Blue Origin Completes Acceptance Testing of BE-3 Engine

BE-3 Undergoing Testing / Image Credit Blue Origin

Long silent Blue Origin announced today that it has completed acceptance testing of its BE-3 cryogenic rocket engine. The complete press release is included below. Comments follow the release.

KENT, Wash. – Blue Origin recently completed acceptance testing of its BE‑3 rocket engine, the first new hydrogen engine to be developed in the United States in more than a decade. The 110,000-lbf BE‑3 will power Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital system, and later, will be modified for upper stage applications.

“The BE‑3 has now been fired for more than 30,000 seconds over the course of 450 tests,” said Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin founder. “We test, learn, refine and then test again to push our engines. The Blue Origin team did an outstanding job exploring the corners of what the BE‑3 can do and soon we’ll put it to the ultimate test of flight.”

The BE‑3 can be continuously throttled between 110,000-lbf and 20,000-lbf thrust, a key capability for vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicles. The testing profile included multiple mission duty cycles, deep throttling and off-nominal test points.

“Liquid hydrogen is challenging, deep throttling is challenging and reusability is challenging,” said Bezos. “This engine has all three. The rewards are highest performance, vertical landing even with a single-engine vehicle and low cost. And, as a future upper stage engine, hydrogen greatly increases payload capabilities.”

The BE‑3 engine was designed and fabricated at Blue Origin’s design, development and production facility in Kent, Wash. Full-engine testing was conducted at the company’s facilities in West Texas, while earlier combustion chamber testing was completed at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The BE‑3 is the third generation of Blue Origin-developed engines. The fourth-generation BE‑4 uses liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to produce 550,000-lbf thrust at sea level. Under development since 2012, the BE‑4 provides the lowest cost and fastest production path to power the nation’s access to space. Selected by United Launch Alliance to serve as the primary propulsion provider for its Next Generation Launch System, Blue Origin is developing the BE‑4 as an integrated part of America’s newest launch vehicle.

End release

Congratulations to Blue Origin.

It is interesting to note that two private NewSpace companies,  SpaceX with its Merlin series, and now Blue Origin with the BE-3 have introduced entirely new liquid rocket engines in the years since the most recent partially publicly funded engine, the RS-68 which powers the Delta IV,  was certified in 2001. Furthermore, with Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance collaborating on the BE-4 LNG engine, and SpaceX’s own work on the Raptor series, there could easily be four privately developed new U.S. engine families in operation or testing before a taxpayer funded replacement for the Russian built RD-180 is ready. And yet we are told the latter is absolutely necessary.

The remarkable evolution of new U.S. rocket engines also calls further into question NASA’s commitment to 40 year old Space Shuttle Main Engine architecture for an expendable launch vehicle that the agency suggests could be operational for at least the next 30 years. Given that ULA is canceling the Delta IV series as unaffordable in a competitive environment, what does that say about the cost/benefit of SLS? The RS 68 after all, was billed as a more affordable, less complicated single use “throw away engine” than the reusable (and human rated) SSME.

Another issue underscored by the introduction of the BE-3 is the diminished role of traditional U.S. engine manufacturers, now reduced to a single, consolidated company in Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in a suddenly competitive landscape. If the Blue Origin/ULA partnership produces the desired results in the BE-4, then it is difficult to see the business case for ULA to embrace a second main engine.

As for Blue Origin, it will be fascinating to see if Jeff Bezos’ company can introduce and profitably operate a hydrogen based sub orbital launch system in the New Shepard at the same time SpaceX and ULA are turning to methane. If Origin pulls it off, then perhaps it is not the complexities of containing the pesky little molecule which drives prices sky high, but the ingenuity put into designing the engine and the system which burns it.


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