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Blue Origin Rocket Engine Test-fired for Simulated Suborbital Run

The test simulated what an engine powering New Shepard would be required to do in flight. Credit: Blue Origin photo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Blue Origin, a startup commercial spaceflight company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, completed a full-duration burn of a liquid hydrogen-fueled engine developed for the New Shepard suborbital spaceship and planned orbital vehicles, Rob Meyerson, company president and program manager, said Dec. 3.

The test, which took place at Blue Origin’s facility near Van Horn, Texas, simulated what an engine powering New Shepard would be required to do in flight, namely thrust at 110,000 pounds for 145 seconds to boost the ship, shut down for 4.5 minutes to allow the vehicle to coast beyond the atmosphere, restart and throttle down to 25,000 pounds of thrust to make a controlled, vertical landing.

The full-duration simulation, which occurred Nov. 20, capped an 11-month series of tests during which the engine was powered up 160 times and operated for a cumulative total of more than 2.5 hours. 

“This is a very significant milestone for us,” Meyerson told reporters on a Dec. 3 conference call. “It gets us over a major hurdle, a major risk area for the development. It clears the way for moving forward into final checkout of the vehicle and readying it for flight test.”

He declined to discuss a time frame for New Shepard’s test flight program. The company intends to begin orbital test flights in 2018.

“We demonstrated the ability of the integrated engine to go throughout the throttle range without any dwell periods, restart, shut down, coast — the whole mission profile. I think that’s really the key thing,” Meyerson said.

Credit: NASA

The company also plans to modify the engine, known as Blue Engine-3, or BE-3, and use it as an expendable, upper-stage motor for orbital launches. 

“We believe that BE-3 is well-suited for a variety of boost upper-stage and in-space applications on both government and commercial launch system applications,” Meyerson said.

The biggest change between the BE-3 and the upper-stage variant, known as BE-3U, is switching to a nozzle that allows for a higher expansion ratio.

“We’ll be looking at other things we want to do to either improve performance or lower cost,” Meyerson said, adding that initially the upper-stage motor would not be recovered. 

A reusable upper stage is considered “an incremental upgrade down the road,” Meyerson said.

For the orbital vehicle’s first stage, which is expected to be reusable, Blue Origin may cluster several BE-3 engines together. Meyerson would not say how many.

“What we like about the BE-3 and why we selected the BE-3 as our first orbital launch vehicle engine was that it gives us the option to go with an all-hydrogen architecture if we chose to. 

“We have ideas, we have some things in development for some other engines, but we’re not ready to discuss those today,” Meyerson said.

The company would like to base its orbital launch operation at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and has a proposal pending to take over the mothballed shuttle launch pad 39A. Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies Corp. also is vying for the pad.  

NASA’s decision is on hold pending a review of the solicitation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in response to a protest by Blue Origin. 

“We believe we’ve submitted a proposal that provides the fullest commercial use of the facility,” Meyerson said. 

“If the outcome is that our proposal is not selected, we have many other options. We are looking at those options and we would continue to look at them,” he said. 

The GAO is expected to issue a ruling by Dec. 12.

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