back to article Jeff Bezos fires off a blue dart, singes Elon Musk and SpaceX

Amazon supremo Jeff Bezos' rocket company Blue Origin has successfully tested its main engine for the first time. The BE-4 engine is, as the name suggests, Blue Origin's fourth generation rocket. B-1 was a wee thing that boasted 2,200 pounds of thrust. B-2 hit 31,000 pounds and B-3 reached 110,000. The BE-4 cranks things up …

  1. BugabooSue
    Thumb Up

    Totally Awsome!!

    Congratulations to all involved!!

  2. defiler Silver badge

    Yowzers!

    I've been considering Blue Origin as the poor cousin between them and SpaceX. After all, Blue Origin have been doing hops, whilst SpaceX have been orbital for years. This ups the ante rather a lot though.

    Still, Musk himself can sit back in his volcano-lair happy that he's changed the world however the race between him and Bezos pans out. It's not like he'll struggle to pay for cornflakes at any time soon!

    Two years is a long time, though, and the Falcon Heavy is slated to fly three times in the next six months. Fun times for big toys!

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: Yowzers!

      Yeah, if anyone is writing some sci-fi right now and wants some imagined history, now is time to go run with it. I could see Blue Origin being like AMD and SpaceX being like NVidia (I see too much politics and diversity in Google v Apple V MS to make a call on those ones!).

      If they both go for different markets/uses then both could have a measure of success.

      1. Alan_Peery

        Re: Yowzers!

        And don't forget the Russians, with their PNUTS nuclear engine in their back pocket:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semipalatinsk_Test_Site

        I'm running role playing game (think D&D, but with rockets and James Bond) with the ideas you have aboveand PNUTS.

    2. Spudley

      Re: Yowzers!

      I've been considering Blue Origin as the poor cousin between them and SpaceX. After all, Blue Origin have been doing hops, whilst SpaceX have been orbital for years. This ups the ante rather a lot though.

      If you thought that, then you've not been paying attention. Blue Origin have taken a different path than SpaceX, but don't let that fool you -- they have a lot of momentum. They may not be launching satellites every few weeks, but they are making very good progress on some pretty impressive hardware. They have a steady income stream (Bezos is pouring money into them, plus they're getting well paid by ULA for working on this engine), so they don't need to be launching to earn the money to keep developing.

      I honestly think that there's plenty of room for both SpaceX and Blue Origin. They've got different goals and different hardware with different capabilities. They may end up competing a bit on some launch contracts, but realistically they're going to be taking customers away from the other providers rather than each other.

      And once they're both up and running with their next generation vehicles, they're both going to start putting some serious effort into their real agendas, which will take time and resources away from their presence in the traditional launch market. Plus they're both going to be wanting to expand the market by moving into space tourism.

      So yes, assuming the hardware works as planned, I think they're both going to do just fine.

      One thing is certain -- the near future is going to be very exciting for space enthusiasts; there will be an unprecedented quantity of launches, and a lot of new achievements to celebrate.

      1. defiler Silver badge

        Re: Yowzers!

        "If you thought that, then you've not been paying attention."

        You got that right! I've only seen the odd video from Blue Origin - things like their capsule landing test. Whilst these things have been impressive, SpaceX have managed to out-spectacular them each time.

        You're dead right that there'll be plenty of room in the market for both players. And that the market will grow significantly as launch costs drop. The people who should be most worried about this will be the incumbents, like Arianespace and ULA. Maybe this will help get some of the political pork out of spaceflight, and allow NASA to spend their funds with the lowest bidder.

      2. anothercynic Silver badge

        Re: Yowzers!

        They've kept things nicely under wraps. Well done to the Blue Origin crews. That was beautiful!

        A big thumbs up!

      3. Brangdon

        Re: Yowzers!

        I dunno. New Glenn isn't due until 2020 or so. BFR cargo will probably be flying within a few years of that, so New Glenn will be redundant a couple of years after its born. Especially as it's hard to see how Blue Origin will ever be able to reuse their second stage.

        I wouldn't be surprised if BFR makes orbit before New Glenn. SpaceX have more experience with orbital-class rockets, they have a bigger company, they have the engine and fuel tank well in hand. New Glenn might be delayed. In any case, it's going to be quite close. Blue Origin may turn out to be a vanity product of a multi-billionaire, with little commercial or industrial importance.

    3. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Yowzers!

      Have Blue Origin got rights to "Big F****** Engine" or has Elon beaten them to the copyright?

      1. Daedalus Silver badge

        Re: Yowzers!

        "Have Blue Origin got rights to "Big F****** Engine" or has Elon beaten them to the copyright?"

        NASA can claim "prior art" from 50 years ago. See "Rocketdyne F-1".

        It's a source of wonder to people who remember the moon program that everybody gets so excited about "new" engines when "old" technology achieved so much. Sure we've got different fuels etc. etc. etc. but the physics hasn't changed. The limiting factor in a rocket engine is the temperature that the materials can stand, not the energy in the fuel. I'd be willing to be that in most engines the temperature in the reaction chamber is about the same. Thrust is a matter of how much exhaust gas exits in kilos per second. Efficiency, also known as "Specific Impulse" has to do with the exhaust velocity, which really depends on the molecular weight of the exhaust gases, since the temperatures are about the same. That's why oxygen/hydrogen rockets are the most efficient, the exhaust being mostly H20. Carbon fuel rockets have more thrust because the loss of efficiency caused by heavier product molecules (CO2 etc.) is more than compensated for by the increased exhaust mass, but you only need them to get off the ground. Once in space it makes more sense to use the more efficient rockets. LOX/LH2 are touchy, but hydrazine stores well and is the fuel of choice for long range probes.

  3. Khaptain Silver badge
    Joke

    Minuature Version

    If he could only create a miniature version in order that all those products, from Hong Kong etc, could therefore be sent overnight or within the hour... now that would be a fantastic selling point.

    I just can't figure out how to catch the damned thing as it lands...

    1. DropBear Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Minuature Version

      For any kind of economies of scale to work, you'd need some sort of multiple-payload rocket. It's a wonderful idea, I can't possibly see anybody objecting to MIRV missiles being constantly launched from China towards the entire rest of the world...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: MIRV missiles being constantly launched from China

        No, it's fine, really. These ones would only be destroying our remaining manufacturing capacity ...

        1. Khaptain Silver badge

          Re: MIRV missiles being constantly launched from China

          I suppose that would should pay attention that the country of origin is not North Korea then...

      2. DrMordrid

        Re: Minuature Version

        The original BE-4 concept was for 400,000 lbf, but ULA wanted 550,000 lbf for their new Vulcan launcher which is to replace Atlas V and Delta IV.

    2. CraPo

      Re: All those products

      Rubber dog-shit?

  4. TheOtherMatt

    Wardsback

    "By way of comparison, the Merlin engine used in SpaceX's rockets emit 190,000 pounds of thrust. Which is why SpaceX packs nine of them into a single Falcon 9 rocket."

    Actually you have that backwards, they needed 9 engines (because 1/9th of total thrust is approximately the right amount you need to land again). They also wanted to target approximately 4,500 kg GTO in the first version; so that gets you the original spec for Merlin 1C. Now they can do over 4,500 kg to GTO reusable.

    Blue Origin however went for 7:1 ratio which means they need to throttle down a lot (65% throttle, if not a bit lower, which is typically less efficient). How much that will limit payload with reusability remains to be seen.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Wardsback

      Exactly what TheOtherMatt said. SpaceX went with 9 engines to have less need for deep throttling ability, which they found was detrimental on the performance and reliability of the engine. Blue Origin is probably going for the 7:1 ratio mainly for the specs needed for the ULA launchers. Either they'll go with 7 engines on their lower stage, they found a smart way to achieve deep throttling ability or they will design a different spec of the same base design to achieve the thrust levels they need for New Glenn.

  5. jpo234

    The Test was Wednesday

    but only announced on Friday.

    1. John G Imrie Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: The Test was Wednesday

      So what happened to Thursday, can't they get the hang of Thursdays?

      1. lglethal Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: The Test was Wednesday

        Naturally on Thursday everyone was too hungover to write a press release...

  6. jpo234

    ULA has not yet commited to BE-4

    The race is officially still open between Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1 and the BE-4.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: ULA has not yet commited to BE-4

      True.

      And ARJ is officially committed to having the AR1 ready at the same time.

      Except the NASA evaluation team that Congress requested visit both of them said ARJ is 18-24 months behind Blue.

      That suggests one of those statements is not going to happen.

      Time is money for ULA and they need to get Vulcan started so they can start the process of retiring production on both Delta IV and Atlas V and eventually Delta IV Heavy.

  7. Chris 239
    Unhappy

    Something doesn't add up

    According to the figures in the article:

    Falcon 9 : 9 x 190,000 = 1,140,000 lbs thrust for 8,300 Kg to LEO

    New Glen: 7 x 550,000 = 3,850,000 lbs thrust for 13,000 Kg to LEO

    ie over 3.3 times the thrust for less than 1.6 times the payload. Why so little increase in payload? are the figures wrong?

    BTW disgusting mix of units in this article ( imperial thrust vs metric payload and Kg payload for one and metrix tons for the other) and not a proper Reg unit in sight! - shocking journalistic standards!

    1. jpo234

      Re: Something doesn't add up

      First at all the numbers you quote are to GTO, not LEO.

      The New Glenn number (13,000 Kg to GTO) is reusable, the F9 number (8,300 Kg to GTO) is expendable. The reusable number for F9 is about 5500kg to GTO.

      1. Chris 239

        Re: Something doesn't add up

        oops, thanks.

    2. defiler Silver badge

      Re: Something doesn't add up

      "ie over 3.3 times the thrust for less than 1.6 times the payload. Why so little increase in payload? are the figures wrong?"

      The figures don't greatly surprise me, to be honest. The payload is the smallest part of the package.

      If you want to carry more payload you need more engine. And then you need more fuel for both the bigger payload and the bigger engine.

      Then you need more fuel to carry the fuel. And more fuel to carry *that* fuel. And more fuel to...

      You get the idea - it's turtles all the way down. Eventually somebody round up a decimal point and it becomes enough. But even small increases in payload mass can have a remarkably distorted effect on launch mass.

      1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: You will write 100 times...

        "I will not comment on payloads until I know the rocket equation!"

        PS, sorry if you already do and are pointing out a different fault in the calcs/stats as that joke is still good for others!

      2. My Alter Ego
        Happy

        Re: Something doesn't add up

        Rocket science would be a lot easier if Tsiolkovsky hadn't come up with his Rocket Equation. What a bastard!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Something doesn't add up

      Can we propose a new measurement of payload?

      Amount of knock off t-shirts or 99p iPhone chargers perhaps?

    4. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: Something doesn't add up

      Welcome to the big elephant in rocketry. To go further up costs you more, you need more stages, which weigh more, which in turn needs more thrust which in turn weighs more, which in turn... Ask the Saturn V engineers how much fun they had trying to get things right just to get to the bloody moon with a piece of metal of which half was left there as rubbish...

      This is why there is a suggestion that interplanetary ships should be built/assembled in space, where it's possible to get around this pesky problem of getting off the surface of the planet first (fighting against that damn 9.8m/sec2 reduction and the air resistance of the different *spheres) which costs an awful lot in energy.

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Building a factory in 'bama will also have helped no end.

    Blue will spout some BS about the talent pool there but the truth is this will keep the Sen Shelby, the "Honourable Member" himself, very happy.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Building a factory in 'bama will also have helped no end.

      IIRC wasn't 'bama chosen because nobody would notice a bunch of Nazis turning up there - or at least nobody would care.

      1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Building a factory in 'bama will also have helped no end.

        "...Why would they want to build a factory in a former US president?

        ...

        Oh, right! Huntsville."

      2. jackharbringer
        Pint

        Re: Building a factory in 'bama will also have helped no end.

        "IIRC wasn't 'bama chosen because nobody would notice a bunch of Nazis turning up there - or at least nobody would care."

        Maybe it's too soon. (Ok, it's definitely too soon.) But the joke is still funny but obviously too subtle for the interwebs. Anyway, have beer on me.

        When will they be bringing Clone von Braun out of the antarctic base, or do they need a rocket first to retrieve him from the dark side of the moon?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The F1-A engine, developed post-Apollo from the F1 that powered the first stage of the Saturn V (but never launched), tested at 1,800,000 lbf. That isn't reusable, obviously. The Shuttle system SRBs produced 2,800,000 lbf (each). They were best described as 'recyclable', but they largely did the job, Challenger notwithstanding. I hope Bezos has a good vintage chart, as right now, the expression "not even close" comes immediately to mind.

    It's all about getting mass beyond NEO. For the foreseeable future, _everything_ we might need for lunar bases, Mars missions, etc. has to leave the surface of this planet bound for those destinations.

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      They've not released the figures yet (and they'll have to wait until a 100% thrust test to calculate them directly), but it's likely that the BE-4 will be somewhat more efficient than the F1-A (or the F1-B come to that).

      Even a 5% improvement could save tons of mass in the first stage.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Boys..

        Mine's bigger than yours.. Look at my thrust!

        So most of my space experience has come via Kerbal, but how important is being able to land your rocket? Ok, it makes for impressive videos, and avoids wet spots.. But presumably Space-X rockets are still 'recyclable' in that they'll need a fair bit of rework to reuse. Customers mostly care about reliability and cost, so virgin O-rings may be better than saying one's launched 9 times already. Plus BE-X is presumably simpler to produce, and doesn't need to launch the fuel needed to land again, which limits Space-X's payload capacity.

        And if your launch needs more bass, there's potential to strap on some SRBs. That works for me in KSP, mostly. As does slapping parachutes onto bits I might want to re-use. I'm also kinda curious how the different approaches affect staging, ie needing to land a rocket vs being able to de-orbit and recover bits of rocket from the mid-Pacific at a more leisurely manner.

        1. Brangdon

          Re: a fair bit of rework to reuse

          SpaceX have said the first one cost substantially less than half the price of a new booster. Presumably later boosters were quicker as they got more experience, and the forthcoming Block 5 is said to incorporate lessons learned and is cheaper still. As far as we can tell, being able to land the rocket is already important. SpaceX don't pass much of the savings onto customers, though. Customers and insurance companies seem to accept that reliability of pre-loved boosters is the same or better as new ones.

          Using parachutes means splashing down in the sea, which exposes the rocket to salty water, which is highly corrosive, which ruins reuse.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: a fair bit of rework to reuse

            "Using parachutes means splashing down in the sea, which exposes the rocket to salty water, which is highly corrosive, which ruins reuse." - Except isn't that how NASA reused the shuttle SRBs?

            1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: a fair bit of rework to reuse

              But part of the problem with the Shuttle was re-use wasn't as fast or as cheap as hoped for. That was a more complex beast than these launchers, but still curious how easy they are to refurb. AFAIK Space-X hasn't re-used a rocket yet, but then it's still tweaking the design & might re-use some elements. I guess once it's finalised, they can have an inventory of parts to work with. Rockets may be a hi-tech George Washington's axe, but if customers, insurers and investors are happy, it's all good.

              And was also an excuse to watch the landings again. I was curious if Space-X used water to cool the barge, but doesn't appear to. Being able to watch landings from the onboard cameras pleases my inner geek though :)

              1. Arthur 1

                Re: a fair bit of rework to reuse

                "AFAIK Space-X hasn't re-used a rocket yet"

                They've reused several this year, the first one back in March, one this summer (June?) and another fairly recently.

  10. David Roberts Silver badge
    Flame

    Cool! Calor gas rocket!

    I wonder if they do a scaled down version?

    I already have the Calor gas.....

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Cool! Calor gas rocket!

      You could probably run a pulse jet engine on it, about the most basic rocket engine possible, as used in the V1 Flying Bomb.

      1. Holtsmark

        Re: Cool! Calor gas rocket!

        Sorry, but a pulse jet is, as the name implies, a very basic JET engine.

        A jet engine uses atmospheric oxygen as oxydizer, a rocket engine uses on-board oxydizer.

  11. Wolfclaw Silver badge

    Here's a radical idea, these companies need to stop pussy footing around, come together as one, pooling resources, knowledge and skill and get us out in to space quickly, they'll all still make nice fat profits !!

    1. The Mole

      You are right, without competition they would make massive really really fat profits. Having two teams competing against each other is actually a great way to add in the level of urgency to get the engineers concentrating on what needs solving better (and not gold plating) you also potentially double your chances of it working and not ending up down an expensive deadend - afterall look how well Nasa has done getting us out to space quickly in the last 20 years...

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        You are right, without competition they would make massive really really fat profits.

        So far neither ULA nor Arianespace have managed to make much in the way of profits.

        With no competition you can ask for big government subsidies, so prices stay high, so there is no demand, so you need to ask for big government subsidies ....

        If you drop the price of getting to orbit by a factor of 10 the increased market means you make more money than a handful of government contracts for your monopoly service - even with competitors.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ULA is United Launch Alliance. Lockheed and Boeing merged their space arms. It was very successful, at least if you define success by profit.

      1. MyffyW Silver badge

        Most major progress in space has been down to competition driving one or other party to be bold and inventive. I suspect if we had a partnership between the two (which isn't going to happen given Bezos and Musk personalities) we'd see a slow down in progress.

      2. anothercynic Silver badge

        ULA and profit...

        ... You mean the bacon they get from the government by way of fat contracts (and the bacon they get handed under the table by various three-letter agencies and slush funds)? Oh, *THAT* profit...

        That said, Arianespace has a similar... ummmm... funding stream. But they also launch Soyuz rockets from Kourou (which they own - or does ESA?), so I guess they have the additional value from Roscosmos... :-)

  12. Steve Todd

    SpaceX are working on a bigger engine also

    The Raptor has a target thrust of 380,000 pounds at sea level, which while not as large as the BE-4, fits better with their strategy of not deep throttling the engines for landings.

    It doesn't look like they are sitting on their thumbs.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: SpaceX are working on a bigger engine also

      SpaceX test fired the Raptor engine in April.

      1. lglethal Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: SpaceX are working on a bigger engine also

        If the raptor engine goes really fast, will it be a Veloci-raptor?

        I'm sorry, I really am, I'll see my self out...

        1. Daniel Bower

          Re: SpaceX are working on a bigger engine also

          Truly dreadful sir - have a thumbs up on your way out...

        2. Spudley

          Re: SpaceX are working on a bigger engine also

          If the raptor engine goes really fast, will it be a Veloci-raptor?

          Nah. A Velo-sea Raptor is what happens if they strap one onto the back of a bicycle, put it on the beach pointing toward the ocean, and then light the fuse.

          "Look ma, no pedals! Wheeeee!"

          (I'm sure that was one of the tests they were going to do, right?)

  13. Stephen Booth

    Compare with Raptor not Merlin

    The real comparison with SpaceX hardware is with the new Raptor engine not the production merlin.

    Raptor uses the same fuel as BE-4 and is at a similar stage of development (Raptor first test fire was last year)

    It does look like Space-X have dialed back their target thrust for the Raptor so current indications is the BE-4 is the larger engine but this is the first test-fire it is almost certainly not running at full design power yet. They probably do have to come close to their target because they don't have the flexibility that SpaceX has to redesign the rocket.

    1. jpo234

      Re: Compare with Raptor not Merlin

      The BE-4 engine fired at 50-percent power.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And the ultimate aim?

    Bezos and Musk running the earth from orbit a'la Tessier-Ashpool?

    1. jpo234

      Re: And the ultimate aim?

      Musk wants to go to Mars and Bezos wants to move all polluting industry into space to protect our blue origin (hence the name).

  15. Ralph B

    Amazon Prime

    So, they're going to be using drones for standard deliveries and these rockets for same-day deliveries. Is that right?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Devil

      Re: Amazon Prime

      Nope. The drones will be controlled by the delivery department, the rockets will be under debt management.

      Let's just say you really don't want to be late with the payments on your Amazon credit card...

  16. Morrie Wyatt
    Flame

    You have to admit.

    It'll make for one hell of a delivery drone!

  17. jason 7

    Well...

    ...it's better than I could do!

  18. hatti

    Rockets Schmockets

    That's all very well but when is my new book going to be delivered?

    1. teknopaul Bronze badge
      Coat

      Re: Rockets Schmockets

      Its does seem to be horizontal expansion rather than a vertical expansion.

  19. DrMordrid

    Uhhhh...no. No singes.

    BE-4 has burned for exactly 3 seconds at 50% thrust, and several months ago the power head on it (turbopumps etc.) failed, delaying the program.

    Raptor has been on the test since September of 2016, accumulating over 1,200 seconds of burn time with many tests running from 40 to 100 seconds - the duration limited due to the size of the test stand's propellant tanks.

    Some commenters make a big deal out of the Raptor under test being a "subscale" version, but this is a full flow staged combustion engine, the first modern engine of its type (Russia built one in the 1960's but never flew it.) Growing Raptor the extra 15-20% to get to a full size production engine is easier than it would be for most other engine cycles. This is because the pumps are only pumping gases, not fluids. This makes life easier on the turbopumps, and it also makes the engine more scalable and reusable.

    BE-4 is not a full flow staged combustion engine.

  20. trclark81

    "Which is why SpaceX packs nine of them into a single Falcon 9 rocket."

    Eh, half true. Yes, Falcon 9 requires several Merlin engines in part for overall thrust. But it's also for multiple engine out redundancy for both launches and landings. Something that has on one or two occasions allowed a launch to continue to optimal orbit despite engine issues during F9's testing and development phases. That's also why the BFR is designed with a good number of Raptors instead of just one, monster engine. You can debate the merits of having as many as it does, but that it needs more than one engine is not just a performance question.

    The other important part of the equation is that Merlin was designed to produce an MVP, minimum viable product, in Falcon 1. Falcon 9 was a bit too heavy a lift for a first-pass rocket from a company that had never done it before. So you build a moderately powerful engine to get the skinny stick to orbit, then pack a bunch of them on your bigger stick instead of building out a brand new engine for each scale of rocket.

    Not saying the article is straight up wrong, but it's somewhat necessary for the "singes Musk and SpaceX" thesis. BE-4, New Glenn, and Vulcan are all threats to SpaceX, but they are over the horizon threats, not current ones. And the threat certainly has little to do with how much overall thrust the engine puts out, because that's a design decision more so than a measure of a company's competitiveness. What IS a measure of their competitiveness is that they are able to get the engine to a hot fire phase and book an established customer to put that engine on their next gen rocket. SpaceX will be watching what happens with BE-4 very closely, to be sure. But I highly doubt anyone in Hawthorne is particularly nervous or bothered by this. Not for another 2-3 years, anyway.

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