In an online briefing at 2am NZT (8am for its target Wall Street audience), Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck revealed more details of his company's much larger Neutron rocket - which he dubbed "an absolute beast".
Beck showed animations of a rocket that was lightweight - for minimum stress on its new Archimedes engines and maximum reusability - but could carry up to 8 tonnes into space, and was capable of taking people into space or cargo on interplanetary missions.
A key new detail was that the Neutron's first-stage will be able to land, upright, back on the same pad where it launched - and "not costly barges right out in the middle of the ocean", Beck said, in a reference to rival Space X's reusable boosters.
Conspicuously, however, the CEO made no comment on timing for Neutron's maiden launch, at a time when Elon Musk has publicly warned that Space X could go bankrupt if it cannot resolve issues with its latest engines. (Rocket Lab has previously said the first Neutron launch will be in 2024, and a spokeswoman did tell the Herald after the livestream that "We're still working toward being on the pad in 2024".)
In late Nasdaq trading, Rocket Lab shares were down 3.4 per cent to US$14.68 (for a market cap of US$6.58 billion, giving up some of their recent gains.
Beck did offer, "The team is flat out right now, at full force, developing it, Prototype tanks are under manufacture as we speak, and Archimedes will breathe its first fire next year."
Earlier, Rocket Lab confirmed it had secured US$24.35 million ($34m) from the US Air Force's new Space Force division to develop the upper stage of its Neutron.
The balance will be funded with some of the US$750m that Rocket Lab raised through its Nasdaq listing.
Beck earlier told the Herald that the Neutron will launch exclusively from Rocket Lab's new Launch Complex 2 in Virginia and that the new Archimedes engines would be manufactured in the US.
The founder said US government clients wanted launches from American soil.
There were also what he called "industrial base" reasons.
"The Neutron will initially launch out of the United States for industrial base reasons," Beck said.
"To give you a sense of the scale, if we took all the liquid oxygen that's produced in New Zealand, we'd only fill half the tank, let alone all the other kinds of logistics that are associated with these very, very, large launch vehicles."
The smaller Electgron rocket will continue to launch from Mahia. And Rocket Lab is expanding its NZ presence with a new satellite component plant in Auckland.
In this morning's livestream, Beck said the Neutron's unique features would include carbon composite materials and re-usable fairing (or nosecone) with a "Hungry Hippo" design that opens to release a satellite, or satellites.
The carbon composites - which will be 3D printed - would give an advantage over rivals. "The huge reduction in weight is a game changer. If you take the mass out of the rocket, you take the pain out of propulsion - and quite literally, the heavy lifting," Beck said.
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket stands 18m tall and can take a 300kg payload into low Earth orbit. The 40m tall Neutron will be able to lift an 8000kg payload into LEO - and today Beck reiterated it will be used for human spaceflight as well.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket can lift up to 22,800kg to low Earth orbit, Neutron will compete to launch many of the same spacecraft that Elon Musk's company is currently delivering to space.
And Beck claimed his new rocket would be better by design for today's satellite market.
"More than 80% of the satellites to be launched in the next decade are expected to be constellations, which have unique deployment needs that Neutron is the first vehicle to address specifically. Like we did with Electron, rather than starting with a traditional rocket design, we focused on our customers' needs and worked back from there. The result is a rocket that is right-sized for market demand and can launch fast, frequently and affordably."