The Blue Origin BE-4 might get certified for flight tests by December of this year. It is about 5-6 years late for an original 2017 planned operational date. The BE-4 engine project started in 2014. It would be the most powerful liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueled rocket engine ever developed. Using an oxygen-rich staged combustion cycle, BE-4 is capable of producing 2,400 kN (550,000 lbf) thrust with deep throttle capability. The ULA (United Launch Alliance) Vulcan rocket plans to use the BE-4 engine and Blue Origin has designed a Falcon Heavy class New Glenn rocket to use BE-4 engines.
ULA said the Vulcan program “is now focused on completing BE-4 qualification testing and flight engine deliveries. [Its] other elements are progressing through final qualification testing to support initial launch capability.”
Before it can gain flight certification, ULA must complete two successful flight tests. Then, it will be greenlit to launch sensitive U.S. military and intelligence cargo.
The U.S. Space Force said it expects to complete initial certification of the Vulcan rocket with the BE-4 engine by March 2023. However, final certification for the “largest and most stressing” national security missions isn’t expected until 2025.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, meanwhile, was recently awarded final certifications to fly its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the same types of sensitive classified missions ULA aims to launch with Vulcan.
They chose LNG because it is highly efficient, low cost and widely available. Unlike kerosene, LNG can be used to self-pressurize its tank. Known as autogenous repressurization, this eliminates the need for costly and complex systems that draw on Earth’s scarce helium reserves. LNG also possesses clean combustion characteristics even at low throttle, simplifying engine reuse compared to kerosene fuels.
BE-4 was designed from the beginning to be a medium-performing version of a high-performance architecture. It’s a conscious design choice made to lower development risk while meeting performance, schedule and reusability requirements. With our hardware-rich approach, multiple developmental units and redundant test stands enable a high test tempo and rapid learning.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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