Blue Origin Reaches Milestone in BE-4 Engine Development

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WASHINGTON — Blue Origin said Sept. 30 that it has completed more than 100 developmental tests of its BE-4 engine, which the company is building both for United Launch Alliance and its own vehicle.

The company said in a statement that the staged-combustion tests, performed at the company’s test site in West Texas, provided “measurable performance data” about the engine for its upcoming critical design review. That data covered various elements of the engine’s design and its manufacturing techniques, including the use of 3-D printing.

“We tested a number of injector element designs and chamber lengths at a variety of operational conditions,” said Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, in the statement. “Rigorous component testing ahead of full-engine testing significantly increases confidence in the development schedule and projected performance.”

The BE-4 engine, under development by Blue Origin since 2011, uses liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen propellants, and is designed to produce up to 550,000 pounds-force of thrust. The BE-4 will be the first large engine to use that propellant combination, although SpaceX has said it is working on a large engine called Raptor that uses the same propellants.

The company did not disclose a schedule for future development of the engine in its statement, and spokeswoman Julie Arnold declined to provide an estimated date for the engine’s critical design review. In an April press briefing, Meyerson said full engine tests would take place in 2016, with the engine ready for service in 2017.

Blue Origin is developing BE-4 for the first stage of an orbital launch vehicle it announced during a Sept. 15 event at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Blue Origin plans to manufacture and launch that vehicle there, building facilities that include a test stand to carry out acceptance tests of the BE-4.

The BE-4 engine is also the leading candidate to be used in the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan vehicle. Speaking to reporters after the Sept. 15 Florida event, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said that while he was aware of competing engines for the Vulcan, like the AR-1 under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne, he was focused on completing the BE-4. “We’re going to build the best 21st century engine that we can for ULA,” he said. “Ultimately they will make the decision about what they want to do.”

Bezos also noted that, unlike the AR-1 or other concepts, Blue Origin was not seeking funding from the U.S. Air Force to help pay for development of the BE-4. “The most unique feature of the BE-4 engine is that it’s fully funded,” he said. “It’s not something you see in rocket engine programs very often.”