RocketLab to explore expedited cargo transport for US military

Space transportation can reduce transit times to a few hours.
Ameya Paleja
The Neutron Launch Vehicle from RocketLab
The Neutron Launch Vehicle from RocketLab


California-based RocketLab has entered into a collaborative agreement with the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) to explore the use of its Neutron and Electron launch vehicles for transporting cargo around the world, the company said in a press release this week.

Founded in 2006, RocketLab has a strong history of developing satellite components and spacecraft, as well as providing space launch services. In July this year, we reported that a tiny 55-pound (25 kg) satellite launched on its Electron launch vehicle had left Earth's orbit and was heading for the Moon.

The small update might seem insignificant at first but is a critical part of NASA's mission to put humans back on the Moon through its Artemis Program. After traveling for four months, the satellite will insert itself into a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), something no space agency has attempted before. Dubbed CAPSTONE, the mission's success will determine the future steps of the Artemis Program.

RocketLab's Neutron and Photon Launch Vehicles

The Electron Launch Vehicle is RocketLab's workhorse, having been involved in 28 launches and deploying 148 satellites so far. However, the Electron is a small launch vehicle with a payload capability of up to 700 pounds (320 kg).

While the CAPSTONE mission carried a small payload, it traveled a much larger distance, which was made possible by RocketLab's lunar-capable version of the Photon Launch Vehicle.

As missions get bigger, RocketLab plans to use its reusable launch vehicle, Neutron, which has a medium-lift capability. It has a large five-meter fairing and payload capacity of 13 tonnes, making it ideal for large single spacecraft missions.

Rockets for rapid cargo transport

The operations at USTRANSCOM and its global Combatant Command have always been constrained by the limits of conventional aircraft. With rocket-based cargo transport, the USTRANSCOM is looking at innovative ways that could move military cargo faster during global emergencies.

It has, therefore, signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with RocketLab to explore ways on how rocket-based transport can be integrated into Defense logistics and how it can be used reliable in future operations, the press release said.

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As per the CRADA, the two organizations will work to explore the capabilities of all of RocketLab's launch vehicles while informing the Rocket Cargo program of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Additionally, the agreement also paves the way for RocketLab to use Photon as an on-orbit cargo depot and develop re-entry delivery capability, the press release added.

"Point-to-point space transportation offers a new ability to move equipment quickly around the world in hours, enabling a faster response to global emergencies and natural disasters,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's founder, and CEO, in the press release. “We’re excited to be collaborating with USTRANSCOM on this forward-thinking, innovative research program that could ultimately shift the way the Department of Defense considers logistics response options.”

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