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There’s little doubt that we live in a new Space Age, defined by increasing access, greater competition, and the commercial space industry. The titans of this industry are well known and have even become household names. There are old warhorses like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and United Launch Alliance and fast-rising stars like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, and others. But New Zealand and California-based company Rocket Lab has also made a name for itself in recent years, moving from low-cost expendable rocket launches to reusable rockets.
Neutron is a medium-lift two-stage launch vehicle under development by Rocket Lab. The vehicle is being designed to be capable of delivering an 8,000 kg (17,600 lb) payload to low Earth orbit in a reusable configuration, and will focus on the growing megaconstellation satellite delivery market. The vehicle is expected to be operational sometime in 2024. It uses LOX and liquid methane propellant on both stages of the vehicle. On 28 February 2022, Rocket Lab announced that Neutron will launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) within NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern coast of Virginia. It was also announced that the company will build a 250,000 square feet manufacturing and operations facility adjacent to the Wallops Flight Facility. Ground was broken for this facility on 11 April 2022. As of December 2021, Rocket Lab is planning for the first launch to take place no earlier than 2024.
On Wednesday, March 3 2021, Starship serial number (SN10) successfully completed SpaceX’s third high-altitude flight test of a Starship prototype from our site in Cameron County, Texas. Similar to the high-altitude flight tests of Starship SN8 and SN9, SN10 was powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude. SN10 performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent. The Starship prototype descended under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle. All four flaps were actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enabled a precise landing at the intended location. SN10’s Raptor engines reignited as the vehicle performed the landing flip maneuver immediately before successfully touching down on the landing pad! As if the flight test was not exciting enough, SN10 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly shortly after landing. These test flights are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights, and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.
In early 2020 Rocket Lab successfully completed a mid-air recovery demonstration of an Electron test article.