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. (more…)
Although the BE-4 turbopump is smaller than your refrigerator, it generates 70,000 horsepower from a turbine running at nearly 19,000 revolutions per minute that pumps cryogenic propellants to pressures just under 5,000 pounds per square inch. To react the forces generated by the rotating turbine and impellers inside the pump, production rocket turbopumps to date have used traditional ball and roller bearings. For BE-4, we’re doing something different – we’re using hydrostatic bearings. (more…)
Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos is expected to announce something on Tuesday in a speech at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, DC.
I’m guessing it will be an elaboration on the company’s plansfor establishing a base at the south pole of the moon. He also will likely provide updates on the testing schedule for the BE-4 engines (pictured above), development of the New Glenn booster, and construction of the company’s manufacturing facility in Florida.
Robert Goddard’s first rockets used compressed gas to force the liquid propellants into the engine thrust chambers. While simple in design and a logical starting point, he quickly realized the limitations with this approach: it requires thick-walled heavy propellant tanks and limits the engine’s chamber pressure and performance, both of which limit payload capacity. The answer was turbopumps. Store the propellants in low-pressure light tanks, and then pump the propellants up to high pressure just ahead of injection into the main chamber.
For even more performance, you can add one or more boost pumps ahead of the main pumps. We’ve done that on the oxidizer side of our BE-4 engine. Our Ox Boost Pump (OBP) design leverages 3-D additive manufacturing to make many of the key components. The housing is a single printed aluminum part and all of the stages of the hydraulic turbine are printed from Monel, a nickel alloy. This manufacturing approach allows the integration of complex internal flow passages in the housing that would be much more difficult to make using conventional methods. The turbine nozzles and rotors are also 3-D printed and require minimum machining to achieve the required fits.
The OBP was first demonstrated last year in testing, where we validated its interaction with a main pump. The second iteration of the OBP for BE-4 is now in test. We’ve also just finished assembly of the unit that we’ll install for the first all-up BE-4 engine test.
We’ll keep you posted on how our BE-4 powerpack and engine testing progresses.
For BE-4, not only do we have to design the engine itself, we also have to develop custom tools to make it. One of these tools is an automated electrical discharge machining (EDM) drilling machine. The EDM precisely locates and burns more than 4,000 tightly dimensioned holes into the nozzle and main combustion chamber, providing entry to the regenerative cooling channels.
As far as we know, this particular EDM machine is the only one of its kind in the world. It has 11 axes of motion allowing for precise hole location and accuracy within a few thousands of an inch. Its dual-head design results in reduced cycle time for the drilled holes. Brass multichannel electrodes are used to drill the holes. Water can be pumped through the electrode in order to speed up the drilling cycle. The use of water also helps flush the hole and remove the powder-like foreign object debris generated by the process. This eliminates the concern for plugging cooling channels, which can easily occur with conventional drilling methods. A pair of automated electrode-changing stations allows the EDM to continuously operate for long cycle times at an average rate of one hole every 90 seconds.
Building and operating custom tools of this magnitude is a big investment, but it’s critical for developing an engine that will power America’s access to space in the future.
A pretty wise investment, if you ask me.
PS: Blue Origin is hiring. Check out our Careers page and apply.
We’re making multiple copies of the BE-4 to take us through our development campaign, along with a healthy amount of hardware spares to mitigate schedule and technical risks encountered along the way – – a “hardware rich” approach to development. To maintain a fast pace, we’ve elected over the past years to invest heavily in key machines, tooling and people for the production of BE-4 so we can control critical processes in-house.
We’ve also started testing the BE-4 preburner in our recently commissioned pressure-fed test cell. We’re developing the transient start sequence for the preburner, and we’re making good progress.
We’ll continue to keep you posted on our progress as this engine comes together.
Back in March, we shared with you our efforts on building two new test cells to further support risk reduction testing on the BE-4. We began the construction of these additional facilities in October last year and we’ve just commissioned the first of these cells last week. This test cell is pressure fed and supports the development of the preburner start and ignition sequence timing that will be used on the upcoming full scale powerpack test campaign.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday that limits United Launch Alliance (ULA) to purchasing nine Russian-made RD-180 engines for use in the first stage of the company’s Atlas V booster to launch national security payloads.
The move sets up a showdown with the House Armed Services Committee, which earlier put the number of engines ULA could purchase at 18. ULA and the U.S. Air Force support the higher number, saying the engines are needed to meet military launch needs.
In the BE-4 preburner, a very small portion of the engine’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel mixes and burns with all of the engine’s liquid oxygen to produce hot gaseous oxygen, which is used to drive the turbine and spin the turbopumps. Oxygen and LNG burn stoichiometrically above 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more are needed to reliably ignite and sustain the reaction. No practical turbine materials would survive at that temperature, especially in a reusable application. To resolve this, the BE-4 preburner mixes unburned oxygen into the burned gas stream to dilute the combustion gases and reduce the overall temperature to about 700 degrees Fahrenheit. If this mixing process isn’t meticulously designed, hot spots can persist in the stream and limit turbine life.
The House Armed Services Committee approved a measure on Wednesday that would allow United Launch Alliance to purchase up to 18 Russian-made RD-180 engines to power the first stage of its Atlas V rocket.
The House Armed Services Committee appears determined to require United Launch Alliance (ULA) to re-engineer its Atlas V booster with a new Aerojet Rocketdyne engine in its first stage even though the launch provider doesn’t really want the motor.
CENTENNIAL, Colo., March 24, 2016 (ULA PR) – United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for the Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle with dual Blue Origin BE-4 engines. The PDR, a major milestone in development of the Vulcan launch vehicle, confirms that the design meets the requirements for the diverse set of missions it will support. The ULA team will build upon this milestone to refine and test key elements of the design while executing a busy manifest of 14 launches in 2016.
CULBERSON COUNTY, Texas (Blue Origin PR) — BE-4 testing is well underway at Blue Origin. To date, we’ve completed more than 170 staged-combustion tests – including 51 starts on a single regeneratively cooled chamber and nozzle. The preburner performed flawlessly and the main injector consistently demonstrated performance at the high end of our predictions, giving us confidence that we’ll get good specific impulse when we go to full-scale engine testing later this year.
We’re building two new test cells. The first is a high-pressure cell that lets us run short-duration, full-scale isolated preburner tests. We’ll use this cell to refine the ignition sequence and understand the start transients. The second is another full engine test cell. Having two full engine test positions will allow us to further increase the testing pace.
One of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly. Building these two new test cells is a $10 million commitment, and we as a team made the decision to move forward in 10 minutes. Less than three weeks later we were pouring the needed three-foot thick foundations. Private funding and rapid decision making are two of the reasons why the BE-4 is the fastest path to eliminate U.S. dependence on the Russian-made RD-180.