Rocket Lab advances with high cadence, a new venture for Electron

An electron rocket launches the

An electron rocket launches the
Enlarge / An electron rocket launches the “There and Back Again” mission in 2022.

rocket lab

Life is pretty good for Rocket Lab and its founder Peter Beck right now.

With a total of nine launches in the past year and up to 15 planned for 2023, Rocket Lab now flies more boosters than any other company in the world that isn’t called SpaceX. In recent years, the cadence of Rocket Lab has surpassed United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other major players.

This year, Rocket Lab could even launch as many boosters as Russia, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Rocket Lab’s Elektron vehicle is clearly much smaller than others in the established launch industry. Electron’s maximum capacity is 300 kg in low Earth orbit. But that doesn’t stop Beck from being inventive when it comes to use cases for the little rocket. Last year his company launched a small satellite to the moon, and Beck is working on a Venus mission.

And there’s something to be said for providing a product that many customers want to fly in – and then delivering that product.


To that end, Rocket Lab recently announced a new project – using Electron as a test bed for hypersonic technologies. The rocket will use essentially the same first and second stages, but will feature a modified kick stage that will allow Electron to launch payloads of up to 600 kg in mass into hypersonic orbits five times faster than the speed of sound.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck is a veteran of the small launch wars.
Enlarge / Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck is a veteran of the small launch wars.

rocket lab

“We can do a lot of interesting things with throttles and cutoffs and really super fine-tune starting points of trajectories,” Beck said in an interview with Ars. “The whole purpose of this is high-cadence flight capability. We all know that China and Russia and others have done a lot of flights and generated a lot of data and really advanced the field of hypersonic technology. The key to advancing the field in here. The United States will be operating many flights.”

Beck declined to say how many hypersonic missions the company will fly each year from its launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. However, he believes the opportunity is significant once Electron demonstrates his skills.

According to the US Congressional Budget Office, the Army, Navy and Air Force are developing hypersonic missiles to provide a fast-moving, maneuverable capability to quickly hit targets thousands of miles away. Among the research problems the military is likely to want to test is how to deal with the extreme heat experienced by hypersonic missiles by flying at high speeds in the atmosphere for most of their flight. This is less of a problem for ballistic missiles that fly primarily above the atmosphere.

Rocket Lab is able to offer this service because it has demonstrated the ability to build and launch electrons at a relatively high rate, with nearly three dozen launches completed. Beck said this could only be achieved through significant investment in Electron’s New Zealand factory, quality control and software that manages manufacturing processes known as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and MRP (Material Requirements Planning).

Cadence is important

“The 20th rocket was 20 times harder than the first rocket, because when you build the 20th rocket you are completely dependent on your ERP, MRP and quality control systems,” said Beck. “They are completely dependent on the system to deliver a reliable vehicle.”

Since Rocket Lab put its first electron into orbit in 2018, Beck has seen several competitors come and go. In the small-launch-only space, Vector and Virgin Orbit have both gone bankrupt, and Astra abandoned its first attempt at building a small rocket due to more failed launches than successful ones. Beck said he expects further consolidation in the small launch vehicle industry.

“I think there’s more to come,” he said. “We went through a period of teething troubles and huge amounts of capital were raised on all kinds of concepts and ideas, some with more merit than others. But I think at some point you have to actually do what you say I’m going to do and execute. And I think you’re starting to see the cleanup of that.

Beck’s next challenge is to take the lessons learned from Electron and create the larger Neutron vehicle. With a planned 15-ton low-Earth orbit capacity and a reusable first stage, Neutron is advancing into areas currently occupied by SpaceX. However, there is a strong demand in the western world for additional medium lift capacity, and Neutron is one of several vehicles under development – including the Ariane 6, Vulcan, New Glenn and Terran R rockets – that will meet this demand to comply

Aside from SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket, there will likely only be room for one or two ultimate winners. So it comes down to delivering a quality rocket with a high cadence. Can Peter Beck repeat the feat?

“I think the great thing about the space industry is that it’s the ultimate leveler and you can’t hide from execution,” he said.

We will see.

#Rocket #Lab #advances #high #cadence #venture #Electron


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