For the first time, we’re starting to get the sense that Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, might have a shot at launching its long-awaited New Glenn rocket within the next 12 months.
Of course, there’s a lot Blue Origin has to test and validate before New Glenn is ready to fly. First, the company’s engineers need to fully assemble the New Glenn rocket and lift it onto the company’s sprawling beachside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. There’s a good chance this will happen in the coming months as Blue Origin prepares for a series of tank tests and countdown simulations at the launch site.
It’s tempting to invoke Berger’s Law, the guideline championed by my Ars colleague that states that if a launch is scheduled for the last quarter of a calendar year — and if it’s at least six months away — the launch will be delayed into the following year. Given Blue Origin’s history of delays at New Glenn, this is probably the safest bet. New Glen’s inaugural flight was postponed from 2020 until 2021, then 2022, and is currently scheduled for 2024.
But it’s worth noting that Blue Origin has been firm on its 2024 launch schedule for New Glenn for a while, and on Tuesday, a senior Blue Origin official redoubled his efforts to achieve that goal for New Glenn’s debut. There are also several signs beyond Blue Origin’s statements that the company is making real progress with its new rocket.
The two-stage New Glenn will be more than 320 feet (98 meters) tall, with the capacity to transport nearly 100,000 pounds (45 metric tons) of payload to low Earth orbit, according to Blue Origin. This is a weight class higher than the maximum capacity of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket or SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket but lower than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
A NASA official said last month that the agency expects to put one of its robotic missions to Mars on the first flight of the new Blue Origin rocket next year. The Mars science mission, called ESCAPADE, consists of two small, identical spacecraft to study the Martian magnetosphere. It’s relatively low cost, and NASA is willing to accept some risk in launching it on New Glenn’s first flight, but if it doesn’t leave Earth next year, the mission will face a two-year delay.
Lars Hoffman, Blue Origin’s vice president of government sales, gave a high-level overview of the privately developed New Glenn rocket during a presentation Tuesday at the Space Power Association’s Space Energy Conference in Orlando.
“Now we’re ready to start improving things a little bit,” Hoffman said. “We’ll start launching New Glenn next year.”
What to watch for in 2024?
Hoffman showed a video inside Blue Origin’s New Glenn manufacturing plant near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a few miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral. Blue Origin intends to use most of the visible parts inside, which include tanks and other metal structures, on New Glenn’s airable rockets, he said. Some of the equipment will be used for qualification testing on the ground.
“The pace of industrialization is accelerating every day,” Hoffman told a crowd of Space Force officials. “This is all the flight hardware we’ll be flying on our first launch next year. There’s some qualified hardware there as well, but things are improving very quickly. In fact, we’re expanding the buildings there to support that scaling.”
In the past few weeks, photographers have caught glimpses of New Glenn’s cargo as it rides onto a tanker on a road near Cape Canaveral. The shell-like fairing is 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter and more than 70 feet (21.9 meters) high, and is twice the size of a typical payload shroud transported on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket, according to Hoffman.
The gift is now inside Blue Origin’s hangar near the New Glenn launch pad, Hoffman said. A large section of a New Glenn first stage booster, complete with Blue Origin paint, was also spotted outside the manufacturing complex in Florida. When asked by Ars on Tuesday, Hoffman declined to confirm whether this booster was intended for New Glenn’s maiden flight, or whether it was a ground test unit, but he said most of what Blue Origin showed inside the factory was flight hardware.
“With the launch site right next door to us, it makes it very easy for us to build the rocket, transport it directly to the launch site at our integration facility, with payload processing nearby, all together,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said construction work on the New Glenn launch pad, located on a site previously used to launch Atlas rockets, is now complete. The pad is one of the largest launch sites at the Florida Spaceport. “It’s ready to go, and we’ll be putting it to good use starting next year.”
Over the next few months, Blue Origin plans to increase engine testing ahead of New Glenn’s first launch, Hoffman said. This will include the launch of the methane-fueled BE-4 engine and the hydrogen-fueled BE-3U engine at a test stand in Alabama. Seven BE-4s will operate the first phase of New Glenn, and two BE-3Us will operate the second phase.
Similar versions of these two engines will be proven successful by the time New Glenn finally takes off. The BE-3U is a variant of the BE-3 engine used in Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket, and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket will use two Blue Origin BE-4 engines in each of its first-stage boosters.
One of the most important milestones leading up to New Glenn’s debut will be out of Blue Origin’s hands. Hoffman identified the maiden launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket with its BE-4 engines, now planned for January, as one of the key events in the run-up to New Glenn’s maiden flight.
Hoffman did not provide a specific timeline, but he told Ars that Blue Origin teams in Florida are preparing to lift the New Glenn rocket vertically onto the launch pad for a series of cryogenic propellant loading tests. These tests, sometimes called “wet rehearsals,” will involve filling the rocket with methane and liquid oxygen. The recent history of other new missiles suggests that minor problems could extend these tests for several months.
Two Blue Origin officials told Ars that the company does not currently plan to conduct full-scale firing testing of the entire New Glenn booster, with all seven of its BE-4 engines, before the inaugural launch. If this continues, it will be extraordinary. These hot fire tests are a standard part of preparing for the maiden flight of a new missile. Just this year, we’ve seen ULA test fire its Vulcan booster, Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket has seen several hot ignition tests, and SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy booster fires its engines on the launch pad.
Blue Origin plans to test fire New Glenn’s second stage before the inaugural launch, officials said.
Hoffman has not narrowed the timeline for New Glenn’s first flight beyond sometime next year, but NASA’s ESCAPADE mission that is tentatively scheduled to fly is under contract for a launch date of August 2024. However, that timeline is under review. According to Laura Aguiar, a NASA spokeswoman.
The official August launch schedule includes the New Glenn rocket putting the two ESCAPADE probes into Earth orbit, leaving the spacecraft itself to perform final maneuvers to escape Earth’s gravity and fly to Mars. Aguiar told Ars that other options are available, including using New Glenn’s large lift capacity to send the twin rovers directly to Mars in a path known as the Hohmann transfer, allowing for a launch date later next year.
“The NASA team, in collaboration with our spacecraft and rocket partners, is continually evaluating alternative trajectory profiles that improve the availability and flexibility of our launch opportunities,” Aguiar said in a written statement. “Some of these alternatives include a more traditional planetary transfer (Hohmann), allowing launch availability until 2024.”
Blue Origin, founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000, has nearly 11,000 employees, most of them in locations in suburban Seattle, West Texas, Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral. Although it has never launched anything into orbit, Blue Origin is one of two companies competing in the suborbital space research and tourism market, along with Virgin Galactic. Blue Origin has secured a $3.4 billion contract with NASA to develop a human-made lunar lander to transport astronauts to the lunar surface on one of the agency’s Artemis missions.
Blue Origin also wants to join ULA and SpaceX in launching space missions that are most critical to national security for the U.S. military. Amazon, where Bezos made his fortune, wants to launch a large number of Kuiper Internet satellites on Blue Origin rockets.
New CEO Dave Limp will take the reins at Blue Origin this month from Bob Smith, who has overseen a period of explosive headcount growth. Despite this, the company has fallen further behind its main competitor, SpaceX.
The New Glenn orbiter is the cornerstone in making Bezos’ space ambitions a reality. The first stage was designed to be reusable from the beginning to reduce launch costs and improve launch cadence. Blue Origin aims to recover the booster on a floating offshore platform starting with the maiden flight, Hoffman said. Blue Origin recently delivered a large rig to Port Canaveral, Florida, to help rotate lowered New Glenn boosters from vertical to horizontal after returning to shore.
Blue Origin eventually intends to recover the entire rocket and reuse it. “We’re on the path to full reuse in the long term, and that’s the goal,” Hoffman said.
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