Rocket Lab is hitting its stride in high cadence, a new venture from Electron – Ars Technica

Zoom in / Electron rocket launching the “There and Back Again” mission in 2022.

Rocket lab

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

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

This year, Rocket Lab may launch as many boosters as Russia, which was unthinkable just a few years ago.

It is clear that Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle is much smaller than others in the well-established launch industry. The electron capacity is 300 kg in low Earth orbit. But that didn’t stop Beck from being innovative with small rocket use cases. Last year, his company launched a small satellite to the moon, and Beck is working on the Venus mission.

And there’s something to be said for providing a product that a lot of customers want to go for – and then offering that product.


To this end, Rocket Lab recently announced a new project – using Electron as a testbed for hypersonic technologies. The missile will use the same first and second stages, but has a modified kick stage that allows the Electron to deploy payloads of up to 600 kg in hypersonic trajectories five times faster than the speed of sound.

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

Rocket lab

“We can do a lot of interesting things with throttle and latching and design the starting points of the tracks with great precision,” Beck said in an interview with Ars. “The main purpose of this is to be able to fly at high cadence. We all know that China, Russia and others have done a lot of flights and generated a lot of data and made advances in the field in hypersonic space. The key to progress in this area here in the United States has to do a lot of flights.”

Beck did not say how many hypersonic missions the company will fly annually from the launchpad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. However, he believes the opportunity is important once Electron proves she can.

According to the US Congressional Budget Office, the Army, Navy and Air Force are developing hypersonic missiles to provide a fast-moving and maneuverable capability to quickly strike targets from thousands of kilometers away. One of the research problems the military will likely want to test is managing the extreme heat that hypersonic missiles experience by traveling at high atmospheric speeds for most of their flight. This is not a problem for ballistic missiles, which mainly fly above the atmosphere.

Rocket Lab can provide this service because, with nearly thirty launches now completed, it has proven its ability to build up and launch electrons at a relatively high cadence. Beck said this has only been achieved through significant investment in the Electron plant in New Zealand and quality control and software that manages manufacturing processes known as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and MRP (Material Requirements Planning).

Rhythm is important

“The 20th rocket was 20 times more difficult than the first because by the time you build the 20th rocket, you are completely dependent on your ERP and MRP systems and quality control systems,” Beck said. “You are completely dependent on the system to deliver. reliable car.”

Since Rocket Lab put its first Electron into orbit in 2018, Beck has seen many competitors come and go. In the purely small launch arena, both Vector and Virgin Orbit entered bankruptcy, and Astra abandoned its first attempt to build a small rocket because of more failed launches than successful ones. Beck said he expects more consolidation in the small launch industry.

“I think there is more to come,” he said. “We went through a period when it was froth at launch, massive amounts of capital were being raised for all kinds of concepts and ideas, some with more edge than others. But I think at some point you really have to do what you said you would do and get done. And I think you’re starting to see a shake-up. about it.”

Beck’s next challenge is to take the lessons learned from Electron and develop the larger neutron craft. With a planned capacity of 15 metric tons to low-Earth orbit and a reusable first stage, the Neutron will travel to an area currently occupied by SpaceX. However, there is a huge demand in the Western world for additional medium lift capacity, and the Neutron is one of several vehicles in development — including the Ariane 6, Vulcan, New Glenn and Terran R missiles — coming to meet it.

There’s probably room for just one or two eventual winners besides SpaceX, with the Falcon 9 rocket. So it’s going to be about delivering a high-quality rocket at a high cadence. Can Peter Beck repeat this feat?

“I think the great thing about the aerospace industry is that it’s the ultimate level, and there’s no cachet of execution,” he said.

we will see.

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