Rocket Lab's Electron rocket takes off.

Innovation

Rocket Lab CEO wants to build a satellite constellation — but don’t call it Starlink

Peter Beck has unveiled the firm's giant Neutron rocket, and he's not stopping there.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab wants to do more than just launch rockets into space — it also wants to build out its own infrastructure in Earth's orbit. Just don't call it a Starlink competitor for now.

The space-faring firm last week announced the reusable Neutron rocket, capable of sending 8,000 kg (17,640 pounds) to low-Earth orbit. It's set to start launching from 2024, and it's billed as the ideal vehicle for "mega-constellations" — fleets of hundreds or thousands of satellites used to provide services like global broadband internet services beamed from space.

The rocket is a big shift for Rocket Lab, which has so far relied on its reusable Electron rocket capable of launching 300 kg (661 pounds) to low-Earth orbit. Company CEO Peter Beck, who promised to eat a hat if the firm moved to reusability, made good on that promise by putting a hat into a blender and eating some morsels in a YouTube video shared last week.

But Beck wants to go even further. Speaking with Inverse, he explains the longer-term goal is to use these tools to build out Rocket Lab's own infrastructure in orbit.

"We're not just stopping at launch, we're not just stopping at space systems," Beck says. "Our goal here is to go even further and integrate all that into one platform, where we can provide our own infrastructure that we put on orbit, we can provide data and services down on Earth. Although we've never really communicated it, it's always been the much longer-term goal here."

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Why does Rocket Lab want to build a mega-constellation?

From a revenue standpoint, the idea makes a lot of sense. Morgan Stanley estimated in 2020 that global space industry revenue would reach over $350 billion that year, soaring to more than $1 trillion in 2040. But satellite launch revenue was estimated at $4.3 billion for 2020, reaching $9.8 billion by 2040.

A staggering 50 percent of the industry's projected growth, the firm estimated, would come from satellite broadband services. Although only worth $7.4 billion in 2020, it could be worth $95 billion by 2040. Similarly, Earth observation satellites jump from $3 billion in 2020 to $25 billion in 2040. In other words, the big money is in the constellations that Neutron is designed to launch.

But for Beck, satellite infrastructure could mean something more. In an Inverse interview published December 2020, Beck explained that it means improving communication, monitoring climate change, and making life better on Earth. Or, as he described it at the time, "things that have real, tangible benefits to my lifetime and my children's lifetime." Beck cited the Uber taxi service, which uses GPS satellites to operate, as an example of how this infrastructure could lead to new possibilities.

Rocket Lab's own constellation could bring Beck's vision to life. But in Beck's most recent interview with Inverse, he declined to specify a launch date.

"We've got to get the vehicle built first," Beck says. "But I'm a strong believer that if you own your own launch site, rocket, satellite, satellite components, and supply chain, then the next logical step is to build infrastructure in orbit and complete that vertical integration."

Rocket Lab's Electron (left) and Neuron rockets. The new Neutron rocket is designed to support larger constellations.Rocket Lab

Who else is competing in the mega-constellation space?

Rocket Lab wouldn't be the first space company to enter the constellation space. SpaceX, the California-based company led by Elon Musk, is currently developing its Starlink constellation designed to deliver high-speed and low latency internet almost anywhere in the world, using a large number of satellites orbiting closer to the Earth. The first large batch of 60 satellites launched in May 2019, and SpaceX started rolling out its beta service for U.S. customers in late 2020.

"We believe we can use the revenue from Starlink to fund Starship," Musk told reporters in May 2019, claiming the firm could access around three percent of the $1 trillion in global annual internet connectivity revenue. Starship is an under-development rocket designed to send humans to Mars and beyond.

Other firms planning giant broadband constellations include Amazon, under the title Project Kuiper, and OneWeb. But when Inverse asks if it would look like a broadband service, perhaps similar to SpaceX's Starlink, Beck declines to specify.

"No, I mean, we haven't made any bets on any vertical to pursue yet," Beck says. "It's more about right now, and what we've been doing for the last five, six years is methodically building the basic infrastructure in order to be able to do something like that."

That means more of the "boring" stuff, in Beck's words, like launch sites, spacecraft, and components.

"They're not the hot stick roaring to orbit," Beck says. "But actually, these are absolute foundations to build a much larger end-to-end space company."

Rockets are impressive feats of engineering, so it's little wonder Neutron stunned followers. But Rocket Lab's most influential project, the one with the largest long-term impact, could be still to come.

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