Rocket Lab's New Neutron Rocket Is Inspired by Hungry Hungry Hippos

Enabling new levels of cost-effective payload delivery.
Chris Young

Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-founded, California-based rocket firm rivaling SpaceX's satellite delivery service, just showed off new details for its next-gen Neutron rocket, a press statement reveals.

The new system presents a fundamental reimagining of orbital payload delivery systems that seemingly takes design cues from hinged-nose cargo aircraft as well as, of all things, the child's toy classic Hungry Hungry Hippos. 

Reimagining rocket design

"What makes Neutron's design especially unique is [its] captive 'Hungry Hippo' fairing design," the private space firm explains in its statement.

The innovative design places the fairing as a permanent fixture in the first stage. Instead of separating and falling to the ocean during launch, as in traditional launch vehicles, Neutron's Hungry Hippo fairing jaws open up to release the second stage as well as the payload. The fairing then shuts and returns back to Earth with the first stage of the rocket. 

According to Rocket Lab, the advanced design will allow it to perform a higher cadence of launches due to faster turnarounds. It will also eliminate the incredibly high costs of recapturing and rebuilding fairings as well as allowing for a more lightweight second stage.

At an unveiling event (viewable below), Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said "Neutron is not a conventional rocket." According to Beck, "More than 80% of the satellites to be launched in the next decade are expected to be constellations, which have unique deployment needs that Neutron is the first vehicle to address specifically."

The 'world's first carbon composite large launch vehicle'

Rocket Lab is no stranger to eye-catching and unique rocket designs — the company previously built and demonstrated helicopter retrieval tech for first stage rockets. That retrieval method may be one of the most unique rocket-related designs we've seen beyond SpaceX — though SpinLaunch, the company building a catapult launch system, is also worth a mention.

Aside from that showstopping Hungry Hippo design, however, the Neutron launch vehicle will also be the "world's first carbon composite large launch vehicle," Rocket Lab says. In order to produce the rocket, the company will use a proprietary automated fiber placement system that has the capacity to build meters of carbon rocket shell in mere minutes. Importantly, Neutron is also designed for "return to launch site" propulsive landing. Rocket Lab says the rocket will land back at the mission launch site, unlike the majority of launch vehicles, which have to undertake high-cost landing operations on ocean platforms.

Rocket Lab's New Neutron Rocket Is Inspired by Hungry Hungry Hippos
A comparison showing Rocket Lab's Neutron rocket alongside its previous model, Electron. Source: Rocket Lab

Finally, Neutron will be powered by a new rocket engine called Archimedes, presumably after the Greek mathematician. The new rocket is designed in-house by Rocket Lab and it will be capable of 1-meganewton thrust and 320 seconds of ISP.

Rocket Lab first announced the 8-ton payload Neutron rocket back in March this year. For the initial announcement, the company revealed its new reusable rocket will be more than double the height of its Electron spacecraft at 131 feet (40 meters) tall. It also stated that it aims to conduct the first Neutron launch by 2024.

For the Neutron design process, the company said it leveraged its "proven experience developing the Electron launch vehicle, the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket annually since 2019." According to Rocket Lab, Neutron is "designed to transform space access by delivering reliable and cost-effective launch services for satellite mega-constellations, deep space missions, and human spaceflight."

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