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Blue Origin

Contributor(s): Corinne Bernstein

Blue Origin is a privately funded aerospace company focused on developing and flying rocket-powered vertical-takeoff and vertical-landing (VTVL) vehicles and providing commercial access to suborbital and orbital space. Blue Origin’s motto "gradatim ferociter," or "step by step, ferociously," reflects founder Jeff Bezo's strategy to develop the company incrementally. The Kent, Wash.-based company had about a dozen employees at its start-up in 2000, now has a headcount of more than 1,000. Named for the blue planet (Earth), from which the flights originate, the company is developing reusable rocket engines and launch vehicles designed to significantly lower the cost and increase the accessibility of space travel. 

Blue Origin is making steady progress in sending humans to suborbital space and continues to test its New Shepard, a fully reusable VTVL space vehicle. Named for Alan Shepard Jr., who in 1961 became the first NASA astronaut to take a suborbital trip to space, New Shepard consists of a pressurized capsule atop a booster, and the combined vehicles launch vertically, accelerating for approximately two and a half minutes, before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates from the booster to coast into space. After a few minutes of free fall, the booster performs an autonomously controlled rocket-powered vertical landing, while the capsule lands softly under parachutes.

Following several years of development, uncrewed flight testing of the New Shepard (including the propulsion module and space capsule) began in 2015; after reaching a 62.4-mile altitude, the New Shepard booster achieved a powered vertical soft landing, the first time a booster rocket had returned from space to make a successful vertical landing. The test program has continued since then. On April 29, 2018, the company conducted its eighth test of New Shepard; the craft reached a record 351,000 feet (107 kilometers). The capsule carried scientific payloads for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and German research teams. A test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker traveled in one of the crew capsule’s six seats to collect flight data. Blue Origin is expecting New Shepard’s first human-carrying test flight to occur by the end of 2018.

Moving ahead with its New Glenn orbital program, Blue Origin is working on two types of New Glenn rockets. A smaller launcher will be 270 feet tall and have two rocket stages, while a larger version will be 313 feet tall with three rocket stages. Both are designed to launch satellites or humans into space, though the larger rocket might be powerful enough to launch payloads and people. Each rocket will share the same 23-foot-wide booster, which can be reused. New Glen rockets are significantly taller than SpaceX's reusable 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket and upcoming Falcon Heavy launchers. Falcon Heavy's nine engines combined will generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, while the three-stage New Glenn will have a capability of 3.85 million pounds of thrust. The New Glenn orbital rocket will be manufactured and launched at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is expected to be completed in 2020 and will be used to carry one of Eutelsat’s geostationary satellites. New Glenn is named for astronaut John Glenn, the first American in orbit. The New Armstrong, a super-rocket that Blue Origin is working on to send payloads beyond Earth orbit, is named for Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.

Blue Origin entered the orbital spaceflight technology business in 2014 by supplying rocket engines to others. The company’s third-generation engine, the BE-3, is designed to withstand the extremely low temperatures of liquid hydrogen at -423°F and combustion temperatures approaching 6,000°F, and at full throttle during launch, the BE-3 provides 110,000 pounds of thrust (over a million horsepower). On its return to Earth, the BE-3 can throttle down to 20,000 pounds, which enables a precise vertical landing, within mere feet of its target, according to the company.

The BE-3 is a tap-off engine in which hot gasses from combustion are tapped from the main combustion chambers and fed back to spin the turbopumps in flight. Having only one combustion chamber with a single ignition event enhances reliability, according to Blue Engine. The BE-3 engine’s dual turbopump design produces enough pressure to support a column of water more than half a mile high. In addition, like the Space Shuttle’s main engines, the BE-3 uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as propellants, which is highly efficient and produces water as the byproduct of combustion without any carbon emissions. The BE-3 has undergone extensive testing and use on the New Shepard. The BE-3U, an upgraded version of the BE-3 with a larger nozzle to operate in the vacuum of orbital space, will power the third stage of the New Glenn launch vehicle.

Under development is the BE-4 (fourth-generation) liquid rocket engine, which uses oxygen-rich staged combustion of liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas to produce 550,000 pounds of thrust. Liquefied natural gas is commercially available, affordable and can be used to pressurize a rocket’s propellant tanks. Liquefied natural gas also leaves no soot byproducts, simplifying engine reuse. The BE-4 will fly on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket in 2019. The BE-4U, the upper stage variant of the BE-4 engine, is also in development. It will be optimized for space, have a larger nozzle, and will be designed to restart multiple times. One of these engines will drive New Glenn’s second stage.

This was last updated in May 2018

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