ULA and Blue Origin announce production agreement for BE-4 Engine
United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced on Thursday, Sept. 10, that the two companies had entered into an agreement to expand the production capabilities of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, which is planned for use on ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.
Blue Origin LLC is owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and is working to field the Washington-based firm’s New Shepard launch system, the BE-3 and BE-4 rocket engines, as well as other suborbital launch platforms.
“This agreement gets us closer to having an affordable, domestic and innovative engine that will help the Vulcan rocket exceed the capability of the Atlas V on its first flight and open brand new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of ULA. “This partnership enables each company to leverage its strengths, with ULA bringing production excellence and mission assurance, and Blue Origin bringing innovative engineering concepts and a commitment to lowering the cost of spaceflight.
Representatives with Blue Origin have noted that, if selected, the BE-4 would provide Vulcan with engines that have undergone rigorous testing.
“The BE-4 engine test program is well underway with more than 60 staged-combustion tests already on the books,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. “This new agreement is an important step toward building BE-4s at the production rate needed for the Vulcan launch vehicle.”
ULA has encountered issues with the RD-180 rocket engine that is currently used on the Colorado-based launch service provider’s Atlas V family of launch vehicles. When Russia carried out military actions in the Ukraine in 2014, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on Russia – highlighting the need for a domestically-produced rocket engine.
A statement issued regarding this latest announcement noted that the BE-4 is currently slated to achieve qualification for flight in 2017 – two years prior to the planned first launch of Vulcan.
At present, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 rocket engine is also being considered for use on the Vulcan next-generation launch system. A final determination as to which engine the new booster will use in its first stage should be made late in 2016.
“The down select between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engines is currently scheduled to take place next year,” ULA’s Jessica Rye told SpaceFlight Insider.
Blue Origin’s BE-4 is described as being capable of generating 550,000-lbf (2.45 MN) of thrust at sea level. Fueled by liquefied natural gas (LNG) with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer, two of the engines will be incorporated into the Vulcan’s first stage – estimated at being capable of generating 1,100,000-lbf (4.9 MN) of thrust at liftoff.
ULA and Blue Origin are working together to ensure that the BE-4 meets the requirements for the Vulcan launch system to fly U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, human, and commercial missions.
The most stringent of these prerequisites – would be for use on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program as Vulcan could possibly succeed the Atlas V booster as the launcher for Boeing’s Starliner (CST-100) spacecraft.
The BE-4 has been undergoing development and testing at Blue Origin’s test facilities located in West Texas; the engine has been put through its paces for the past three years, with checks ongoing.
Vulcan’s propulsion systems are potentially shaping up to be supplied predominantly by Blue Origin. The BE-3 is currently being considered for use on Vulcan’s Advanced Cryogenic Upper Stage (ACES). This would be the booster’s primary upper stage and could see service as early as the 2020s.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.