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Neutron Rocket Development: 2024 Updates

Progress Towards an Archimedes Full Stage Run

Peter Beck CEO of Rocket Lab recently shared a Twitter update on the company's progress in rocket engine development

Peter Beck just shared an update on the company’s progress with Archimedes. The tweet provides a glimpse into the intricate and methodical process that precedes a full stage hot fire. This milestone underscores Rocket Lab’s commitment to precision engineering and the challenges inherent in developing reliable rocket propulsion systems.

Current Phase: Pre Burner Ignition and Tuning

As Beck’s tweet reveals, Rocket Lab has successfully completed a pre burner ignition and run. This phase involves the initial ignition of the engine’s pre burner, a critical component responsible for driving the turbopumps that feed propellants into the main combustion chamber. The successful ignition indicates that the pre burner is functioning correctly, a foundational step in the overall engine testing sequence.

The next phase focuses on tuning the propellant timings. This process, expected to take a week or more, involves adjusting the precise moments when propellants are introduced and ignited within the engine. These adjustments are crucial for ensuring that the engine operates efficiently and safely. The sensitivity of these timings to start-up transients and other variables necessitates meticulous attention to detail and extensive testing.

Sensitivity to Start-Up Transients

Beck emphasizes the engine’s sensitivity to start-up transients—rapid changes in conditions that occur when the engine starts. These transients can significantly impact the performance and stability of the engine. Understanding and mitigating their effects is essential for achieving a smooth and reliable engine start-up.

Characterizing these transients involves detailed measurements and analysis of various parameters, including pressure, temperature, and flow rates. Engineers use this data to refine the engine’s design and control systems, ensuring that it can handle the dynamic conditions of start-up and operation.

The Path to a Full Stage Run

The ultimate goal of this testing phase is to conduct a full stage run, where the main valves are opened, and the engine operates at its full capacity. This stage is critical for verifying the engine’s performance under real-world conditions and ensuring that it meets all design specifications.

Achieving this milestone requires a comprehensive understanding of the engine’s behavior across a range of operating points. This includes not only start-up transients but also steady-state operation and response to various control inputs. The characterization process, therefore, involves extensive data collection and iterative testing to fine-tune the engine’s performance.

The Complexity of Rocket Engine Development

Rocket engine development is a complex and iterative process that requires a deep understanding of fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and materials science. Each component of the engine must be carefully designed and tested to ensure that it can withstand the extreme conditions of rocket propulsion.

Rocket Lab’s approach, as evidenced by Beck’s update, highlights the importance of systematic testing and refinement. By focusing on detailed characterization and tuning, the team ensures that each phase of development builds on a solid foundation of validated performance.

Rocket Lab’s recent progress in pre burner ignition and tuning marks a significant step towards achieving a full stage run. The detailed and methodical approach to engine development underscores the complexities involved and the importance of precision in rocket propulsion systems. As the team continues to refine their engine, they move closer to realizing their goal of reliable and efficient Neutron launch capabilities.

Rocket Lab Launch: A Sky Full Of SARs

Mission name: A Sky Full Of SARs
Launch Vehicle: Electron
Launch Site: Launch Complex 1, Mahia, New Zealand
NZDT Launch Window: 07:15 AM, July 21, 2024
UTC Launch Window: 19:15, July 20, 2024
EDT Launch Window: 15:15 PM, July 20, 2024
PDT Launch Window: 12:15 PM, July 20, 2024
Mission Overview: The mission ‘A Sky Full Of SARs’ involves deploying Acadia-3, a satellite by Capella Space, designed to enhance global SAR imagery capabilities. This marks Rocket Lab’s fifth launch for Capella Space, demonstrating their ongoing collaboration in improving Earth observation technologies.
Press Kit: Download PDF Live Stream: rocketlabusa.com/livestream

For more detailed information, visit Rocket Lab’s mission page.

Successful Ignition System Tests Bring Rocket Team Closer to Hot Fire Milestone

Screenshot of Peter Beck Tweet about Archimedes engine ignition tests

This tweet from Peter Beck indicates that Rocket Lab has successfully completed ignition system tests as they close in on a full hot fire of Archimedes. This is an important step in Archimedes' development process, as the ignition system is a critical component that must function reliably to ensure a successful engine test.

Based on the information provided, it seems the team is making steady progress towards their goal of a hot fire test. A recent tweet by Jeff Foust suggests that it could occur in the next ten days or so. The successful ignition system tests are a positive sign, as they demonstrate the team’s ability to integrate and validate key subsystems of the rocket engine.

The fact that the last two testing images shared by the team were taken at night suggests the team has been working around the clock to advance their progress. This level of dedication and commitment is crucial in the fast-paced world of rocket development, where every minute counts towards achieving key milestones.

Wild Wild Space: The Frenetic Race to Dominate Low-Earth Orbit


The long-awaited documentary based on Ashlee Vance’s book “When the Heavens Went on Sale” is set to premiere on July 17th. In Ashlee’s own words, “Wild Wild Space”

…offers the first in-depth examination of the current incarnation of the space race by focusing on Rocket Lab, Astra Space and Planet Labs and the people behind the companies. It’s an unfiltered look at why making rockets is so hard, the wonders and perils of satellites and why low-Earth orbit is so important to our modern economies and ways of life.

The trailer has already given us this gem:

Screenshot from Wild Wild Space trailer

I’m not sure how much unfiltered Peter Beck is in the film, but I’m ready for whatever it has to offer.

Firefly's Alpha Rocket Successfully Launches Eight CubeSats on 'Noise of Summer' Mission

Last night, Firefly Aerospace successfully launched its Alpha rocket on the “Noise of Summer” mission from Vandenberg Space Force Base. The launch, which occurred at 9:04 PM PDT, marked a significant milestone for Firefly as it successfully deployed eight CubeSats into low Earth orbit. The payloads included CubeSats from various institutions such as the University of Maine, University of Arizona, NASA Johnson Space Center, and University of Washington. Notable satellites include the CatSat, which will demonstrate an inflatable antenna for high-speed communications, and the SOC-i, a technology demonstration mission focusing on advanced attitude control.

Spin Primes: The Crucial Prelude to Rocket Engine Hot Fire Tests

Screenshot of Peter Beck Tweet about Rocket Lab's Archimedes Engine development

I asked both Claude 3.5 and ChatGPT to weigh in on this and this is what they had to say:

Claude 3.5

The “spin primes” phase is an important step in rocket engine testing, occurring before full hot fire tests. It’s part of the preparatory stages leading up to a complete engine firing. Here’s a brief overview:

  1. Purpose: Spin primes test the turbopumps that deliver propellants to the combustion chamber. The pumps are spun up without igniting the engine.

  2. Process: Propellants flow through the system, but at lower pressures and temperatures than a full hot fire. This checks for proper operation of valves, seals, and pumps.

  3. Position in testing sequence:

    • After component and subsystem tests
    • After cold flow tests (which use inert fluids)
    • Before ignition tests or short-duration firings
    • Well before full-duration hot fire tests
  4. Proximity to hot fire: Spin primes are typically conducted days or weeks before the first hot fire test, depending on the testing schedule and results.

Spin primes are crucial for verifying system readiness and identifying potential issues before progressing to more demanding and risky hot fire tests. They help ensure the propellant delivery system functions correctly under more realistic conditions.

ChatGPT 4.o

The “spin primes” phase is a critical step in the testing process of rocket engines. This phase involves spinning the engine’s turbo pumps to ensure they are functioning correctly and can achieve the necessary speed and pressure to deliver fuel and oxidizer to the combustion chamber. Here’s a breakdown of its place in the overall testing process and its proximity to the hot fire test:

  1. Component Testing: Individual components of the engine, such as the turbo pumps, injectors, and combustion chambers, are tested to ensure they work correctly on their own.

  2. Assembly and Integration: The tested components are assembled into a complete engine. Integration checks are conducted to ensure everything fits and works together as expected.

  3. Cryogenic Testing: The engine is tested with cryogenic fluids to check for leaks, proper flow rates, and the correct operation of components at extremely low temperatures.

  4. Spin Primes: The turbo pumps are spun up to operational speeds without igniting the engine. This test ensures that the pumps can reach the required speed, generate the necessary pressure, and operate smoothly. It also checks for any anomalies that might occur during pump operation.

  5. Wet Dress Rehearsal: The engine is loaded with fuel and oxidizer, and the systems are put through a full operational cycle without actually igniting the engine. This step ensures that all systems are ready for a hot fire test.

  6. Hot Fire Test: The engine is ignited and run at full operational conditions. This is the critical test that demonstrates the engine’s performance and reliability under actual operating conditions.

Proximity to Hot Fire

The spin primes phase is one of the final steps before the hot fire test. It is usually conducted shortly before the wet dress rehearsal and the hot fire test. The successful completion of spin primes indicates that the engine’s turbo pumps are functioning correctly and the system is close to being ready for a hot fire test. Typically, only a few tests remain after spin primes, making it a significant milestone in the overall testing process.

In summary, spin primes are crucial for validating the turbo pumps' functionality and are one of the last steps before the hot fire test, indicating that the engine is nearly ready for a full operational test.

Building and Testing Production-Ready Rocket Engines: A Complex Challenge

Developing a rocket engine that’s ready for large-scale production is significantly more demanding than creating and firing a test article. While both processes are crucial in rocket development, the leap from prototype to production introduces a host of new challenges. Let’s explore why:

Manufacturability and Scalability

Test articles are often built using specialized, sometimes even:

  • Hand-crafted components: These prototypes may utilize exotic materials, custom-machined parts, or even 3D-printed elements to rapidly iterate on designs.
  • Focus on functionality: The focus is on functionality and proof of concept, rather than repeatability or cost-effectiveness.

In contrast, production engines must be designed with mass manufacturing in mind. This fundamental shift introduces several complex challenges:

Optimizing Designs for Automated Production

  • Redesigning components to be compatible with advanced manufacturing processes like additive manufacturing (metal 3D printing), electron beam welding, or precision CNC machining.
  • Implementing Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) principles to leverage the capabilities of 3D printing for complex geometries.
  • Developing standardized interfaces and self-aligning features to facilitate automated assembly.
  • Utilizing topology optimization and generative design to create lighter, more efficient components suitable for mass production.

Ensuring Consistency Across Large Numbers of Parts

  • Implementing strict tolerance controls and advanced metrology techniques, including in-situ monitoring during additive manufacturing processes.
  • Developing comprehensive quality control processes, including non-destructive testing methods like CT scanning and ultrasonic inspection.
  • Creating detailed manufacturing specifications and procedures for each component, accounting for the nuances of advanced manufacturing techniques.
  • Investing in precision post-processing equipment for additively manufactured parts to achieve required surface finishes and tolerances.

Developing Robust Supply Chains for Materials and Components

  • Identifying and qualifying suppliers capable of providing aerospace-grade materials for advanced manufacturing processes.
  • Negotiating long-term contracts to ensure stable pricing and availability of specialized powders for metal 3D printing.
  • Implementing digital inventory systems to manage both physical and digital assets (3D models for on-demand printing).
  • Establishing rigorous supplier quality assurance programs, including certification for additive manufacturing processes.
  • Developing contingency plans for supply chain disruptions, potentially including in-house manufacturing capabilities for critical components.

This transition from specialized, low-volume production to mass manufacturing represents a significant engineering and logistical challenge. It requires not only a redesign of the engine itself but also the development of an entire ecosystem of cutting-edge processes, advanced tools, and specialized partnerships to support large-scale production while maintaining the high standards of quality and reliability demanded by the aerospace industry.

Reliability and Repeatability

A test firing can be considered successful even with minor issues. Production engines, however, must perform consistently over multiple flights. This demands:

  • Extensive testing to identify and eliminate failure modes
  • Development of quality control processes
  • Rigorous documentation and traceability

Cost Considerations

While cost is less of a concern for prototypes, production engines must be economically viable. This involves:

  • Balancing performance with manufacturing costs
  • Optimizing designs for ease of assembly and maintenance
  • Considering the entire lifecycle cost, including operations and potential reuse

Regulatory Compliance

Test articles may operate under special exemptions, but production engines must meet stringent safety and environmental regulations. This requires:

  • Extensive documentation and certification processes
  • Compliance with industry standards and government regulations
  • Development of safety protocols for manufacturing, transport, and operation

Long-Term Performance and Maintenance

Unlike test articles, production engines must be designed for longevity and ease of maintenance. This includes:

  • Developing comprehensive maintenance schedules
  • Ensuring accessibility of components for inspection and replacement
  • Creating detailed technical documentation for operators and maintenance crews

Integration Challenges

Production engines must seamlessly integrate with other rocket systems and ground support equipment. This necessitates:

  • Extensive interface testing and verification
  • Collaboration with other subsystem teams
  • Development of standardized procedures for integration and launch operations

Environmental Tolerance

While test articles may operate under controlled conditions, production engines must function reliably in a variety of environments. This requires:

  • Extensive environmental testing (temperature, vibration, etc.)
  • Development of robust thermal management systems
  • Ensuring compatibility with various propellants and operating conditions

Continuous Improvement

Unlike a test article, which may be a one-off design, production engines are expected to evolve and improve over time. This involves:

  • Establishing feedback loops from manufacturing and operations
  • Implementing design changes without compromising reliability
  • Managing version control and upgrade paths

In conclusion, while building and firing a test article is an impressive feat in itself, transitioning to a production-ready rocket engine introduces a new level of complexity. It requires not just engineering expertise, but also a deep understanding of manufacturing processes, regulatory environments, and long-term operational considerations. This challenging process is what separates experimental rockets from those capable of reliable, repeated launches – a crucial step in advancing space exploration and commercialization.

The People's Satellite

This post at The War Zone highlights the transformative impact of space-based assets on modern warfare, as demonstrated by Ukraine’s use of a crowd-funded ICEYE satellite. Over the past two years, this single satellite, along with access to dozens more, has enabled Ukraine to identify and destroy more than 1,500 Russian targets worth billions of dollars. The satellite’s synthetic aperture radar technology allows for all-weather, day-and-night imaging, piercing through camouflage and cloud cover to reveal enemy positions, equipment, and infrastructure. This capability has dramatically enhanced Ukraine’s ability to conduct precision strikes and gather critical intelligence, showcasing how access to space-based reconnaissance can level the playing field in asymmetric conflicts. The success of this program underscores the growing importance of space assets in modern warfare, not just for major powers but also for smaller nations and even non-state actors who can now leverage commercial satellite technology to gain significant tactical and strategic advantages.

Electron's Life After Neutron

Even as Rocket Lab prepares to launch its new medium-class rocket, Neutron, the smaller Electron launcher will continue to play a crucial role in the company’s strategy. Here’s why:

  1. Market Segmentation: Neutron is designed to complement Electron, not replace it. While Neutron will handle larger payloads, Electron will continue serving the small satellite market.

  2. Growing Small Satellite Demand: The increasing need for small satellite launches aligns perfectly with Electron’s capabilities, ensuring its ongoing relevance.

  3. Precision and Flexibility: Electron’s ability to provide dedicated launches to precise orbits on customer-defined schedules remains a valuable asset, particularly for small satellite operators.

  4. Proven Track Record: With nearly 50 successful launches, Electron has established a reputation for reliability and performance that customers trust.

  5. Cost-Effectiveness: For smaller payloads, Electron is likely to remain more economical than its larger counterpart.

  6. Rapid Launch Capabilities: Electron’s frequent launch schedule and multiple launch sites, including Rocket Lab’s private facility in New Zealand, offer unique advantages.

  7. Vertical Integration: Rocket Lab’s end-to-end space solutions benefit from having both Electron and Neutron available, catering to a wider range of customer needs.

  8. Complementary Roles: Rocket Lab envisions a future where both rockets contribute equally to their launch business, with Neutron splitting its missions between customer payloads and the company’s own satellites.

Electron and Neutron are positioned to serve different segments of the launch market. This dual-rocket strategy allows Rocket Lab to offer a comprehensive range of services, maintaining its competitive edge in the dynamic space industry.

Peter Beck on Vertical Integration

Video - Behind Rocket Lab’s 50th launch: How Electron succeeded

An interesting quote from Peter Beck’s most recent interview with NZ Herald senior business journalist Madison Reidy:

“If you’re in the commercial telecoms business from space, you’re in a very difficult spot right now because it’s impossible to keep up with the ability for someone to build their own rocket and launch it whenever they need to launch it and deploy that service.”

Something to think about as we wait for Rocket Lab to reveal their constellation plans.

Rocket Lab's Strategic Shift: Prioritizing Neutron Over Electron Reusability

In the dynamic world of aerospace, strategic pivots are often necessary to align with market demands and technological advancements. Rocket Lab’s recent decision to deprioritize the reusability of its Electron rockets in favor of accelerating the development of the Neutron medium rocket is a prime example of such a strategic shift. As Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck candidly noted in a recent interview with Payload, “The most important thing is to not interrupt the production team with new things and just keep the production rate of Electron where it needs to be to support the manifest best this year. Electron reuse is not that important to the business on a margin standpoint, or at this point, even from a technology standpoint. The reusability team and the recovery team are 100% directed and focused on other things, mainly Neutron, of course”.

Focusing on Neutron: The Rationale

Market Demand and Profit Margins: Electron rockets, while successful, primarily serve the small satellite launch market. This market, though vital, offers limited profit margins compared to the burgeoning demand for medium-lift capabilities. Neutron, designed to cater to the medium-lift market, is set to unlock significant revenue streams. By accelerating Neutron’s development, Rocket Lab is positioning itself to capture a more substantial share of this lucrative market, which is essential for long-term growth and sustainability.

Technological Advancements: The focus on Electron reusability, though innovative, does not present immediate technological or financial advantages. As stated, reusability in the Electron program is not critical from a margin or technology standpoint. Instead, resources and efforts are better invested in perfecting the Neutron rocket, which promises more considerable advancements and benefits for the company’s portfolio.

Team Focus and Efficiency: Rocket Lab’s reusability and recovery teams are now dedicated entirely to the Neutron project. This focused approach ensures that the company’s top talent and resources are utilized efficiently, driving faster and more effective development cycles. The shift in focus means less interruption to the Electron production team, allowing them to maintain optimal production rates and support existing launch manifests without additional strain.

The Bigger Picture

Rocket Lab’s strategy underscores the importance of adaptability in the aerospace sector. By prioritizing the Neutron rocket, Rocket Lab is not only responding to market needs but also paving the way for future technological advancements and business growth. This decision is a testament to Rocket Lab’s forward-thinking approach and its commitment to staying ahead in a competitive industry.

Despite this shift in focus, it’s important to acknowledge the significant progress Rocket Lab has already made toward Electron reusability. The strides they have taken in this area ensure that when the time comes to revisit Electron reusability post-Neutron, it should be a relatively straightforward process. The foundation laid so far will allow Rocket Lab to efficiently integrate reusability features into the Electron program without substantial delays or resource reallocation.

In conclusion, Rocket Lab’s move to prioritize Neutron over Electron reusability makes perfect sense. It aligns with market opportunities, leverages technological advancements, and ensures efficient use of resources. As the space industry continues to evolve, Rocket Lab’s strategic pivot positions it well for continued success and innovation, with the flexibility to return to and capitalize on Electron reusability in the future.

Rocket Lab Signs Largest Launch Agreement with Synspective

Rocket Lab and Synspective Sign 10 Launch Deal

Rocket Lab has announced a significant expansion of its partnership with Japanese Earth observation company Synspective, signing a contract for ten dedicated Electron rocket launches between 2025 and 2027. This agreement, the largest in Rocket Lab’s history, will support the growth of Synspective’s StriX constellation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites.

The deal was unveiled at an event in Tokyo, attended by key executives from both companies and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, who highlighted the importance of international collaboration in driving the global space industry forward. Synspective’s StriX satellites are designed to collect high-resolution imagery of Earth’s surface, capable of detecting millimetre-level changes day or night and through any weather conditions. By launching on dedicated Electron missions, Synspective will have greater control over their launch schedule and orbital placement, ensuring optimal coverage and performance for their constellation.

The new multi-launch agreement builds upon an already strong partnership between Rocket Lab and Synspective. Rocket Lab has served as a dedicated launch provider for Synspective since 2020, having successfully deployed four StriX satellites across four missions to date, with two more launches planned for this year from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

This landmark deal not only demonstrates the rapid growth of Japan’s space industry but also underscores the increasing demand for tailored small satellite launch services. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, manufactured in the USA and launched from New Zealand, provides a unique and flexible solution for companies like Synspective looking to build out their satellite constellations efficiently. As Synspective continues to expand its StriX constellation and its Earth observation capabilities, this long-term partnership with Rocket Lab will play a crucial role in enabling the company to scale its operations and deliver valuable data and insights to its customers.

Previous Rocket Lab / Syspective Missions

Launch 45 | 13 March 2024

  • Name: Owl Night Long
  • Customer: Synspective
  • Launch Site: Launch Complex 1
  • Description: The mission aimed to launch a synthetic aperture radar satellite for urban infrastructure monitoring.

Launch 30 | 15 September 2022

  • Name: The Owl Spreads Its Wings
  • Customer: Synspective
  • Launch Site: Launch Complex 1
  • Description: This mission launched another synthetic aperture radar satellite for urban monitoring.

Launch 24 | 28 February 2022

  • Name: The Owl’s Night Continues
  • Customer: Synspective
  • Launch Site: Launch Complex 1
  • Description: The mission deployed another satellite for urban infrastructure monitoring using SAR.

Launch 17 | 15 December 2020

  • Name: The Owl’s Night Begins
  • Customer: Synspective
  • Launch Site: Launch Complex 1
  • Description: This mission launched the first of Synspective’s SAR satellites for urban infrastructure monitoring.

Rocket Lab Launch: No Time Toulouse

Mission name: No Time Toulouse
Launch Vehicle: Electron
Launch Site: Launch Complex 1 – Pad B, Mahia, New Zealand
NZST Launch Window: Opens 06:13, June 21, 2024
UTC Launch Window: 18:13, June 20, 2024
ET Launch Window: 14:13, June 20, 2024
PT Launch Window: 11:13, June 20, 2024
Mission Overview: ‘No Time Toulouse’ is a dedicated mission for the French Internet of Things (IoT) company Kinéis. This mission will deploy five IoT satellites to a 635 km orbit, marking Rocket Lab’s milestone 50th Electron rocket launch. The mission is the first of five dedicated launches for Kinéis to deploy a total of 25 satellites.
Press Kit: Press Kit Download
Live Stream: rocketlabusa.com/livestream

For Additional Updates: Follow Rocket Lab’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Rocket Lab Launch: No Time Toulouse Mission Patch

Electron: A Lot of Innovation in a Small Package

Rocket Lab is now just days away from its 50th Electron launch. Designed to deliver payloads of up to 300 kg (661 lbs) to low Earth orbit, the Electron caters to the growing demand for small satellite launches. Achieving flexibility and innovation in a small launch vehicle is particularly challenging, often more so than with larger class launchers. Electron represents several groundbreaking innovations, and in recent years, Rocket Lab has made significant strides toward making the Electron partially reusable and adaptable for critical national security missions, solidifying its position at the forefront of the space industry.

3D-Printed Rutherford Engines

A cornerstone of Rocket Lab’s innovation is the Rutherford engine. These engines are entirely 3D-printed, which allows for rapid manufacturing and cost reduction. The use of 3D printing technology enables the creation of complex geometries that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. This innovation has significantly reduced the time and cost of engine production, making the Electron rocket both efficient and economical.

Electric Turbopumps

The Rutherford engines also feature electric turbopumps, a groundbreaking innovation in rocket design. Traditional rocket engines use gas-powered turbopumps to feed propellant to the combustion chamber. Rocket Lab has replaced these with battery-powered electric motors, simplifying the engine design and reducing costs. This unique approach allows for more precise control over the fuel flow and is the first instance of electric turbopumps being used in an orbital-class rocket.

Carbon Composite Structure

The Electron rocket’s structure is made primarily of carbon composite materials. This lightweight yet strong material allows for significant weight reduction, increasing the rocket’s payload capacity. The use of carbon composites also streamlines the manufacturing process, as the rocket’s body can be fabricated in just two pieces. This material choice is crucial for reusability, as it enhances the durability and resilience of the rocket’s components.

Development of the Photon Kick Stage

The unique Photon kick stage is designed to provide precise orbital insertion for payloads, offering greater flexibility in mission design. This stage also serves as a platform for Rocket Lab’s own satellite missions. While not directly related to reusability, the Photon kick stage demonstrates Rocket Lab’s commitment to innovation and mission adaptability, which are essential for a sustainable and reusable launch system.

Reusing the Rutherford Engine

A significant milestone in Rocket Lab’s path to reusability was the successful reuse of a Rutherford engine. By recovering and refurbishing the engine from a previous mission, Rocket Lab demonstrated that critical components of the Electron rocket could be reused, paving the way for more sustainable and cost-effective launches.

First Stage Recovery

The most critical step toward reusability has been the development of techniques for recovering the Electron’s first stage. Rocket Lab has successfully demonstrated the ability to recover the first stage using parachutes and ocean retrieval. This method, tailored for small launch vehicles, aims to significantly increase launch frequency and lower costs for customers.

HASTE: High-Altitude Suborbital Testbed

An additional demonstration of Rocket Lab’s innovation and flexibility is the development of the High-Altitude Suborbital Testbed (HASTE). HASTE represents Rocket Lab’s ability to adapt and expand its technology for a variety of missions, providing a platform for high-altitude research and development. This testbed allows for rapid iteration and testing of new technologies, further enhancing Rocket Lab’s capabilities in the space industry.

Rocket Lab’s focus on innovation with the Electron rocket is crucial for the growing small satellite market. By integrating advanced technologies, reducing launch costs, increasing payload capacity, and offering greater mission flexibility, Rocket Lab continues to create new opportunities for satellite operators and researchers. As the demand for small satellite launches continues to grow, Rocket Lab’s advancements will play a key role in enabling a critical element of the space industry.

Stoke Space Announces Successful Hot Fire

Stoke Space recently achieved a significant milestone by completing the first successful hot-fire test of their full-flow, staged-combustion (FFSC) rocket engine. Conducted on June 5, 2024, at their test site in Moses Lake, Washington, this engine is set to power the first stage of their fully reusable Nova medium-lift launch vehicle.

The test demonstrated the engine’s ability to ramp up to its target starting power level, producing the equivalent of 350,000 horsepower in less than one second. This FFSC engine, known for its high efficiency and performance, is designed to generate over 100,000 pounds of thrust at full power.

Stoke Space plans to continue refining the engine and vehicle design throughout 2024, with a targeted orbital test flight in 2025. This achievement follows their successful vertical takeoff and landing test of the second stage in September 2023, indicating rapid progress in their mission to create fully reusable rockets.

Is Rocket Lab's HASTE a Sounding Rocket?

Due to the sensitive nature of their missions Rocket Lab HASTE launches don’t get much fanfare, but they can’t launch in complete secrecy because NOTAMS and maritime notices are still required. So given that, could low-key notices about unnamed sounding rocket launches refer to HASTE? Maybe…


Sounding Rockets: A Gateway to Space Exploration

Sounding rockets, often referred to as research rockets, play a crucial role in space exploration. These suborbital rockets are designed to carry scientific instruments to the upper atmosphere and near space. They provide a cost-effective and efficient means for scientists to conduct experiments and gather data from altitudes ranging between 50 to 1,500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. This blog post delves into the world of sounding rockets and explores whether Rocket Lab’s HASTE (Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron) could be classified as one.

What Are Sounding Rockets?

Sounding rockets are designed for scientific research and technological testing. Unlike orbital rockets that transport payloads into orbit, sounding rockets follow a suborbital trajectory, reaching the edge of space and then descending back to Earth. This trajectory allows for short-duration missions, typically lasting from a few minutes to over an hour.

Key characteristics of sounding rockets include:

  • Suborbital Flight: They do not achieve orbital velocity and thus do not complete a full orbit around the Earth.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Their simpler design and shorter flight duration make them more affordable than orbital rockets.
  • Versatility: They can be launched from various locations, including mobile launch platforms, making them suitable for a wide range of missions.
  • Rapid Deployment: Sounding rockets can be prepared and launched in a relatively short period, providing timely access to space for urgent scientific experiments.

Applications of Sounding Rockets

Sounding rockets are used for various scientific and technological purposes, including:

  • Atmospheric Research: Studying the Earth’s atmosphere, ionosphere, and magnetosphere.
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics: Observing celestial phenomena and testing astronomical instruments.
  • Microgravity Research: Conducting experiments in a microgravity environment for a few minutes during the rocket’s free-fall phase.
  • Technology Testing: Validating new technologies and components in space-like conditions before their use in more extensive missions.

Rocket Lab’s HASTE: A Modern Sounding Rocket?

Rocket Lab, a prominent aerospace company, has developed a suborbital launch vehicle named HASTE (Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron). While Rocket Lab is primarily known for its orbital launch services, HASTE is specifically designed for suborbital missions, raising the question of whether it can be considered a sounding rocket.

Key Features of HASTE:

  • Suborbital Trajectory: HASTE follows a suborbital flight path, similar to traditional sounding rockets, providing access to high-altitude environments.
  • Hypersonic Capabilities: It is designed to reach hypersonic speeds, making it suitable for testing hypersonic technologies and conducting high-speed research.
  • Flexibility: HASTE can accommodate various payloads, including scientific instruments, technology demonstrators, and defense-related experiments.

Given these characteristics, HASTE shares several fundamental aspects with traditional sounding rockets. Its suborbital nature, flexibility in payload accommodation, and focus on scientific and technological testing align well with the typical use cases of sounding rockets.

Conclusion

Sounding rockets remain an essential tool in the arsenal of space exploration and research. They provide a unique platform for conducting experiments in the upper atmosphere and near space, offering cost-effective and timely access to scientific data. Rocket Lab’s HASTE, with its suborbital trajectory and versatility, can indeed be considered a modern sounding rocket, bridging the gap between traditional research rockets and advanced hypersonic testing platforms.

As the field of space exploration continues to evolve, sounding rockets like HASTE will play a pivotal role in advancing our understanding of the universe and developing cutting-edge technologies for future missions. Whether for atmospheric research, technology testing, or hypersonic experiments, the legacy of sounding rockets continues to propel humanity’s quest for knowledge and innovation.


This blog post was written by [ChatGPT](https://chatgpt.com/), an AI language model developed by OpenAI.

Peter Beck Interviewed by Scientific American

This is a great closing quote on Rocket Lab’s business model:

The ultimate goal for us is to become the end-to-end space company that makes space far more accessible and that makes these kinds of climate change missions even more feasible. At the moment the space industry is still very bifurcated. You have to be an expert in spacecraft and know all these things about space to be able to provide a service on Earth. But consolidating that into a single company that researchers, commercial customers and governments can just go to and ask for missions is the idea. I think that’s what large, successful space companies of the future are going to look like. That’s how we make these missions frequent, accessible and affordable.

Why Rocket Lab's Expertise and Neutron's Design Make Carbon Composites the Ideal Choice

I asked Claude Opus to explain why Rocket Lab’s choice of carbon composite construction for their Neutron rocket makes sense for their specific application. SpaceX has famously chosen stainless steel for their Starship rocket, and many people assume that the use cases for the material and vehicles are the same. However, the vehicles and their flight profiles are very different. The links were added by me.


Rocket Lab’s decision to use carbon composites for their Neutron rocket is a testament to their deep expertise in this cutting-edge material and their understanding of its unique advantages for their specific design and mission requirements.

One of the key reasons Rocket Lab can leverage carbon composites for the Neutron rocket is the fact that its first stage is not subjected to the same extreme heating and forces as SpaceX’s Starship. The Starship is designed for deep space missions and must withstand the intense heat and pressures of atmospheric re-entry from orbital velocities. In contrast, the Neutron rocket’s first stage is designed for a more conventional launch and recovery profile, similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

This means that the Neutron’s first stage will not experience the same level of thermal stress during its descent and landing. As a result, carbon composites, which offer exceptional strength-to-weight ratio and durability, are more than capable of handling the forces and temperatures the Neutron will encounter.

Moreover, Rocket Lab brings a wealth of experience and expertise in carbon composite manufacturing to the table. The company has been using carbon composites in their Electron rocket since its inception, and they have developed proprietary techniques for producing lightweight and robust components.

Rocket Lab’s proficiency in carbon composites extends beyond just the manufacturing process. They have also invested heavily in research and development to optimize the design and performance of their composite structures. This includes advanced simulation and testing to ensure that the Neutron’s components can withstand the rigors of launch and recovery.

By leveraging their unique expertise in carbon composites, Rocket Lab can create a highly optimized and efficient first stage for the Neutron rocket. The lightweight nature of carbon composites allows for significant weight savings compared to traditional materials, which translates to increased payload capacity and improved launch economics.

Furthermore, Rocket Lab’s experience with carbon composites enables them to design and manufacture the Neutron’s first stage with reusability in mind. The company has already demonstrated their ability to recover and refurbish the Electron rocket’s composite components, and they plan to apply this knowledge to the Neutron. The inherent durability and resistance to fatigue of carbon composites make them ideal for reusable rocket parts, as they can maintain their structural integrity over multiple launches.

In summary, Rocket Lab’s choice of carbon composites for the Neutron rocket is a strategic decision based on their deep expertise in this material and the specific design and mission requirements of the Neutron. By leveraging the unique properties of carbon composites and their proven track record in manufacturing and reusability, Rocket Lab is well-positioned to create a highly capable and efficient launch vehicle that will drive innovation in the commercial space industry.

The Journey from Test Stand to Launch Pad: Comprehensive Testing for Liquid Rocket Engines

Liquid rocket engines are marvels of engineering, harnessing immense power to propel vehicles into space. However, the journey from initial design to successful flight is a long and rigorous one, with comprehensive testing at its core. Let’s explore the end-to-end process of liquid rocket engine testing, from facility planning to component tests, engine integration, and stage qualification.

Laying the Groundwork: Test Facility Planning

Before the first engine component can be tested, extensive planning and facility preparations must be completed:

  • Engine developers and test facilities must work in close coordination to define testing requirements and strategies.
  • Facility designs must be tailored to support the specific needs of the engine program, including propellant storage, conditioning, and delivery systems, thrust measurement structures, and data acquisition capabilities.
  • Facilities must be able to simulate flight-like conditions, such as vacuum environments and realistic propellant states.
  • Test stands often require multiple cells to accommodate parallel testing and maintenance activities.
  • Modifying or constructing new facilities requires significant lead time, making early planning critical.

With the necessary infrastructure in place, the real work of engine testing can begin.

Building Blocks: Component-Level Testing

The first step in the testing process focuses on individual engine components such as pumps, preburners, gas generators, injectors, and thrust chambers.

  • Component tests allow for early risk reduction before committing to full engine testing.
  • This level of testing characterizes the performance and behavior of each engine subassembly under various conditions.
  • Dozens or even hundreds of component tests may be conducted to fully validate each part.
  • Component-level testing provides the building blocks for the next phase: engine system integration.

Putting the Pieces Together: Engine System Testing

With each component thoroughly validated, the focus shifts to demonstrating the integrated operation of the full engine assembly.

  • Engine system tests involve connecting all components together and operating them as a unified system.
  • These tests validate component interactions, control functions, and transient behavior during start-up, throttling, and shutdown.
  • System-level testing can uncover issues that only arise when components are integrated, such as unanticipated vibrations or thermal loading.
  • Hundreds of engine tests may be conducted, accumulating tens of thousands of seconds of total run time.

Engine system testing is a major milestone, but one more level of integration remains before the engine can be considered flight-ready.

The Final Hurdle: Stage Qualification Testing

The last step in the testing process involves integrating the engine with its propellant tanks and feed system to mimic the final flight configuration.

  • Stage tests demonstrate the engine’s operation with flight-like propellant conditions and validate engine-to-vehicle interfaces.
  • These tests can uncover integrated system risks such as water hammer or feed system coupling.
  • A handful of “long duration” stage tests are typically conducted, matching the engine’s operational timeline during an actual flight.

Successful completion of stage qualification testing is a major achievement, signifying that the engine is ready to be integrated with its launch vehicle.

The Importance of Testing

Comprehensive testing across components, engines, and stages is the key to delivering reliable liquid rocket engines:

  • Testing allows for the identification and mitigation of risks on the ground before flight.
  • The specific scope and scale of testing may vary based on engine complexity, mission requirements, and acceptable risk levels.
  • Post-test data reviews are critical for assessing results and determining the need for additional testing.
  • Ultimately, the goal is to subject the engine to as many realistic operational scenarios as possible to ensure its readiness for the rigors of spaceflight.

From Test Stand to Launch Pad

The journey from initial engine concept to flight readiness is a long and challenging one, but it is guided at every step by a commitment to rigorous testing. By laying the groundwork with well-equipped facilities, validating each component and subassembly, and progressively integrating the engine into its final configuration, engineers can deliver the reliable propulsion systems needed to power the next generation of space exploration. The culmination of this journey is a powerful moment: watching a meticulously tested engine roar to life on the launch pad, ready to carry its payload to the stars.

DIU Funds Sea-Based Launch

We’re getting closer to operationalizing regular sea-based launch:

The Defense Innovation Unit selected The Spaceport Company to demonstrate the ability to use a sea-based launch platform to quickly send cargo or satellites to orbit.

The company, headquartered in Woodbridge, Virginia, builds floating launch pads that could allow commercial companies or the Defense Department to fly payloads offshore. The concept is particularly relevant amid unprecedented launch rates, which are increasingly causing congestion at U.S. ranges.

“A sea-based launch platform is a strategically significant capability that increases equatorial launch access while enabling responsive launch coordination and avoiding high-traffic airspace,”

I’ve said it before, but this looks like a perfect platform for Rocket Lab’s Electron.

China's Defense Activity in Space Continues to Ramp Up

It’s no secret. China is investing heavily in space:

Over the last decade, China has grown its military presence in space to include sophisticated space planes, recon birds, secure comms, SSA, and ASAT capabilities. In fact, according to data compiled by astronomer Jonathan McDowell, China has averaged more defense payloads (not including dual-use tech) deployed over the last four years than the US.

Payload has a rundown of their defense-related space activity.

Yusaku Maezawa Cancels dearMoon Mission

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has cancelled his highly anticipated dearMoon mission, which aimed to be the first private flight around the moon. The decision came due to delays and uncertainty surrounding the development of Starship, making the original 2023 launch timeline unfeasible. Maezawa apologized to his supporters and the selected crew, including notable celebrities, for the cancellation.

Redefining Efficiency in Space Operations

The small launch market has experienced significant growth and innovation in recent years, with companies like Rocket Lab leading the charge. As the demand for small satellite launches continues to increase, vertical integration has emerged as a essential strategy for players in this space to survive and thrive. Vertical integration involves a company controlling multiple stages of the supply chain, from component manufacturing to launch services and satellite operations. This post explores why vertical integration is essential for companies in the small launch market, using Rocket Lab as a prime example.

Supply Chain Assurance and Control

One of the primary reasons for vertical integration in the small launch market is to ensure a reliable and stable supply chain. By manufacturing critical components in-house, companies like Rocket Lab maintain tight control over quality, availability, and pricing. This is particularly important for niche components with limited suppliers or long lead times. Vertical integration minimizes the risks associated with supply chain disruptions, such as delays or quality issues, which can have severe consequences in the fast-paced and competitive space industry.

Cost Reduction and Efficiency

Vertical integration enables small launch providers to reduce costs and improve efficiency. By owning and controlling multiple stages of their space systems supply chain, companies can eliminate markup costs associated with third-party suppliers and streamline operations. Rocket Lab, for example, has invested heavily in advanced manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing and carbon composites, to produce high-quality components at a lower cost and with shorter lead times. This approach allows the company to offer competitive pricing to its customers while maintaining healthy profit margins.

Flexibility and Customization

Another key advantage of vertical integration is the ability to offer customized solutions to customers. Small satellite operators often have unique requirements for their missions, such as specific orbital parameters or timeline constraints. By controlling the entire launch process, from component manufacturing to mission planning and execution, vertically integrated launch providers can offer a higher degree of flexibility and customization to meet the needs of their customers. This level of service is particularly valuable in the small launch market, where customers are often working on innovative and niche applications.

Enabling Constellation Deployment and Servicing

As the small satellite industry grows, many companies are looking to deploy and operate their own constellations for applications like Earth observation, communications, or IoT services. Vertically integrated launch providers are well-positioned to support these customers by offering end-to-end solutions, from satellite manufacturing to launch services and on-orbit operations.

Rocket Lab has significantly advanced its vertical integration by expanding capabilities beyond launch services. The company has developed a range of satellite platforms, including the Photon and other satellite buses, which can serve as customizable bases for various payloads and missions. These satellite buses provide a comprehensive solution, enabling customers to focus on their specific mission objectives while Rocket Lab handles satellite manufacturing and integration processes. The acquisition of Sinclair Interplanetary, a leading provider of high-quality satellite components and subsystems, further strengthens Rocket Lab’s vertical integration strategy. By incorporating Sinclair’s expertise and products, Rocket Lab enhances its ability to deliver reliable and cost-effective satellite solutions.

Moreover, vertically integrated companies like Rocket Lab can deliver turnkey constellations, including fully managed services, to customers without the typical revenue stacking and complexity associated with multiple vendors. This streamlined approach reduces barriers to entry for organizations looking to leverage small satellite constellations, making it easier and more affordable to access space-based services and data.

Disrupting the Earth Observation and LEO Services Market

Vertical integration presents an opportunity for small launch providers to disrupt the Earth observation (EO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) services market. By controlling the entire value chain, from satellite manufacturing to data delivery, vertically integrated companies can offer more affordable and accessible solutions to a wider range of customers. This is particularly relevant in the EO market, where traditional providers have relied on large, expensive satellites with long development cycles. Companies like Rocket Lab, with their ability to manufacture and launch small satellites quickly and cost-effectively, can democratize access to EO data and services, enabling new applications and business models.

Conclusion

Vertical integration is a critical strategy for companies in the small launch market to survive and succeed. By controlling multiple stages of the supply chain, companies like Rocket Lab ensure supply chain stability, reduce costs, improve efficiency, offer customized solutions, and support the deployment and operation of revenue-generating constellations. The ability to deliver turnkey solutions, including managed constellation services, strengthens the value proposition of vertically integrated launch providers. As the small satellite industry evolves, vertically integrated companies will be well-positioned to capture new opportunities and disrupt traditional markets, providing end-to-end solutions from component manufacturing to on-orbit operations.

Beyond Cost per Kilogram

The belief that the cost of mass to orbit is the sole determining factor in the viability and success of satellite missions is an oversimplification that fails to account for the diverse needs and requirements of satellite operators. While rideshare options, where multiple satellites share space on a single launch vehicle, can offer cost savings, they come with significant limitations that make them unsuitable for many missions. Rocket Lab, a leading small satellite launch provider, demonstrates why dedicated launches to precise orbits, on a schedule dictated by the customer, are crucial for the success of many satellite projects.

  1. Orbital precision: One of the key advantages of dedicated launches is the ability to place satellites into specific, precisely targeted orbits. This is particularly important for satellites that require specific altitudes, inclinations, or orbital planes to fulfill their intended functions, such as Earth observation, communications, or scientific research. Rideshare opportunities often have predetermined orbital parameters that may not align with the needs of individual satellites, compromising their performance and effectiveness. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, with its high-precision orbital insertion capabilities, enables customers to achieve the exact orbits they require, optimizing their satellites' performance and mission success.

  2. Timing and scheduling: Satellite operators often have specific timeline requirements dictated by factors such as mission objectives, funding cycles, or coordination with other assets. Rideshare launches operate on fixed schedules determined by the primary payload, leaving secondary payloads with little to no control over the timing of their deployment. This lack of flexibility can lead to costly delays or missed opportunities. In contrast, dedicated launches, like those provided by Rocket Lab, allow customers to dictate their own launch schedules, ensuring that their satellites are deployed when needed, minimizing delays, and maximizing the value of their investments.

  3. Mission assurance and risk mitigation: Sharing a launch vehicle with other payloads introduces additional risks and uncertainties. A failure or malfunction in the primary payload or another secondary payload can jeopardize the entire mission, resulting in the loss of all satellites on board. Dedicated launches, on the other hand, provide a higher level of mission assurance by eliminating the risks associated with other payloads. Rocket Lab’s focus on reliability, with its proven track record of successful launches and advanced manufacturing techniques, further enhances mission assurance for its customers.

  4. Affordability and value: While rideshare options may offer lower costs per kilogram of mass to orbit, the overall value proposition for satellite operators must take into account factors beyond just the launch cost. The ability to precisely target desired orbits, control launch schedules, and minimize risks can significantly enhance the value of a satellite mission. Rocket Lab’s dedicated launch services, with prices starting at around $7.5 million, provide an affordable option for customers who prioritize these factors. The company’s streamlined production processes and innovative technologies enable it to offer competitive pricing while still delivering the benefits of dedicated launches.

While the cost of mass to orbit is undoubtedly an important consideration, it is not the only factor that determines the success and value of satellite missions. Rocket Lab’s ability to provide dedicated launches to precise orbits, on schedules dictated by the customer, and at affordable prices, demonstrates the importance of considering a broader range of factors when evaluating launch options. As the space industry continues to evolve and diversify, with an increasing number of small satellites and specialized missions, the demand for flexible, reliable, and customizable launch services will only continue to grow. Companies like Rocket Lab, with their focus on providing value beyond just the cost per kilogram, will play a crucial role in enabling the next generation of satellite missions and driving innovation in the space industry.

AWS Gearing Up To Support GenAI for Space

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is strategically positioning its cloud infrastructure to leverage the potential of generative AI in transforming space and other industries. With over 60% of AWS' space and aerospace customers already using AI, the company predicts a significant increase in the adoption of generative AI in the coming years. AWS has restructured internally to focus on generative AI, creating a dedicated “generative AI for space” team and a laboratory for customers to experiment with new applications. The company sees three main areas for generative AI in space: geospatial analytics, spacecraft design, and constellation management.