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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