ULA selects Blue Origin's new engine for future Vulcan rocket

ULA has chosen BE-4 to power Vulcan

A rendering of ULA's future Vulcan rocket. The vehicle will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Image: United Launch Alliance)

United Launch Alliance announced Thursday that the major U.S. military contractor has awarded Blue Origin a competitive contract to supply the engines for its future Vulcan rocket.

ULA and Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin officially announced the decision Thursday afternoon that the BE-4 engine will power the Vulcan rocket. Earlier in the day, Blue Origin's website declared ULA "has chosen the BE-4 to power its next generation Vulcan launch vehicle.”

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin and is the primary launch provider for U.S. military missions.

“ULA has chosen the best systems available to create the Vulcan Centaur,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno said. “These engines and components will ensure ULA continues to lead the way in space exploration, maintain our record of success and remain America’s launch vehicle for our nation’s most vital missions.”

Blue Origin's liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen BE-4 engine can produce up to 550,000 pounds of thrust. (Image: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, which has been developing the BE-4 since 2011, was up against engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne, a company with more than 70 years of experience in propulsion, for the Vulcan engine contract.

“We are very glad to have our BE-4 engine selected by United Launch Alliance. United Launch Alliance is the premier launch service provider for national security missions, and we’re thrilled to be part of their team and that mission,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said. “We can’t thank Tory Bruno and the entire United Launch Alliance team enough for entrusting our engine to powering the Vulcan rocket’s first stage.” 

Aerojet Rocketdyne was developing the AR1 engine for Vulcan.

Aerojet Rocketdyne space communications representative Mary Engola said the company is excited that the Vulcan upper stage will us its RL10 engine. The RL10 is partially 3D-printed, reducing the time and cost to build the engine.

As for the AR1, Engola said the engine is making outstanding progress and should be ready for its first hot fire test next year. A hot fire test is when the fully assembled engine is fired up. It's a critical step in development, because it tests the performance of the engine under specific conditions.

"We see that it’s the ideal engine for multiple rockets," Engola said, adding it's capable of becoming the next workhorse rocket engine.

Using a new American-made engine is an important step, as ULA must move away from using the Russian-built RD-180 engine, it has used for its Atlas V workhorse rocket. In 2014, Congress banned the use of Russian-made engines to launch U.S. government security missions. The ban was later modified, and ULA purchased 18 more RD-180 engines. However, the company has until 2022 to start using alternative, American-made engines.

ULA said in the news release that the Vulcan rocket design is close to finished.

"Vulcan Centaur will have a maximum liftoff thrust of 3.8 million pounds and carry 56,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, 33,000 pounds to a geo-transfer orbit and 16,000 pounds to geostationary orbit with greater capability than any currently available single-core launch vehicle," according to ULA's website.

Bezos' company has also been developing the liquid oxygen-powered BE-4 engine to power its own New Glenn rocket. The reusable heavy lift rocket is being manufactured at Blue Origin's new facility near Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park. The BE-4 engine will be manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama.

Both Vulcan and New Glenn are expected to launch sometime in 2020 from Cape Canaveral.

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