ULA Leaning Toward BE-4 Engine for Vulcan as Crucial Engine Tests Loom

BE-4 staged combustion testing (Credit: Blue Origin)

In what is likely a surprise to no one, United Launch Alliance’s CEO said this week the company is leaning toward selecting Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in the first stage of its new Vulcan rocket — providing upcoming engine tests go well.

That would leave rival Aerojet Rocketdyne and its AR1 engine without a booster to fly on.

In an interview during the 33rd Space Symposium here, Tory Bruno said that tests of the BE-4 engine, scheduled to begin “very soon” at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, are the last major hurdle the engine must clear before ULA decides to use it on Vulcan.

“The economic factors are largely in place now and the thing that is outstanding is the technical risk,” Bruno said. “That’s why we keep talking about the engine firing.”

A major aspect of the engine tests, he said, is to determine the degree of combustion instability the BE-4 has when the engine starts. “Any time when you are developing a new rocket engine, any time you change the scale or the fuel, you are at risk of this phenomenon,” he said. The BE-4 engine is the largest engine developed to date that uses methane as fuel, rather than more common alternatives like kerosene or liquid hydrogen…..

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. One engine is already at the company’s test site, with two more shipping there soon.

Aerojet Rocketydyne’s AR1 engine is considered to be a backup in case there are development problems with the BE-4 engine.

Vulcan is the replacement booster for ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles as ULA struggles to compete with low-cost SpaceX. Flight tests of the new rocket are expect to begin in 2019.

ULA is phasing out use of the expensive Delta IV, which could make its last flight in 2018. The company plans to continue flying the less expensive Atlas V while Vulcan is undergoing flight tests and getting certified to carry U.S. government payloads.

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  • newpapyrus

    The ULA plans to continue launching the Atlas V into the 2020s since full certification for the Vulcan won’t occur until 2022 or 2023.

    Aerojet Rocketdyne, on the other hand, has been trying to get the production rights for the Atlas V, but the ULA says that it has no intention of selling away those rights. However, since the Air Force helped to fund the development of the Atlas V, the Federal government might have the final say as to whether or not Aerojet Rocketdyne gets the Atlas V production rights.

    Marcel

  • passinglurker

    didn’t they already put that question to rest and said ULA owns the rights?

  • windbourne

    Does AR sell anything else ?
    Might also be a good time for them to get into turbo fans as well.

  • Jeff2Space

    LOL, turbofans are quite a bit different than liquid fueled rocket eninges. Besides, AR has been sitting on its laurels for decades despite the clear evidence that they needed to start innovating and driving down the cost of their engines. They missed the glaringly obvious wake-up call when the Russian RD-180 engine was picked to power the Atlas first stage. Instead, they hit the snooze button on that wake-up call, expecting it to be followed up by an endless stream of US Government funding for new engines.

    Instead, their lunch is being eaten by not one but two US start-up companies who have developed their own liquid fueled rocket engines that are far cheaper than anything that AR offers its customers.

  • Jeff2Space

    It wouldn’t help AR anyway. Atlas has been losing commercial customers for decades and is now losing many government launches to SpaceX. Besides, why would ULA sell Atlas to AR when ULA is working furiously on Vulcan? Why create yet another competitor in an already increasingly competitive market?

  • Jeff2Space

    I would think so. ULA did put some of its own money into both Atlas V and Delta IV development, so the US Government doesn’t own all the rights to them.

  • windbourne

    Yeah, but if they are not going to do rockets, they might want to get into something else.

  • duheagle

    Jeff2Space is right. Aircraft engines are a lot more complicated than rocket engines. A-R brings very little applicable expertise to the table.

    And the market for turbine aircraft engines is already very competitive with many well-established players. These big players – GE, P&W, Rolls-Royce, SNECMA, etc. – have long experience in both making turbine aircraft engines and doing so at competitive prices. A-R has neither, being a creature of cost-plus, single-source deals.

    A-R and the predecessor entities that comprise it were subsidiaries of larger corporate enterprises for most of their histories. As a stand-alone concern, A-R has never seemed to quite know how to behave. It’s like everyone at A-R is still waiting to hear what “headquarters” wants them to do next.

    The only thing it seems likely A-R will “get into” next is a pine box.

  • windbourne

    I was trying to be sarcastic.

  • duheagle

    The government isn’t in a position to do what you seem to want it to do. Even if the government tried to do this, there would be years-long lawsuits flying thick and fast looking to block it.

    In any event, the “production rights” wouldn’t do A-R any good by themselves. To use them, A-R would have to duplicate the Atlas V part of ULA’s Decatur assembly plant. ULA certainly isn’t going to make A-R a present of half the Decatur works and there is zero basis for any government-forced hand-over. Forced to build its own half-Decatur, I don’t see where A-R would have a prayer of raising the needed capital. The Trump administration certainly isn’t going to front it the money.

    But assuming A-R could somehow magically conjure an ability to make Atlas V’s modified to use their AR-1 engines, all it’d have is a somewhat more expensive version of the Atlas V. The current Atlas V with the “cheaper” Russian engine already isn’t competitive for most launches with the SpaceX Falcon 9. A pricier version of the same disposable rocket would be in even worse competitive shape. A-R would have to try selling against the existing Atlas V, the Ariane 5 and the Proton. The Atlas V and Ariane 5 have long and enviable reliability records. The Proton doesn’t, to say the least, but it’s cheap and easier to get a near-term booking on than the Falcon 9. An A-R monkey-copy Atlas V with a new, unproven engine would have none of these selling points.

    When ULA picks BE-4 over AR-1 – which seems to be essentially inevitable – A-R is a dead man walking. There will be a few more years of declining sales to ULA – mainly RL-10’s – then it’ll be lights out for A-R. The only suspense, really, is figuring out the exact date they crumple to the ground and never get back up.

  • duheagle

    Until you reach at least journeyman status, I’d advise more use of punctuation faces or imogees to clarify matters.