Rocket Lab to fire up first tests of new engine next year - CEO

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck sits alongside a Rutherford rocket engine in Auckland, October 20 2015. REUTERS/Nigel Marple/File Photo

LONG BEACH, Calif., Sept 30 (Reuters) - Launch company Rocket Lab (RKLB.O) by next year plans to conduct initial hot-fire tests of a new, more powerful engine that will power its next-generation Neutron rocket, the company's chief executive told Reuters.

The Long Beach, California-based company routinely launches small satellites into space with its small workhorse Electron rocket. In December, it unveiled a bigger, reusable Neutron rocket, upping its competitive footing with larger vehicles from Elon Musk's SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N).

"We'll start to see tanks roll out of the factory by the end of this year," Rocket Lab USA Inc Chief Executive Peter Beck said in an interview on Wednesday, referring to the first carbon composite molds of Neutron's booster stages.

"We've got preburner tests planned very shortly, then get into full scale hot fires next year," he said of Neutron's liquid oxygen- and methane-fueled engines, named Archimedes.

A handful of small rocket-launching companies like Rocket Lab are pivoting to larger rockets as customer demand trends toward launching many satellites at once instead of individual satellites on small, dedicated launch vehicles.

Rocket Lab aims to fly Neutron for the first time in 2024. Beck said engineers are focused on development and declined to discuss specifics on customer interest.

But he noted that a number of large satellite constellations, such as Amazon's Project Kuiper, are expected to be ready for orbital deployment around that time. He said Neutron would be a suitable vehicle for launching those types of satellites.

"Naturally there's a tremendous amount of interest in the vehicle," he said.

Rocket Lab went public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, in August 2021, unlocking $777 million in gross cash proceeds. Of that total, $250 million has been devoted to Neutron development, Beck said.

The rest of those funds enabled key acquisitions that have made up Rocket Lab's space systems business, which accounted for 66 percent of second-quarter revenue this year.

At the Long Beach headquarters, Rocket Lab completed construction of a shiny new 10,000 square-foot (930 square- meter) satellite manufacturing facility, primarily to build 17 satellite busses for Globalstar Inc's (GSAT.A) next-generation constellation. Apple Inc (AAPL.O) will leverage that satellite network to enhance satellite connectivity directly to iPhones, an ambitious plan announced this month.

Rocket Lab also is pressing ahead with plans to turn Electron into a partially reusable rocket to cut costs. Before year's end, Beck said, it aims to make a second attempt at catching a falling Electron first-stage booster out of the sky with a helicopter.

Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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