The BE-3 rocket engine is the first new hydrogen engine developed in the United States since the RS-68 engine (used on ULA’s Delta-IV) over a decade ago. The company behind the design and development of the engine, Blue Origin, recently announced that the 110,000-lbf (pound force) BE-3 completed acceptance testing at the company’s facilities in West Texas this week, marking another big accomplishment as the company works toward one day using these engines to power their New Shephard system that will take astronauts on suborbital flights.
Blue Origin debuted their liquid-fueled BE-3 engine in early December 2013 after a successful demonstration of “deep throttle, full power, long-duration and reliable start in a single-test sequence.” The test simulated the flight of the Blue Origin New Shepard vehicle by pumping out 110,000 lbs of thrust in a 145-second boost phase, shutting down for four to five minutes to mimic the coast through apogee, then starting back up and adjusting down to 25,000 lbs of thrust to simulate a controlled vertical landing. At the time of the debut, the BE-3 had more than 160 starts and 9,100 seconds of operation. Testing further ensued to prove that the BE-3 could continuously throttle between 110,000-lbf and 200,000-lbf. The throttling is an important function for vehicles that vertically takeoff and vertically land.
“The BE-3 has now been fired for more than 30,000 seconds over the course of 450 tests,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. “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.”
Blue Origin designed and developed the BE-3 at the company’s research and development facility outside Seattle. According to Blue Origin, “the BE-3 features a ‘tap-off’ design, in which the main chamber combustion gases are used to power the engine’s turbo pumps. Tap-off is particularly well-suited to human spaceflight because of its single combustion chamber and graceful shutdown mode.”
Blue Origin is focusing on developing technologies to allow humans to explore space safely and inexpensively. The company is currently working on developing reusable launch vehicles that takeoff and land vertically.
The reusable first stage booster that Blue Origin is developing for orbital flights will launch vertically like a traditional booster rocket and propel the upper stages to a specific point, where the upper stage separates and continues powering the crew to orbit. Once the first stage booster is separated, it will fall back to Earth and demonstrate a powered vertical landing. The first stage can then be refueled and launched again.
It should be noted that the booster rocket will carry a “biconic Space Vehicle” to orbit. The vehicle will loft astronauts, supplies, research, and experiments. After orbiting the Earth, the vehicle will enter back into Earth’s atmosphere, deploy parachutes, and make a soft landing on land. The vehicle will then undergo routine maintenance and be reused for future exploration missions to low-Earth orbit.
For suborbital flights, Blue Origin is developing the New Shepard system. This vehicle includes a separate rocket-powered Propulsion Module for a crew of up to three astronauts. The Crew Capsule atop the Propulsion Module will launch from the company’s West Texas Launch Site. After liftoff the two vehicles will accelerate for two to three minutes, then the Propulsion Module will shut off its rocket engines and separate from the Crew Capsule. The Propulsion Module will fall back to Earth and perform a rocket-powered vertical landing entirely on its own.
The successful completion of the BE-3 acceptance testing marks an important milestone for the ambitious company. The idea behind this particular rocket engine is not like traditional rocket engines today. Blue Origin’s BE-3 is far more complex, according to the company.
“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 testing on the engines included “multiple mission duty cycles, deep throttling and off-nominal test points.” The engine was designed at Blue Origin’s development and production center in Kent, Wash., and full engine testing took place at their facilities in West Texas. Earlier combustion chamber testing was performed at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
This new liquid-fueled rocket engine is Blue Origin’s third generation of developed engines. The fourth-generation, known as BE-4, uses “liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to produce 550,000-lbf thrust at sea level.” It was announced in late 2014 that United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin partnered up to jointly fund the development of this new American rocket engine to serve as the primary propulsion provider for ULA’s Next Generation Launch System—which will be unveiled at the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs next week.
“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 Bezos when announcing the ULA and Blue Origin partnership. “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.”
Two BE-4 rocket engines will provide 1,100,000-lbf of thrust at liftoff to power each ULA booster. Development of the new engine began three years ago, with testing of its components still ongoing at Blue Origin’s test center in Texas. This new partnership will enable ULA to maintain their successful heritage of its “rocket families,” such as Atlas and Delta, while pursuing the need for a new domestic rocket engine.
Under this partnership, ULA and Blue Origin are granted a four-year development process with full-scale testing to be done in 2016 and a first flight in 2019. Blue Origin and ULA will use the fourth-generation BE-4 rocket engine for both of their next generation launch systems.