight termination system and the Neutron launch vehicle, Spice added.

Rocket Lab, which started as a launch company, has significantly branched out since its founding in 2006. The company now fashions itself as an end-to-end space company, providing launch services, as well as the design, manufacturing and operation of spacecraft.

It is this latter business area that Rocket Lab has aggressively grown over the past eighteen months; some recent milestones include an agreement to develop three of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft for space manufacturing company Varda Space Industries and plans to send two Photons to Mars on an upcoming space mission. The growth of its space systems division reflects these developments; for the six-month period, space systems made up a $5.4 million share of revenue, up from just $300,000 in the same quarter last year.

Rocket Lab also said it would start manufacturing satellite components at scale by the end of this year, starting with reaction wheels, a critical attitude and stability control system. Rocket Lab will be opening a new facility that will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually, a massive increase in volumes compared to what’s ever been available to the space industry before.

“Satellite components typically have been produced in small numbers which has really limited the speed and scale of constellation development,” CEO Peter Beck said during an investor call Wednesday. “The [reaction wheel production] line has been built to solve that, enabling production at scale to meet the growing needs of customers in the industry at large.”

Rocket Lab’s space systems division was given a huge boost by the acquisition of major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary last year, and it likely won’t be the company’s last purchase. Rocket Lab has around a half dozen deals it’s actively investigating, Spice told investors Wednesday. “The Sinclair acquisition has really emboldened us to lean forward and look at opportunities.”

“What’s interesting about this market right now is it does really feel like it’s ripe for consolidation,” he said. “Not consolidation in the sense of large companies necessarily getting together but the fact [that] the invest-ability of space is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said.

Company executives stayed largely mum on the Neutron rocket, with Beck simply noting that it “continues to develop really well” and that the company will provide a more detailed development in the coming months.

“Neutron is a vehicle that is not an increment on Electron,” he said. “It is something that really sets a new standard within the space industry.”

Rocket Lab also announced today that it has inked a multi-launch contract with Kinéis, a French connectivity provider for Internet of Things devices, to deploy its satellite constellation across five Electron missions. Kinéis’ investors include the French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales and French space company Collecte Localisation Satellites.

The constellation will consist of 25 satellites in total, adding to the over 100 satellites Rocket Lab has launched on its Electron rocket to date. The launches are scheduled for the second quarter 2023.

This is just the latest multi-launch deal Rocket Lab has inked in recent months, including a contract with satellite analytics company BlackSky for five launches.

Rocket Lab has continued to rise, closing Wednesday at $15.09. That represents a nearly 50% increase since the company’s public debut at the end of August.

Peter Beck on Rocket Lab’s public listing debut, space SPACs and the Neutron rocket

Peter Beck’s earliest memory is standing outside with his father in his hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, looking up at the stars and being told that there could very well be people on planets orbiting those stars looking right back at him.

“For a three or four year old, that was a mind-blowing thing that got etched into my memory and from that point onwards, that was me destined to work in the space industry,” he said at the Space Generation Fusion Forum (SGFF).

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But it’s true that Beck’s career has been characterized by an unusually single-minded focus on rocketry. Instead of going to university, Beck got a trade job, working as a tool-making apprentice by day and a dilettante rocket engine maker by night. “I was very, very fortunate through my career that the companies I worked with and worked for, and the government organizations that I’ve worked for, always encouraged — or tolerated, maybe is a better word — me using their facilities and doing things in their facilities at night,” he said.

His tinkering matured with experience and working double time paid off: In 2006, he founded his space launch company Rocket Lab. Now, 15 years and 21 launches later, the company has gone public through a merger with a blank-check firm that’s added $777 million to its war chest.

The space SPAC craze

The merger with Vector Acquisition catapulted Rocket Lab’s valuation to $4.8 billion, putting it second (by value) amongst space launch companies only to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SPACs have become a popular route to going public amongst space industry companies looking to secure large amounts of capital; rival satellite launch startups Virgin Orbit and Astra have each started trading via a SPAC merger, in addition to other companies in the sector, like Redwire, Planet and Satellogic (to name just a few).

Beck told TechCrunch that going public has been part of Rocket Lab’s plans for years; the original plan was to use a traditional initial public offering, but the SPAC route in particular enabled certainty around capital and valuation. According to a March investor presentation in advance of the SPAC merger — documents that should always be taken with a large grain of salt — the future is bright: Rocket Lab anticipates revenues of $749 million in 2025 and surpassing $1 billion the following year. The company reported revenues of $48 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020, and anticipates hitting around $69 million this year.

But he remains skeptical of pre-revenue space startups, or those that failed to raise capital, using SPACs as a financial instrument. “There has been a lot of space SPACs go out, and I think that there is a spectrum of quality there for sure — some that have failed to raise money in the private markets, and [a SPAC merger] is the last-ditch attempt. That is no way to become a public company.”

While the space industry is relatively crowded now, with companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX sending payloads to orbit and myriad newer entrants looking to join them (or, more optimistically, take their leading place), Beck said he anticipates the crowd thinning out.

“It’s going to become blatantly obvious to investors really quickly, who’s executing, and who’s aspiring to execute,” he said. “We’re in a time where there’s lots of excitement, but at the end of the day, this industry and the public markets are all about execution. The wheat from the chaff will get separated very, very quickly here.”

From Electron to Neutron

Rocket Lab’s revenues have largely come from the small payload launch market, in which it’s managed to take a leading position with its Electron rocket. Electron is only 59 feet tall and scarcely four feet in diameter, significantly smaller than other rockets going to space today. The company conducts launches from two sites: Its privately-owned launch range on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, and a launch pad out of NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia (which has yet to play host to an actual Rocket Lab mission).

Rocket Lab is in the process of transitioning Electron’s first-stage booster to be reusable. The company has been implementing a new atmospheric reentry and ocean splashdown process that uses a parachute to slow the booster’s descent, but the ultimate goal is to catch it in the air using a helicopter.

Thus far, Rocket Lab and SpaceX have dominated the market, but that could change soon. Both Astra and Relativity are developing small launch vehicles — the latest iteration of Astra’s rocket is around 40 feet tall, while Relativity’s Terran 1 is in between Electron and Falcon 9 at 115 feet.

For that reason, it makes sense that Rocket Lab is planning on expanding its operations to include medium-lift rocketry, with its much-anticipated (and very mysterious) Neutron launch vehicle. The company has been keeping the details about Neutron close to its chest so far — Beck told SGFF attendees that even publicly released renderings of the rocket have been “a bit of a ruse” (meaning the image below bears little to no resemblance to what the Neutron actually looks like) — but it’s expected to be more than double the height of Electron and be capable of sending around 8,000 kilograms to low-Earth orbit.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

“We do see a lot of people in the industry copying us in many ways,” he explained to TechCrunch. “So, we’d rather get a little bit further down the path and then reveal the work that we’ve done.”

Rocket Lab estimates that Electron and Neutron will be capable of lifting 98% of all satellites forecasted to launch through 2029, making the need for an additional heavy-lift rocket unnecessary.

In addition to Neutron, the company has also started developing spacecraft. It’s called Photon, and Rocket Lab imagines it as a “satellite platform” that can easily be integrated with the Electron rocket. The company’s already lined up Photon missions to the moon and beyond: first to lunar orbit for NASA, as part of its Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) program.

Two Photons were selected earlier this month for an 11-month mission to Mars, and Beck has publicly discussed long-term plans to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere via a Photon satellite.

Beyond Photon, Rocket Lab has also locked in a deal with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries to build it a spacecraft to launch in 2023 and 2024.

Neutron has been designed to be human-rateable right from the start, meaning that it will meet certain safety specifications for carrying astronauts. Beck said he’s certain that “we are going to see the democratization of spaceflight” and he wants Rocket Lab to be well positioned to deliver that service in the future. In terms of whether Rocket Lab would eventually expand into building other spacecraft, like landers or human-rated capsules, Beck demurred.

“Never, ever say never,” he said. “That’s the one takeaway I’ve learned in my career as a space CEO.”

Aurora Propulsion Technologies will be sending up space junk removal tech on Rocket Lab’s Electron later this year

Aurora Propulsion Technologies, a Finnish company that develops thrusters and de-orbiting modules for small satellites, will be sending its technology to space for the first time. The company has signed on with Rocket Lab to send its inaugural AuroraSat-1 cubesat into low Earth orbit aboard an Electron rocket rideshare mission in the fourth quarter of this year.

Aurora is part of a small number of startups have emerged over the past few years whose technology could help solve a tricky problem that, for most of us, can be summed up as ‘out of sight, out of mind’: space junk.

Space junk, or orbital debris, includes any human-generated object in space that’s no longer functional. While the Department of Defense keeps track of around 27,000 pieces of space junk through its Space Surveillance Network, there are estimated to be millions of pieces of debris floating around in low Earth orbit. As the costs of launch and other technology continues to decline, LEO is only poised to grow more crowded in the coming years – which could mean more useless junk floating around us in the long-term.

The launch with Rocket Lab later this year is the opportunity for the company to demonstrate its technology in-space. AuroraSat-1 will have two modules. The first module will contain 6 “resistojet” thrusters, designed to help cubesats quickly de-tumble and adjust their attitude control, or the satellite’s orientation. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brakes, which use an electrically charged microtether to generate drag for satellite de-orbiting.

AuroraSat-1 was originally scheduled to fly with in-space transportation provider Momentus on board a Space X Falcon 9 rideshare mission earlier this year, but that flight was halted after Momentus failed to receive approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Regarding the switch up, Aurora CEO Roope Takala told TechCrunch that “in light of Momentus’ difficulties, we had to re-manifest the satellite onto the now published Rocket Lab flight.” Aurora announced in March it had signed on to launch a satellite with Momentus in June 2022.