Side by Side Comparison of Rocket Lab Neutron vs. SpaceX Falcon Rockets

2nd Jun 2021
Rocket Lab's Neutron

Despite the downward trend in spacecraft size, large launchers are still in demand for deploying multi-ton payloads into orbits, and Rocket Lab Neutron should service this exact niche. In particular, heavy launchers play an important role in delivering spaceships, payloads, and astronauts to the Moon as part of the new lunar program Artemis. NASA is currently betting on SpaceX Heavy rocket, Falcon 9, and SLS Orion systems but remains open to other offers. Neutron rocket, in development by an American company Rocket Lab could join this list. We compared Neutron with Falcon 9 and SpaceX Heavy rocket to assess the rocket’s potential.

Rocket Lab Neutron and SpaceX Falcon 9 & Heavy specifications

Until recently, Rocket Lab was known for its successful experience in developing and launching Electron light-class rocket with a payload capacity of up to 250 kg. To date, the rocket has completed 20 launches, 18 of which have been successful, and Rocket Lab intends to keep expanding its customer service capabilities.

The company announced its decision to build Neutron in March 2021. At the moment, the following rocket characteristics have been revealed:

  • Height 40 m, fairing diameter 4.5 m.
  • Payload capacity: 8,000 kg to LEO, 1,500 kg to Venus and Mars, 200 kg to the Moon.
  • Proprietary engine design.
  • Fuel – LOX / kerosene.
  • Reusable first stage.
  • Possibility of manned astronaut flights.
  • Estimated debut launch in 2024.

Now let’s take a look at the specifications of the SpaceX Falcon 9 heavy rocket, which has an impressive track record (118 launches, 116 successful).

  • Height 70 m, fairing diameter 3.7 m.
  • Payload capacity: 22,800 kg to LEO, 8,300 kg to GTO, 4,000 kg to Mars.
  • Merlin branded engines (9 + 1).
  • Fuel – LOX / kerosene.
  • Reusable first stage.
  • Crewed astronaut flights not supported.

The main feature that differs Falcon Heavy rocket from Falcon 9 heavy carrier is two additional first stages that act as side boosters. This increases the number of propulsion engines to 28 and triples the payload capacity. Besides, SpaceX says it can deliver up to 3.5 tons of payload to Pluto!

Since 2018, Falcon Heavy rocket has been launched three times, and each launch was successful. At the moment, NASA plans to use SpaceX Heavy to deliver the first modules of the orbiting lunar station Gateway to the Moon. To this end, the US Department of Defense contracted the company to manufacture an enlarged fairing. The total contract value for Gateway reached $330 million.

Rocket Lab Neutron Potential

Obviously, Neutron Rocket Lab cannot compete with the Falcon Heavy rocket since its payload capacity is way lower, but it is quite capable of competing with Falcon 9 heavy rocket. Neutron’s obvious advantages include the possibility of interplanetary missions and crewed flight support. In its turn, Falcon 9 is significantly superior to Neutron in payload capacity to LEO and GTO. Rocket Lab does not even specify Neutron capacity to GTO.

In fact, the Rocket Lab Neutron launch vehicle offers something in between Falcon 9 and SpaceX Heavy rocket. Still, there is a catch – the rocket is still in development, and no one can say for sure what the end result will be. If, however, Rocket Lab lives up to its plans, NASA can choose this rocket for interplanetary missions.

When it comes to private commercial launches, a lot will depend on the launch price set by RocketLab. Given Electron’s unprecedentedly low launch cost ($4.5-6 million), we can expect that the Rocket Lab Neutron will significantly outperform Falcon 9 and SpaceX Heavy with their launch costs of $60 and $90 million, respectively.

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