Facing pressure to find a domestic replacement for the Russian-built RD-180 liquid fuel rocket engine that powers the Atlas V EELV, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin announced today the formation of a partnership to develop an innovative new large liquid rocket engine in the United States. Once in production, the new engine will power both the next generation of Atlas launch vehicles as well as Blue Origin’s own launch systems.
Blue Origin, LLC, a privately-funded aerospace company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and ULA announced this agreement to jointly fund development of the new BE-4 rocket engine by Blue Origin. ULA hopes this collaboration to maintain the heritage, success and reliability of its Atlas and Delta rocket families while addressing the long-term need for a new domestic engine. Meanwhile, Blue Origin will gain a necessary partner and financial backing to proceed with full development of the BE-4 engine, the first new large (> 500,000 lb thrust) liquid fuel engine developed in the U.S. this century.
ULA and Blue Origin have had a long-term relationship. We first began to work together in the mid-2000s and then more formally as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev) in 2009.
“This agreement ensures ULA will remain the most cost-efficient, innovative and reliable company launching the nation’s most important national security, civil, human and commercial missions,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of ULA. “Blue Origin has demonstrated its ability to develop high-performance rocket engines and we are excited to bring together the best minds in engineering, supply chain management and commercial business practices to create an all-new affordable, reliable, American rocket engine that will create endless possibilities for the future of space launch.”
“ULA has put a satellite into orbit almost every month for the past eight years – they’re the most reliable launch provider in history and their record of success is astonishing,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. “The team at Blue Origin is methodically developing technologies to enable human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability, and the BE-4 is a big step forward. With the new ULA partnership, we’re accelerating commercial development of the next great US-made rocket engine.”
The ULA/Blue Origin agreement allows for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by ULA and Blue Origin for both companies’ next generation launch systems. Blue Origin will also make the high-energy powerplant available to other customers.
BE-4 will meet both commercial requirements and those of the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The BE-4 engine is designed for low recurring cost, using state-of-the-art design and manufacturing techniques.
The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1,100,000-lbf thrust at liftoff. ULA is investing in the engineering and development of the BE-4 to enable availability for national security, civil, human and commercial missions.
Unlike other rocket propellants, such as kerosene, LNG enables autogenous tank pressurization, eliminating the need for costly and complex pressurization systems, such as helium, which is in increasingly scarce supply. The low-cost availability of LNG enables an extended engine development test program. Further, the gaseous properties of LNG simplify decontamination of the engine prior to vehicle installation, while improving operability and safe operation for reuse.
The BE-4 is not a direct replacement for the RD-180 that powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, however two BE-4s are expected to provide the engine thrust for the next generation ULA vehicles. The details related to ULA’s next generation vehicles – which will maintain the key heritage components of ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets that provide world class mission assurance and reliability – will be announced at a later date.
Development of the BE-4 engine has been underway for three years and testing of BE-4 components is ongoing at Blue Origin’s test facilities in West Texas. Blue Origin recently commissioned a new large test facility for the BE-4 to support full engine testing.
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