The Big Rocket Showdown: Neutron vs. Falcon 9

A discussion of the different design philosophies and strategies of SpaceX and Rocket Lab

Erik Engheim

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Let us do a comparison between the current king of the rocket launch industry, Falcon 9 manufactured by SpaceX and the upcoming contender Neutron being designed by Rocket Lab, a company originating in New Zealand. While you may not have heard about Rocket Lab, it is probably the most successful and innovative rocket launching company besides SpaceX. They were the first to make fully 3D-printed rocket engines and launch a rocket made from carbon fiber composite into orbit.

I could go on about all the cool stuff Rocket Lab has done, but the bottom line is that this is a company with a strong track record. They have been busy developing Neutron for a year now and recently put their new Archimedes engine on display. Ten Archimedes engines will power the Neutron rocket: nine for the first stage and one for the second stage. Rocket Lab has also shown the completion of tooling and moulds to build the rocket. When a company has created moulds and tooling for a rocket, it means they are confident about having finalized all key design work.

Images of tooling and moulds from September 21, 2022 update by Rocket Labs
Images of tooling and moulds from September 21, 2022 update by Rocket Labs

This new milestone in development allows us to start making some comparisons with Falcon 9 in terms of design choices, specifications, and performance. More specifically, I want to cover the following topics in this article:

  • Specifications — How do they compare in size, weight, power, and payload delivery capacity?
  • Engines — How does the Merlin engine of the Falcon 9 compare with the new Archimedes engines?
  • Material choice — One rocket is made from aluminum, while the other is made from carbon fiber composite. What are the tradeoffs?
  • Rocket shape — Why do Neutron and Falcon 9 have such different geometries?
  • Reuse — What makes the Rocket Lab approach to reuse so different from that of SpaceX?

Before jumping in and comparing Neutron to Falcon 9 it is important to keep in mind that Falcon 9 has been refined…

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Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.