Blue Origin, ULA Announce New Engine Project

The Times They Are A Changin

Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance held a news conference at the National Press Club today entitled “Igniting the Future.” The purpose was announce the joint development of a new main engine to replace the Russian built RD-180 which powers the Atlas V booster.

Called the BE-4, the new engine, which has been under development for some time, runs on liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen in a staged combustion cycle, and is designed to generate 550,000 lbs of sea level thrust. The BE-4 builds on the experience Blue Origin has gained with its 110,000 lb. thrust BE-3 hydrogen/oxygen  engine, and will be used by both ULA and Blue Origin in their respective vehicles, as well as offered for sale on the commercial market.

Image Credit : Blue Origin

Image Credit : Blue Origin

Full scale testing is set to begin in 2016, with a hope to be flight ready the following year. Two such engines would power the first stage of the next generation ULA launch vehicle, one which will effectively replace the current Atlas V which has come under heavy scrutiny due to issues associated with the RD-180 engine.  Blue Origin and ULA were represented at the event by Jeff Bezos and Tony Bruno respectively, and both declined to discuss financial terms of the agreement other than to observe that it involves a significant commitment.

Last month, the Air Force issued a Request for Information regarding a new engine development program, and the engine announcement today mirrored many of the items detailed in the RFI.

Today’s announcement is highly significant on multiple levels and marks the first meaningful technological response ULA has offered to counter the advances being made by SpaceX with its Falcon family of vehicles, although based on the limited information regarding any future booster, it does not appear at first glance that ULA is preparing a path towards re-usability. Blue Origin by contrast, focused on the space tourism market, is committed to an RLV architecture, providing a possible avenue for ULA to counter if SpaceX achieves an operational breakthrough sooner than expected.

Today’s announcement apparently leaves Aerojet-Rocketdyne, which has been advocating for its own proposed new engine, and the public funding to pay for it, out in the cold. At the same time, a third current provider, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is also seeking a replacement for its own Russian engine which powers the Antares booster. OSC however, is in the midst of a “merger of equals” with ATK, and may seek to replace the entire Antares first stage, which is built in Ukraine, with a solid rocket segment provided by its new partner.

There are also long term implications to today’s announcement which could have ramifications for NASA’s own plans should the Space Launch System run into difficulty at the hands of a future administration. For one thing, the arrival of a second, entirely modern new booster in whatever replaces the Atlas V will join the Falcon family in marking a stark contrast with 40 year engines powering SLS, as will the inherent advantages in a simplified LNG architecture.

Should ULA pursue a triple core “heavy lift” version of the new BE-4 powered booster to supplant the reliable but expensive Delta Heavy, possibly equipped with a more powerful BE-3 based upper stage, then the case for NASA’s mega booster, soon to be undercut by Falcon Heavy, could become untenable.

Taken together, the last two days mark a fascinating 48 hours in space history, and a sudden, sweeping return of the American launch industry to a position of prominence.

Editorial Note: as most readers will know, coming from a NewSpace perspective, has frequently quite been critical of ULA for seeking to compete on political rather than technological or economic grounds, and keeping the price of space launch artificially high in the process. Today’s announcement marks a different course, one for which it should be commended.

The complete Blue Origin press release is here.

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2 Comments on "Blue Origin, ULA Announce New Engine Project"

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  1. Zed_WEASEL says:

    Take it a step further. Can the SLS be recast with 3×6 BE-4 in a 8.4 meter tri-core heavy variant. That’s 9.9M lbf thrust at liftoff. Top it off with a pair of BE-3 HydroLox engine powered upper stage.

    Damn, SLS-2 lives!

    • C Miles says:

      Too logical and cost effective

      No way Marshall (engines) and Michoud (Liquid Hydrogen/Oxygen tanks) are giving up fiefdoms without a fight. Sadly- it’s all about the jobs/Congress/Districts.

      Prime example: Watch Charlie Bolden’s rambling introduction to Commercial Crew which focused on the Districts where SLS will continue to employ people.

      Want something innovative/new/less expensive/good to happen at the Government Level? Jam in in with an established lobby, or constituency or ongoing program/pork.

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