Blue Origin reports progress on new U.S. rocket engine

Blue origin BE-3 test fire

The Blue Origin BE-3 rocket engine being test fired at the company's facility in West Texas.

Blue Origin, the United Launch Alliance partner developing a next-generation U.S. rocket engine, said this week it has completed an interim step in its engine development program as it finished acceptance testing of its third-generation BE-3 hydrogen engine.

While the BE-3 would only be used for commercial suborbital flights, the completion of acceptance testing moved the company closer to developing a fourth-generation engine, the BE-4, powered by liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas to produce 550,000 pounds of thrust.

Blue Origin and ULA announced a partnership last fall to jointly develop the BE-4 engine as a U.S.-made replacement for Russian RD-180 engines currently used to launch U.S. military satellites.

The commercial space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said March 7 that the BE-3 hydrogen rocket engine was test fired 450 times, accumulating more than 30,000 seconds of test data. The BE-3 is designed for continuous throttling between 20,000 and 110,000 pounds of thrust.

Full-engine testing was completed at a Blue Origin facility in West Texas. Earlier combustion chamber tests were conducted at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

While the BE-3 rocket engine would only be used to launch the Blue Origin New Shepard suborbital vehicle, Bezos noted that the engine could also serve as a "future upper stage engine [since] hydrogen greatly increases payload capabilities."

Blue Origin has been working on developing the fourth-generation BE-4 engine since 2012. Under pressure from commercial space upstart Space Exploration Technologies, ULA countered by announcing a joint engine development effort with Blue Origin last September to replace Russian RD-180 engines used in U.S. Atlas rockets.

SpaceX and ULA are competing for future military launches under the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program for the launch of military satellites.

The RD-180 is used in launches on Atlas V rockets by ULA, which holds an $11 billion sole-source contract from the Air Force for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launches through 2019. Calls to replace the RD-180 arose in response to Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine, with Congress adding a mandate in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act to produce a replacement by the time ULA’s contract expires in 2019. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has told Congress that a four-year window might not be realistic, but work on developing a replacement is continuing.

This week, Bezos called the BE-4 the "lowest cost and fastest production path to power the nation's access to space."

However, ULA CEO Tory Bruno hedged the company's bet on the BE-4, telling Congress last month that the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture has a "backup plan" if BE-4 development is delayed. The BE-4 engine offers "the most expeditious track to an American engine replacement" for the RD-180, Bruno told a House Armed Services panel. But Bruno acknowledged that a liquid oxygen/liquid natural gas (methane) engine would require substantial changes in the rocket fuel infrastructure needed to support the new design.

As a result, ULA has also partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop a replacement AR-1 engine that uses conventional kerosene-based fuel.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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