Sat. May 25th, 2024

Rocket Lab pushes back Neutron debut to 2025

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May14,2024

ORLANDO, Fla. — As Rocket Lab prepares to begin tests of the first Archimedes engine for its Neutron launch vehicle, the company says that the rocket won’t be ready for its first flight before the middle of 2025.

Rocket Lab announced May 6 that it had completed the first Archimedes engine and installed it on a test stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The company has started a test campaign for that methane/liquid oxygen engine that includes what it calls “a number of engine system activations” ahead of a static-fire test.

The company previous said development of Archimedes, as well as the overall Neutron rocket, was on a schedule that would allow a first launch around the end of the year, a timeline the company affirmed in a February earnings call. In its announcement about Archimedes testing, though, Rocket Lab said it now projected a first launch of the rocket no earlier than mid-2025.

In a May 6 earnings call about Rocket Lab’s first quarter financial results, Peter Beck, chief executive of the company, said the delay was not linked to a specific technical problem with the engine or rocket. “We didn’t run up against a wall and had to solve something major technically,” he said. “Just a whole bunch of stuff that just sort of adds up.”

Many in the industry were skeptical about Rocket Lab’s earlier schedule for Neutron’s first launch because the company had yet to start testing Archimedes, a process that, for some other engines, starts years before first flight. Beck, in the earnings call, acknowledged that engine development is the “long pole” in development of any new launch vehicle.

“Getting Neutron to the pad this year was an ambitious green-light schedule that we had a path to closing if every single aspect went exactly according to plan,” he said. “But as we’ve always said, this is a rocket development program and this is always filled with gremlins, some in our control and some not.”

The revised timeline, he said later in the call, is still a “green light” schedule that includes no significant schedule margin. “It’s almost impossible to build a sensible engineering buffer in because you never really know the elements that are going to cause your problem,” he said, adding that if he had asked the company’s engineers to add margin to their schedules, the result would have been a first launch in 2040.

Rocket Lab is making progress in other aspects of Neutron, building composite structures for parts of the rocket as well as elements of the vehicle’s launch site, Launch Complex 3 at Wallops Island, Virginia. Adam Spice, Rocket Lab’s chief financial officer, said the company still anticipates spending $250 million to $300 million on the development of Neutron.

The company also backed away somewhat from earlier forecasts for launches of its Electron rocket. That small launch vehicle has flown five times so far this year, with the next launch scheduled for no earlier than May 22 carrying the first of two cubesats for NASA’s PREFIRE Earth science mission. The second cubesat will fly on another Electron no later than three weeks after the first.

The company said in its February earnings call that it projected 22 Electron launches in 2024, including two of a suborbital version called HASTE. However, Beck said on the May 6 call that it is unlikely it will be able to carry out all 22 because of customer delays.

“Across the 22 missions sold for 2024, we are seeing some movement in the manifest, as expected, due to customers being late with their spacecraft or asking to shift later in the year, or sometimes even into 2025,” he said, calling those shifting customer schedules “a game of manifest whac-a-mole.”

He said that the company should far surpass the 10 Electron launches the company performed in 2023, but did not offer a revised estimate. “It’s just super hard to predict as the customers move around,” he said. “But I think it’s fair to say that, at this point, we’ll struggle to achieve 22, but we have line of sight for probably a couple of less than that.”

The company reported $92.8 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2024, a 69% increase over the same quarter of 2023. The company had a net loss of $44.3 million in the quarter, slightly better than the $45.6 million net loss it recorded in the first quarter of 2023.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “Rocket Lab pushes back Neutron debut to 2025”
  1. It’s unfortunate to hear about the delay in Rocket Lab’s Neutron debut to 2025. However, it’s good that they’re taking the time to ensure everything is functioning properly. Hopefully, the extra time will result in a successful launch without any major technical issues.

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