Blue Origin's BE-4 engine test hardware suffers failure

A BE-4 engine on its transport cradle. Photo Credit: Jeff Bezos / Blue Origin

A BE-4 engine on its transport cradle. Photo Credit: Jeff Bezos / Blue Origin

In a tweet on Sunday, May 14, 2017, NewSpace company Blue Origin announced it had lost a set of powerpack test hardware for its BE-4 engine in development. No details were released as to what happened or why.

It unclear whether the powerpack, which is the turbopumps and valves that feed fuel and oxidizer into the injectors and subsequently the combustion chamber, exploded, or if there was any damage to the test stands. However, Blue Origin said a failure is not unusual during an engine development program.

“That’s why we always set up our development programs to be hardware rich,” the company tweeted. “Back to testing soon.

Blue Origin was founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and is currently developing the BE-4 engine for use on its upcoming New Glenn rocket. The engine is also the leading contender for use on United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine is also a contender for use on Vulcan. However, the two engines use different fuels. Whereas the AR1 uses rocket grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, the BE-4 uses liquid methane and liquid oxygen. ULA anticipates choosing an engine as early as this summer (2017).

In April, ULA’s president and CEO Tory Bruno said the Vulcan engine contract was Blue Origin’s to lose. According to Spaceflight Now, ULA will make the final selection after the engine passes an initial round of full-scale hotfire tests. How much this mishap sets the company back is unknown.

Development of the BE-4 engine began in 2011 at Blue Origin’s test facility near Van Horn, Texas. The engine is expected to produce up to 550,000 pounds (2,400 kilonewtons) of thrust at liftoff. The 270-foot tall New Glenn is expected to sport seven on its first stage. ULA’s Vulcan, if the BE-4 is chosen, will use two.

The NewSpace company is developing a vacuum version of the engine as well. The first flight of any BE-4 is not expected before 2019 if it powers a Vulcan rocket into orbit. New Glenn isn’t expected to fly before 2020.

Blue Origin has already developed the much smaller New Shepard rocket, a suborbital booster and capsule designed to send tourists or small payloads on a suborbital trajectory. It’s first passengers are expected sometime in 2018.

New Shepard is powered by the smaller BE-3 engine, which runs on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. A modified version called the BE-3U is expected to be used for a third stage on a future variant of the company’s upcoming New Glenn rocket.

Video courtesy of Blue Origin

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Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.