WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab says a Virgin Orbit facility it acquired at a bankruptcy auction in May will allow the company to scale up production of its Neutron rocket in development.

Rocket Lab placed a winning bid of $16.1 million for Virgin Orbit’s main production facility in Long Beach, California, just a few blocks from its own headquarters and factory in the city. The bid included the machinery and equipment in that facility.

In an Aug. 8 earnings call, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, described the deal as a cost-effective way to acquire the capability to scale up production of Neutron once that larger vehicle enters operations.

“We estimate that the $16.1 million price paid for this would have represented around $100 million of value versus having to purchase new,” he said. “We believe this asset purchase enables significant savings for Neutron and supports future scaling as we work towards first launch.”

Later in the call, he said the focus of the former Virgin Orbit facility will be on production of Archimedes engines for the Neutron, as well as composite components. “The Virgin Orbit acquisition is really a scaling enabler,” he said. “Where Virgin Orbit for us is really, really going to shine is on the backside of the project, where we need to start producing larger volumes of engines and even composite components and such.”

Rocket Lab announced Neutron in 2021 as a medium-class reusable launch vehicle capable of placing up to 13,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. The company is still refining the design, as evidenced by new illustrations recently released by the company that feature tweaks such as larger landing legs.

The revised legs, Beck said in the call, are optimized for landings on barges at sea. The company also switched from a “Hungry Hippo” payload fairing that opened in four segments to a more conventional two-segment clamshell that he said simplified its design.

Neutron on pad
An earlier illustration of Rocket Lab’s Neutron. Credit: Rocket Lab

“These design changes were actually made some months ago as part of our iterative testing analysis program and some direct customer feedback, but the artwork really just hadn’t kept up with pace with the real vehicle,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab, he said, is making progress on various elements of Neutron. The company completed a qualification tank for the second stage ahead of cryogenic testing planned for this quarter. The first complete Archimedes qualification engine is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Construction of the Neutron launch pad, called Launch Complex 3, at Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, is scheduled to begin this quarter. Beck noted that launching from Wallops “has significantly less congestion relative to the Cape and close proximity to key government customers.”

When Rocket Lab announced Neutron, the company said the vehicle would make its first flight in 2024. Beck hedged a bit about those plans in the call. “We’re still working towards getting something on the pad by 2024,” he said, but stopped short of saying when the first launch would take place.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...