Blue Origin ramping up BE-4 engine testing

by Chris Bergin and Chris Gebhardt

One of the flagship engines that will play a heavy role in the next phase of commercial launches is continuing to enjoy a smooth test series during hot fire testing. The BE-4 engine conducted another test in recent days at Blue Origin’s West Texas Test Facility, as preparations continue for its use on the company’s New Glenn rocket.

Blue Origin is conducting incremental testing of the BE-4 that will be used on its New Glenn rocket.

The engine is at the center of Blue Origin’s major expansion from its continuing suborbital space tourism aspirations, involving its New Shepard system, to becoming a major player in the commercial satellite space industry.

By far the most visible sign of that upcoming role is the company’s expansive facility on the Space Coast, with a gigantic production facility nearing completion on Merritt Island.

Blue Origin Facility – via NSF/L2

This facility will house the production of the Blue Origin hardware that will launch from the nearby LC-36 complex.

With each first stage booster planned to be reused up to 100 times, the factory will mainly concentrate on – and for large periods of time is only planned to – produce second and third stages.

All of the concrete that previously served the LC-36A and B pads has been removed; however, instead of hauling the good concrete away, Blue Origin recycled and repurposed it – using the concrete as the base for the new road network needed for the redesigned pad.

Blue Origin will also build their Launch and Landing Control Center, called the L&LCC, as well as their mission support center near the factory building.

The goal is to create an “Orbital Launch Site (OLS)” as outlined in documentation, which remains subject to change based on environmental impacts.

Launches of the New Glenn rocket will be powered by the BE-4, a staged-combustion rocket engine capable of producing 2,400 kilonewtons (550,000 lbf) of thrust at sea level.

BE-4 engine – via Blue Origin

The engine has been under development since 2011. However, following design and component testing, it finally fired up in October, 2017 at the West Texas facility where Blue Origin conducts their testing and New Shepard launches.

A sign of the incremental ramping up of the test series can be observed via some of the videos Blue Origin have released, with the first test involving a short three second firing at 50 percent.

Another test was conducted late last year, before the latest firing which showed the engine being put through a series of throttle settings, as noted by the change in appearance to the mach diamonds during the video.

The test appeared to have a duration of around 10 seconds.

The importance of a smooth test series for BE-4 also relates to United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, which is likely to opt for using two of the Blue Origin engines on its successor to the Atlas V.

The methane fed BE-4 is competing with the Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 kerosene-fueled engine for the role. Blue Origin claims to have a two year advance on its competitor on the development of the engine that will replace the Atlas V stalwart, the RD-180.

Seven BE-4 engines will drive the first stage of the New Glenn rocket, which is set to debut in 2020,  producing 3.8 million lbf (1.72 kgf) at liftoff.

New Glenn launch, as envisioned by L2 artist Nathan Koga

The second stage will utilize a single BE-4 engine optimized for use in a vacuum while the third stage will use a vacuum-optimized BE-3U engine – the same engine used on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket.

Interestingly, L2 information notes Blue Origin’s BE-3E engine is making progress in a trade study being conducted at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) for use on the Space Launch System’s Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

This option is competing against the current baseline of the RL-10 and an alternative MB-60 LOX-LH2 engine from Japan.

Regardless of the outcome of both the ULA and EUS potential contracts, the BE-3 and BE-4 engines have a stable future with Blue Origin’s own fleet of rockets.

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