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Neutron Rocket Development: 2024 Updates

Rocket Lab Launch: Ready, Aim, PREFIRE

Mission name: Ready, Aim, PREFIRE
Launch Vehicle: Electron
Launch Site: Launch Complex 1, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand
NZST Launch Window: Opens 19:15, May 22, 2024
UTC Launch Window: 07:15, May 22, 2024
ET Launch Window: 03:15, May 22, 2024
PT Launch Window: 00:15, May 22, 2024
Mission Overview: ‘Ready, Aim, PREFIRE’ is the first of two back-to-back Electron launches to deploy NASA’s PREFIRE mission. The mission aims to measure heat lost from Earth’s polar regions to improve climate models. The satellites will be deployed to a 525km circular orbit and will focus on thermal infrared radiation measurements. This will be Rocket Lab’s 48th Electron launch and its sixth launch of 2024.
Press Kit: PDF Download
Live Stream:

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

Rocket Lab Ready, Aim, PREFIRE Mission Patch

Podcast: Rocket Lab's Peter Beck and Adam Spice Discuss Neutron, Space Systems, and Strategy

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and CFO Adam Spice continue the post-earnings release podcast rounds with an appearance on Dave G Investing. Some key takeaways from both:

Peter Beck

  • Building a rocket is a challenging process, with much of the work going into infrastructure, factories, and test facilities, not just the rocket itself.
  • Design for Neutron prioritizes affordability and reusability, with tradeoffs made to optimize performance and cost.
  • Block upgrades for Neutron will likely follow a similar path to Electron, focusing on incremental improvements rather than major redesigns.
  • Rocket Lab’s composite structures are a core strength, and the company has organized a new business unit to leverage this capability.
  • The space industry is at an inflection point, with vertically integrated companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab positioned to become the dominant players in the future while existing primes are stepping back.
  • Rocket Lab is producing more than 2,000 reaction wheels this year.
  • Beck on the minimal impact that an Electron customer delay has on revenue: “Just so people understand that from a financial standpoint we collect 90% of all of the the launch contract prior to ignition so there’s generally only 10% of the contract left when we ignite the rocket and as the rocket is being built you know we’re collecting against milestones along the way so there’s never any like rocket sitting there that that owes us a heap of money.”

Adam Spice

  • Neutron’s margin profile is expected to improve more quickly than Electron’s due to its reusability being designed from the start.
  • The investment in Neutron’s manufacturing facilities, such as the composite facility in Maryland, can benefit other parts of the business.
  • The Space Systems side of the business is less capital-intensive than the rocket side, and Rocket Lab has invested in its manufacturing footprint and systems to enable scalability.
  • Government business, particularly opportunities like the Space Development Agency (SDA) platform, represents a significant growth opportunity for the company.
  • Sinclair’s reaction wheel production has scaled from 150 a year to thousands since being acquired by Rocket Lab, creating significant opportunities for increased margin.

Both Beck and Spice emphasized Rocket Lab’s long-term vision of becoming an end-to-end space company, with vertical integration and the ability to provide complete space-based solutions to customers. They additionally highlighted the company’s focus on execution, delivery, and transparency as key differentiators in the evolving space industry.

Podcast: Peter Beck on Q1 Earnings, Neutron, and Rocket Lab's Vertical Integration Strategy

In a recent appearance on the Vince is Bullish podcast, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck discussed the company’s Q1 earnings and provided insights into its future plans and the space industry as a whole. Here are the key takeaways from the interview:

  • Launch manifest flexibility: Beck emphasized that launch delays and rescheduling are common in the industry and that Rocket Lab’s diversified business helps mitigate the financial impact of such changes.
  • Neutron rocket contracts: Rocket Lab plans to sign Neutron launch contracts once the rocket is close to its first flight, ensuring they can meet customer demands and secure the best pricing.
  • Neutron’s target customers: The rocket is designed to serve a wide range of customers, including mega-constellation operators, government agencies, and other commercial entities.
  • “I fully predict that 50% of Neutron launches will be other people’s and 50% of Neutron launches will be ourselves.”
  • Vertical integration and acquisitions: Rocket Lab pursues vertical integration when the supply chain is too slow or expensive. Acquisitions are made to secure strategically important capabilities or to create synergies with existing business lines.
  • Competing with SpaceX: Beck believes that the space industry will be dominated by companies with their own launch capabilities, like SpaceX and Rocket Lab. He sees Neutron as a medium-class launcher complementing Electron, serving different market segments than Starship.
  • Future vision: Rocket Lab aims to become an end-to-end space company, providing not just launch services and satellite manufacturing but also complete space-based solutions and services to customers.

Beck’s podcast appearance highlights Rocket Lab’s ambitious long-term vision and strategic positioning within the rapidly evolving space industry. Through vertical integration, strategic acquisitions, and the development of the Neutron rocket, the company is actively working towards becoming an end-to-end space solutions provider. Beck’s insights reveal his unwavering commitment to playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of spaceflight, as he lays the groundwork to capitalize on the limitless opportunities that lie ahead in the space sector and positions Rocket Lab to be a multi-generational space company.

Rocket Lab Drops Several Archimedes Engine Updates

Rocket Lab has completed the first full assembly of its Archimedes engine, a 3D printed, reusable rocket engine designed for the company’s Neutron medium lift launch vehicle. Here are some key facts about the Archimedes engine:

  • Powered by liquid oxygen and methane, using an oxidizer rich staged combustion cycle
  • Capable of producing 165,000 lbf (733 kilonewtons) per engine, with a combined total of 1,450,000 lbf on Neutron’s first stage (nine engines)
  • Designed for maximum reusability, with a minimum target of up to 20 launches per engine
  • 3D printed critical parts include turbo pump housings, pre-burner and main chamber components, valve housings, and engine structural components
  • Intensive test campaign has begun at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi
  • Production of subsequent engines is ongoing in parallel with the test campaign
  • Full-rate production will take place at Rocket Lab’s Engine Development Complex in Long Beach, California

The Archimedes engine test and development campaign is a key driver for Neutron’s first launch, which is now expected to occur no earlier than mid-2025. Rocket Lab has also completed carbon composite flight structures for Neutron’s fairing panels, Stage 1 and Stage 2 tanks, and the reusable Stage 1 structure. Infrastructure development also continues at Neutron’s dedicated launch site at Wallops Island, Virginia.

Archimedes: February vs. May

One of the reasons I aggregate the Neutron slides in posts like this one is that it helps quickly assess the scale and pace of development. Here’s a great example showing the state of the Archimedes engine in the late February investor update and then again today. That is a massive difference in just over two months.

February 27, 2024

Neutron Rocket Update Screenshot from Rocket Lab Q4 & Full Year 2023 Investor Update

And May 6, 2024

Neutron Rocket Update Screenshot from Rocket Lab Q1 2024 Investor Update

A Bird's Eye View of Rocket Lab's Stennis Test Site

Rocket Lab has posted photos of Archimedes on the test stand at Stennis. I’ve highlighted the location (in green) on this Google earth view.

Satellite view of Rocket Lab's engine testing facility at Stennis

Rocket Lab Analysis Worth Tracking

If you track the Rocket Lab community on Twitter you have likely already run across detailed analysis of the company by @Tim_X94. If not, I highly recommend that you give some of his more substantial posts a read and give him a follow. Looking beyond the exciting “space stuff”, he dives deep into Rocket Lab’s strategic positioning, capital efficiency, and relentless execution - themes that resonate with my own analysis of the company.

I reached out to him today and asked him to round up a few highlights for this post:

  • TIm discusses Rocket Lab’s acquisition of a former Lockheed Martin facility in Middle River, Maryland, which will serve as a key component in the company’s vertical integration strategy. The facility, called the Space Structures Complex, will not only be used for Neutron rocket production but also for manufacturing satellite constellations, such as the potential SDA PWSA Tranche 3 orders and other large-scale contracts similar to the MDA Globalstar deal. The author emphasizes that the close proximity of the facility to the Neutron launch pad in Wallops will significantly improve Rocket Lab’s supply chain, logistics, and launch cadence in the long term, underpinning the company’s end-to-end space solutions approach.

  • Tim highlights Rocket Lab’s strategic decision to utilize NASA’s Stennis Space Center’s A-3 Test Stand for testing their Archimedes engine, which was built by NASA for $349 million but never used until now. This move demonstrates Rocket Lab’s capital efficiency and execution, as they secured a favorable lease rate and accelerated the development timeline for the Neutron rocket, giving them a competitive edge over their rivals, such as Relativity Space, who are investing heavily in redeveloping older test stands.

  • This thread digs into why Rocket Lab’s private launch site in Mahia, New Zealand, provides a significant competitive advantage over U.S. small launch competitors, as it offers superior flexibility, high launch cadence capabilities, and lower labor costs, all of which are protected by the regulatory moat of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations), making it difficult for competitors to replicate Rocket Lab’s launch infrastructure.

  • Tim asserts that Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has the necessary ingredients to maintain its position as the low-cost small launch leader in 2030 and beyond, particularly for U.S. single missions with payloads under 300kg, due to its competitive launch costs, high cadence capabilities, unique regulatory advantages, and lower labor costs in New Zealand, while facing more competition in the small constellation launch market from larger payload capacity rockets.

  • In this series of tweets, Tim argues that while SpaceX’s Starship is expected to dominate the launch vehicle market with its capabilities and low launch costs, it will not make Rocket Lab’s Neutron obsolete in the short or long term due to Neutron’s competitive launch costs, the need for multiple launch providers to address the current shortage, and the U.S. government’s desire to avoid relying solely on Elon Musk’s companies for critical space infrastructure.

  • Tim argues that Rocket Lab’s strategic focus on providing bespoke turnkey solutions, including launch, satellite manufacturing, and operation services, for the U.S. government’s defense programs will allow the company to significantly grow its business and differentiate itself from competitors like SpaceX.

  • Tim details why he believes that Rocket Lab is poised to win significant U.S. government contracts for the Space Development Agency’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (SDA PWSA) Tranche 3 satellites due to its vertical integration, ability to meet schedules, and in-house satellite bus manufacturing capabilities, while legacy defense prime contractors face supply chain issues and challenges adapting to the new paradigm of small satellite constellations.

The Synergy of Earth Observation and AI: A Paradigm Shift in Understanding Our Planet

Emiliano Kargieman, CEO of Satellogic, has written a really interesting post on how the synergy of Earth observation and AI is set to revolutionize our understanding of the planet. Something I’ve touched on a few times.

He has posted a Twitter thread on the topic as well.

Russia Vetoes UN Resolution Banning Nuclear Weapons in Space

Tensions in the space domain continue to escalate as Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on April 24 that aimed to reaffirm provisions in the Outer Space Treaty prohibiting the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space. The resolution, drafted by Japan and the United States, was prompted by reports that Russia was developing a nuclear anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon capable of causing widespread damage to satellites in low Earth orbit and endangering astronauts.

As space becomes increasingly important from a defense perspective, with nations recognizing the critical role of satellites in modern warfare and national security, new opportunities are emerging for space companies. The growing demand for resilient and secure space infrastructure, as well as innovative technologies to counter potential threats, is driving investment and growth in the commercial space sector. New space companies that can provide solutions to these challenges may find themselves well-positioned to capitalize on the expanding defense market and contribute to the security and sustainability of the space domain.

Threats from Russia and China Drive Space Force's Commercial Space Reserve Initiative

As threats from Russia and China continue to grow in the space domain, the U.S. Space Force is taking steps to bolster its capabilities and resilience. One key initiative is the establishment of a Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve (CASR), which aims to scale up the use of commercial capabilities during a conflict.

The Space Force’s plan to create CASR could provide significant opportunities for new space companies. By opening the door for innovative startups and emerging space firms to contribute to national security efforts, the Space Force is fostering a more diverse and robust space ecosystem. As the service works on establishing clear contractual language, ensuring the reliability of commercial systems, and developing a framework for sharing threat information, new space companies that can meet these requirements may find themselves with a unique opportunity to partner with the Space Force and grow their businesses in the process.

U.S. Space Command Chief Warns of China's Rapid Advancements in Space

U.S. Space Command’s new leader, Space Force Gen. Stephen Whiting, has warned of China’s rapidly advancing space capabilities following meetings with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. Key points:

  • China is the primary focus of U.S. Space Command, with Beijing developing counter-space weapons and using space to enhance its terrestrial forces
  • Japan’s new Space Operations Group is collaborating with the U.S. to improve space domain awareness and monitor threats, many of which emanate from China
  • The U.S. and Japan are partnering to launch new satellites for space monitoring, and Japan is preparing to field a deep-space radar to better understand China’s space activities
  • Chinese activities on the Moon are also being monitored, with the U.S. hoping there is no military component to these seemingly exploratory and scientific endeavors
  • The U.S. military has been collaborating and training in the space domain with Japan and South Korea to build deterrence and ensure uninterrupted access to space for their militaries and populations

As China continues to make rapid advancements in space, the U.S. and its allies are working together to monitor and counter potential threats, while also ensuring the peaceful use of space for scientific and exploratory purposes.

We’re making progress but we will need to make more.

China's Military Reorganization: Implications for Space Forces and Capabilities

China has reorganized its military, replacing the Strategic Support Force (SSF) with the new Information Support Force (ISF). This move has significant implications for China’s space forces and how they are commanded. Key points:

  • The Aerospace Force, which commands China’s space forces, is now the senior force among China’s military arms
  • The reorganization aims to improve operational efficiency, integration, and control over information warfare domains, including space
  • The move could influence satellite operations, space surveillance, protection of space assets, and anti-satellite capabilities
  • China has been expanding its space capabilities in areas like satellite reconnaissance, communications megaconstellations, and on-orbit servicing

The reorganization is the biggest for China’s military since 2015 and suggests an increased focus on the strategic importance of space and information warfare going forward. How exactly it plays out remains to be seen, but it will be important to monitor the implications for China’s space forces and capabilities.

U.S. and New Zealand Strengthen Space Cooperation with Inaugural Bilateral Space Dialogue

On April 12, 2024, the United States and New Zealand held their first bilateral Space Dialogue in Washington, D.C., marking a significant milestone in the 150th anniversary of their space relationship. The key outcomes of the dialogue include:

  • Emphasis on the growth of the commercial space sector and the changing role of government in commercial space activities
  • Intent to continue cooperation on issues such as launch, payloads, and space situational awareness
  • Potential for expanded cooperation on policy and regulatory interoperability related to commercial space
  • Discussions on opportunities to advance scientific education, research, and space cooperation
  • Recognition of New Zealand’s geographic advantages in enabling frequent and responsive launches for U.S. industry and government agencies which added “strategic resilience” to launch capacity
  • Signing of an updated Memorandum of Cooperation between the New Zealand Space Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration
  • Announcement of the first round of joint research projects between New Zealand research institutes and NASA centers, focusing on Earth observation
  • Appreciation for the internship opportunities provided by NASA and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to high-achieving New Zealand students
  • Launch of MethaneSAT, a unique partnership involving government, non-profit, academic, and commercial organizations from both countries

The dialogue also included a commercial roundtable, co-chaired by the New Zealand Minister for Space and the Director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce, which highlighted existing partnerships and opportunities for stronger bilateral cooperation between the two countries' commercial space sectors. You can read the full statement on the U.S. State Department’s website.

DoD Moves to Boost Production Of Critical Componenets For Space Solar

Moving industry, defense, services, and people, to space requires a lot of supply chain logistics work on Earth:

The Defense Department announced April 16 it awarded a $14.4 million contract to semiconductor manufacturer 5N Plus to boost production of space-qualified materials for solar cells.

…According to market studies, demand for solar power for space applications is rapidly accelerating and expected to exceed current available capacity.

Space Force Selects Rocket Lab And True Anomaly For Tactically Responsive Mission

Rocket Lab and True Anomaly were just selected for an extremely cool tactically responsive mission by Space Systems Command. Per Rocket Lab’s press release the two teams will demonstrate the capability to develop space vehicles with rendezvous and proximity operation (RPO) functionality, as well as establish corresponding command and control centers for their operation in a mission called VICTUS HAZE:

Once the spacecraft build is complete, Rocket Lab will be entered into a Hot Standby Phase awaiting further direction. Once the exercise begins, Rocket Lab will be given notice to launch the spacecraft into a target orbit. After reaching orbit, the spacecraft will be rapidly commissioned and readied for operations. Rocket Lab will configure a Pioneer class spacecraft bus to meet the unique requirements of the VICTUS HAZE mission and launch the spacecraft on Electron from either Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, NZ or Launch Complex 2 in Wallops, VA. Once on orbit, the spacecraft will conduct a variety of dynamic space operations to demonstrate SDA characterization capabilities with True Anomaly’s spacecraft, the Jackal autonomous orbital vehicle.

Rocket Lab’s Pioneer spacecraft was previously used to support the Varda mission.

Photo of a Rocket Lab Pioneer Spacecraft

True Anomaly’s AI-enabled Jackal spacecraft is really interesting as well:

Screenshot of Jackal autonomous orbital vehicle (AOV)

Ars Technica has a comprehensive piece up with a more detailed profile of the exercise:

“When another nation puts an asset up into space and we don’t quite know what that asset is, we don’t know what its intent is, we don’t know what its capabilities are, we need the ability to go up there and figure out what this thing is,” said Gen. Michael Guetlein, the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations.

This is what the Space Force wants to demonstrate with Victus Haze. For this mission, True Anomaly’s spacecraft will launch first, posing as a satellite from a potential adversary, like China or Russia. Rocket Lab will have a satellite on standby to go up and inspect True Anomaly’s spacecraft and will launch it when the Space Force gives the launch order.

“Pretty sporty,” said Even Rogers, co-founder and CEO of True Anomaly.

Then, if all goes according to plan, the two spacecraft will switch roles, with True Anomaly’s Jackal satellite actively maneuvering around Rocket Lab’s satellite. According to the Space Force, True Anomaly and Rocket Lab will deliver their spacecraft no later than the fall of 2025.

There’s another interesting aspect to this mission mentioned in a Payload article:

Planners expect to increase complexity to the point where one vehicle will actively avoid being characterized. The goal isn’t just to demonstrate the technology, but also develop the tactics and procedures for these kinds of missions.

The demonstration is a collaboration between the Defense Innovation Unit, Space Safari acquisition program, and SpaceWERX.

Relativity Space Pushes NSSL Bid To Next Year

Terran R won’t be ready but they expect to have a credible path to flight by next year:

Relativity was initially aiming to compete for the first round of NSSL Phase 3 contracts expected to be awarded later this year. However, the California-based company’s new Terran R rocket won’t fly until 2026 at the earliest, which falls outside the timeframe for this year’s NSSL Phase 3 awards.

“We’ve been fairly transparent with our schedule over the last year and have continued to hit our milestones,” Joshua Brost, vice president of business development at Relativity Space, told SpaceNews. “We’re very comfortable about on-ramping to NSSL in the future, likely next year as we approach that 12 months from initial launch.”

Rocket Lab Takes Significant Step Towards Reusable Electron Rocket

A Recovered Electron Booster Floating in the Ocean.

Rocket Lab, a leading small satellite launch provider, has announced a major milestone in its quest to make its Electron rocket the world’s first reusable small orbital launch vehicle. Here are the key points:

  • A previously flown Electron first stage from the January 2024 “Four of a Kind” mission has been returned to Rocket Lab’s production line for final acceptance testing and eventual reflight.
  • The stage has already passed rigorous tests, including tank pressurization, helium leak checks, and carbon fiber structural testing.
  • Rocket Lab has been successfully recovering Electron first stages from previous missions, returning them to Earth under parachutes and collecting them from the ocean.

The company has made iterative modifications across multiple recovery missions to perfect the recovery process, including:

  • Ensuring the rocket’s carbon composite structure survives the intense heat and forces of reentry
  • Refining the parachute system for reliable deployment and smooth deceleration
  • Improving telemetry and tracking for rapid stage location and collection
  • Successfully launching a previously flown Rutherford engine

If the stage passes final acceptance and qualification testing, Rocket Lab will consider opportunities for reflying it in the new year.

This milestone marks an exciting step forward in Rocket Lab’s efforts to increase launch cadence and reduce costs through the reuse of Electron’s first stage. The payload for the potential reflight will be announced following the completion of final testing.

Sierra Space Testing Ghost Space Delivery System

Sierra Space recently completed initial flight tests of their space delivery system called Ghost. This low beta reentry vehicle is designed to safely return objects from space and deliver them to specific locations on Earth with high precision.

Key features of the Ghost system include:

  • Utilizes advanced deployable decelerator technology for controlled reentry
  • Enables delivery of payloads to any location worldwide within 90 minutes
  • Eliminates the need for fixed infrastructure, allowing for a highly responsive space-based system
  • Enhances sustainability and safety in space operations

The flight tests showcased Ghost’s capabilities and demonstrated Sierra Space’s rapid prototyping and development prowess through their Axelerator program. Remarkably, the Ghost system transitioned from development to flight testing in a mere 90 days.

Ghost would represent a significant advancement in space logistics and recovery operations if deployed. Its ability to precisely deliver payloads from space to Earth could up new possibilities for defense logistics, global supply chains, emergency response, and scientific research.

SAIC And GomSpace Partner On AI-powered SmallSat For Pentagon

The proof of concept will launch in 2026:

…the cubesat aims to set a new standard for computing power on a small platform, said SAIC. By enabling AI and machine learning “at the edge” in space, the satellite can process data with minimum delay.

With more compute power in orbit, there is less need for transporting data back to the ground for processing and relay to users,” said a SAIC spokesman. “The latency of decision making is vastly reduced.”

Pushing as much of the identification, classification, and even prioritization to the edge as we can is going to be a game changer on the intelligence front especially as we reach a state where there is persistent surveillance and change detection.

Rocket Lab Enters The Carbon Composite Manufacturing Business

Rocket Lab has incubated and acquired some of the best carbon composite manufacturing talent in the world, acquired some of the most expensive and capable tooling in the world for pennies on the dollar, and is now maximizing that investment by entering the carbon composite manufacturing business.

Screenshot of Rocket Lab Tweet

This is a no-brainer and typical of Rocket Lab’s persistent resource efficiency. The personnel and equipment in this side of the business are extremely rare and valuable and the last thing you want is either of them sitting idle. This also continues to offset the risk posed by the lumpy launch side of the business which is always a good thing.

Rocket Lab's Acquisition Strategy: Insights from Previous Acquisitions

While I have a solid understanding of Rocket Lab’s approach to M&A, I thought it would be interesting to feed AI several of the company’s acquisition announcements and ask it to find common themes that might inform their approach to future acquisitions. Here’s the result:

New Space Blog
Examine the press releases from Rocket Lab regarding their acquisition of smaller companies. Specifically, focus on the instances where Rocket Lab has either fully acquired these companies or purchased substantial parts of their operations. Craft a blog post that identifies and outlines the recurring themes from these press releases in bullet points. Further, analyze these themes to predict the nature of Rocket Lab’s potential future acquisitions, providing insights into why these particular types of companies might be targeted next.

Claude 3 Opus
Rocket Lab, a leading launch and space systems company, has been on an acquisition spree in recent years. By examining their press releases regarding the acquisition of smaller companies, several recurring themes emerge:

  • Vertical Integration: Rocket Lab has consistently targeted companies that complement their existing capabilities, allowing them to streamline their production process and offer comprehensive space solutions. The acquisitions of SolAero (solar power products and precision aerospace structures), Advanced Solutions, Inc. (mission software, simulation, and GNC solutions), and Planetary Systems Corporation (spacecraft separation systems) all contribute to Rocket Lab’s goal of vertical integration.

  • Strengthening Space Systems Portfolio: Rocket Lab has focused on acquiring companies that enhance their Space Systems division. The acquisitions of Sinclair Interplanetary, Advanced Solutions, Inc., and Planetary Systems Corporation have all brought valuable expertise and products to Rocket Lab’s spacecraft hardware solutions.

  • Leveraging Manufacturing Capabilities: Rocket Lab has strategically acquired companies with advanced manufacturing facilities and skilled teams. The acquisition of SailGP Technologies' manufacturing complex in Warkworth, New Zealand, and the purchase of Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach facility both demonstrate Rocket Lab’s commitment to expanding their production capabilities.

  • Retaining Talent: In their acquisitions, Rocket Lab has prioritized retaining the talented teams from the acquired companies. This is evident in the SailGP Technologies acquisition, where over 90% of the New Zealand-based staff were retained, and in the integration of teams from Advanced Solutions, Inc. and Planetary Systems Corporation.

Based on these recurring themes, we can predict the nature of Rocket Lab’s potential future acquisitions:

  1. Companies with unique space technologies: Rocket Lab will likely continue to target companies that offer innovative technologies or products that can be integrated into their Space Systems division. This could include companies specializing in advanced sensors, propulsion systems, or communication technologies for satellites.

  2. Firms with specialized manufacturing capabilities: As Rocket Lab continues to scale up production of their Electron rocket and develop the larger Neutron rocket, they may seek out companies with specialized manufacturing capabilities in advanced materials, such as composites or 3D printing, to further streamline their production processes.

  3. Startups with talented teams: Rocket Lab recognizes the value of skilled personnel and may target startups with experienced teams in aerospace engineering, software development, or other critical areas. Acquiring these companies allows Rocket Lab to quickly add expertise and accelerate their growth.

  4. Companies with strategic locations: Rocket Lab may consider acquiring companies based in locations that offer strategic advantages, such as proximity to key customers, access to specialized supply chains, or favorable regulatory environments for space activities.

By continuing to acquire companies that align with their vertical integration strategy, strengthen their Space Systems portfolio, expand their manufacturing capabilities, and bring in talented teams, Rocket Lab is positioning itself to be a major player in the rapidly growing space industry. As they continue to scale up and take on more ambitious projects, such as the development of the Neutron rocket, strategic acquisitions will likely remain a key part of their growth strategy.

New Space Blog
Rocket Lab is making significant investments in the development of their Neutron Rocket but recently secured over $300 million in an offering that they have signaled might be leveraged for multiple acquisitions. Given the extra cash on hand, but also the desire to perform multiple acquisitions, what does this say about the potential size and nature of the companies that might be acquired?

Claude 3 Opus
Considering Rocket Lab’s recent cash infusion and their intention to leverage it for multiple acquisitions, we can infer several key points about the potential size and nature of the companies they might target:

  1. Smaller to mid-sized companies: Given the desire to perform multiple acquisitions, Rocket Lab is likely to target smaller to mid-sized companies rather than large, established firms. This approach allows them to spread the cash across several acquisitions, diversifying their investment and reducing risk.

  2. Strategic fit: Rocket Lab will likely prioritize companies that align with their strategic goals, particularly those that support the development of the Neutron rocket. This could include companies specializing in advanced materials, propulsion technologies, or other critical components for the Neutron project.

  3. Complementary capabilities: As seen in their previous acquisitions, Rocket Lab will likely target companies that offer complementary capabilities to their existing operations. This could include firms with expertise in areas such as software development, guidance systems, or satellite technologies that can be integrated into Rocket Lab’s Space Systems division.

  4. Affordable valuations: With a limited budget for multiple acquisitions, Rocket Lab may focus on companies with affordable valuations relative to their strategic value. This could include early-stage startups or companies with strong potential but limited market traction.

  5. Talent acquisition: Rocket Lab may also use these acquisitions as an opportunity to bring in talented teams with specialized skills and experience. Smaller companies often have highly skilled personnel who can contribute significantly to Rocket Lab’s research and development efforts.

  6. Geographic expansion: Rocket Lab might consider acquiring companies based in strategic locations to expand their geographic footprint, access new markets, or tap into local talent pools.

In summary, Rocket Lab’s cash infusion and desire to perform multiple acquisitions suggest that they will likely target smaller to mid-sized companies that offer strategic fit, complementary capabilities, affordable valuations, and skilled talent. These acquisitions will probably focus on supporting the development of the Neutron rocket and expanding Rocket Lab’s Space Systems division, while also potentially enabling geographic expansion. By carefully selecting their acquisition targets, Rocket Lab can maximize the impact of their investment and strengthen their position in the rapidly evolving space industry.

Peter Beck On Building Beautiful Things

Rocket Lab Electron Rocket

Peter Beck, CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab, discussed the company’s innovative culture, future plans, and his advice for aspiring space entrepreneurs in an interview with Gizmodo. Some key points:

  • Rocket Lab fosters innovation by rapidly prototyping and testing ideas, taking bold swings at transformative technologies like 3D-printed rocket engines, and focusing on building aesthetically beautiful products.
  • Beck has established Rocket Lab as an end-to-end space company, combining launch capabilities with satellite manufacturing and operation, catering to customers who want turnkey space solutions.
  • Critical emerging space technologies include internet from space, direct mobile connectivity, and pharmaceutical manufacturing in space. Rocket Lab is involved in all these and other areas through its diverse offerings.
  • The biggest potential space innovation lies in propulsion technology, moving away from conventional chemical rockets to enable more substantial progress.
  • 3D printing is crucial for Rocket Lab, enabling rapid design iterations and manufacturing geometries impossible with traditional techniques.
  • Beck’s advice to entrepreneurs: Focus on developing technologies that address real market needs and have scalability, rather than niche solutions or “cool” tech without demand.

It’s very technical and process focused but this round-table discussion featuring Myles Keefer, Rocket Lab’s Manager of Additive Manufacturing reinforces a lot of the points made by Beck. The engineering philosophy of the company is unique and, in my opinion, underappreciated. It’s more Apple than SpaceX but it’s also informed by an unrelenting focus on efficiency and practicality.

Varda Lands $90M In Series B Funding

This is a very encouraging development, not just for Varda (and Rocket Lab) but also for the potential growth of space manufacturing overall:

Astronauts have been conducting protein crystallization experiments in space for decades on the International Space Station and before that, the Space Shuttle.

But the business case for expanding this research has never materialized — until now. This is for a few different reasons, Asparouhov explained: because of the crew, there are significant limitations to the types of solvents or other materials you can bring onboard the ISS; there are constraints related to intellectual property for work that happens on the station; and pharmaceutical lab equipment designed for use in-space was generally lacking in sophistication compared to the terrestrial versions.

But much has changed, especially in the space industry. Part of the reason Varda is possible today is due to the availability of regular, low-cost rideshare launches from SpaceX and Rocket Lab’s innovations in satellite bus manufacturing. Even beyond these external partnerships, the startup has made significant headway in its own right, as the success of the first mission showed: Their reentry capsule appears to have performed flawlessly and the experiment to reformulate the HIV medicine ritonavir was executed without a hitch, it says.

Varda and Rocket Lab will launch capsule #2 later this year. Keep an eye on this relationship. It will be interesting to see how it develops now that Varda is on firmer footing.

Earth Observation Matures

Payload has a really interesting piece on the state of earth observation (EO) and how the industry is shifting its focus towards profitability, government funding, and addressing niche issues, as commercial demand lags expectations.

Key points:

  • Current EO market breakdown: ~50% US government, 25% allied governments, 25% commercial
  • Major players like Planet, Spire, BlackSky, and Maxar are prioritizing profitability after years of growth
  • Early movers have an advantage with significant initial investments creating barriers to entry
  • Startups need to differentiate through niche capabilities like hyperspectral imaging, climate monitoring, or edge computing
  • AI and data analytics are seen as potential growth drivers for the industry
  • SpaceX’s $1.8B NRO contract highlights the government’s dissatisfaction with the state of EO and their desire for cost-effective EO solutions

Of course the macro-economic environment that many of these companies have come to market in hasn’t helped. As far as I’m concerned the focus on profitability and selectivity in new venture funding is a welcome side effect of these new economic realities. The survivors from the current crop will grow stronger and the industry should finally be able to avoid the boom bust cycle that has plagued previous attempts to cement new space as a persistent and critical part of the economy. The commercial markets will grow - just never as quickly as the pitch decks predict.

Rocket Lab Schedules 2024 Q1 Earnings Call

The webcast is scheduled for May 6, 2024 05:00 PM ET.