The small Electron rocket is already a multi-continent launcher*. On January 24, 2023, at 23:00 UTC, an Electron rocket lifted off from the LA-0C ramp of the MARS Space Center (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) on Wallops Island (Virginia, USA). So far, all missions of this launcher have taken off from the LC-1A ramp on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. In this way, the Rocket Lab company—formed in New Zealand, but currently an American company—inaugurates its operations from the United States. This is the 33rd launch of Electron since its launch in 2017 and the first launch of 2023. on this mission Virginia is for launch lovers Built by the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory – based in Virginia – HawkEye 360 was launched into orbit on three of the company’s Hawk 6 satellites (6A, 6B and 6C), to monitor radio communications to provide a SIGINT service (signal intelligence) “Citizen”. The launch was originally scheduled for December 9, 2022, but was delayed due to weather and FAA issues.
It was also the first launch from the LC-2 ramp (Launch Complex 2) Wallops Island, whose construction by Rocket Lab began in February 2019 and was completed ten months later. It is Wallops Island’s third orbital ramp after 0A, used by the Antares rocket, and 0B, used by the Minotaur rocket (both launchers operated by Northrop Grumman). Rocket Lab wanted to carry out missions from this ramp in 2020, but they could not be carried out due to delays in certification of the in-flight destruction system. The company expects to complete 14 missions this year, including up to six launches from the US. Following the recent failures of Firefly’s Alpha, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and ABL’s RS1, Rocket Lab has established itself as the leading US company in the microlauncher market. Although the trend in the field is to bring into service increasingly powerful launchers (Electron is capable of placing 320 kg in low orbit), Electron does not lack missions in its portfolio (the company has already launched 155 satellites). Rocket Lab is committed to reusing the Electron, although it has not yet managed to reuse a stage (at least it has managed to test-ignite a recovered Rutherford engine). In November 2020, an Electron first stage was recovered from the sea and an attempt to capture the second first stage from the air by helicopter in May 2022 was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Electron has already been used to launch satellites to the Moon and will soon be used to go to Venus.
However, Rocket Lab has also jumped on the bandwagon for larger rockets and is building the Neutron, a medium-sized reusable launcher capable of putting 15 tons into LEO (13 tons if the first stage is recovered on a barge). and 8 tons if the first stage returns to the launch area) thanks to its Archimedes closed-cycle methane engines (it will use 9 of these engines in the first stage and one in the second stage). Neutron, which should, in fact, fly from Wallops Island in 2024, is one of the current launchers in development that features a more innovative design. Although it is a reusable vehicle, it is not another Falcon 9 clone as proposed by most new space companies and includes many innovative technical solutions. For example, in addition to the closed-loop methane engine, the Neutron’s bonnet will remain attached to the reusable first stage, allowing for faster launch operations. Neutron, which makes extensive use of composite materials, will be built in Virginia, USA, not far from the launch site.
Rocket Lab has strong support from the US military, with whom it has already carried out several missions. The Department of Defense has subsidized the development of Neutron’s second stage with $24 million, as this launcher will also be used to launch Pentagon payloads. Rocket Lab’s satellite division also supports various military projects. And in fact, Rocket Lab has created a subsidiary to manage contracts directly with the military. On the other hand, don’t forget that Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced last fall that the company is looking into developing a crewed capsule for Neutron that has a similar design to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Will we ever see astronauts ride neutrons?
*:Electron is not the first launcher to fly from multiple continents, as in addition to Soyuz launched from Europe (Plesetsk), Asia (Baikonur and Vostochny) and South America (French Guiana), we have Angara (Plesetsk and Baikonur) , Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus (USA and Europe), Scout (USA and Africa), Zenit (Plesetsk, Baikonur and the Pacific Ocean) or the Japanese N-1 (a variant of the American Thor-Delta).