Blue Origin Goes Big With New Glenn Rocket

Size comparison between the New Glenn and all other rockets currently in operations (with the Saturn V for comparison). Credit: Blue Origin

Space exploration is becoming a lucrative domain for private aerospace companies (aka. the NewSpace industry). With opportunities for launch and resupply services growing, costs dwindling, and the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program, private companies have been stepping up in recent years to provide their own launch vehicles and services to fill the gap.

Take Jeff Bezos, for example. Back in 2000, the founder of created Blue Origin to fulfill his lifelong dream of colonizing space. For years, Bezos and the company he founded have been working to produce their own fleet of reusable rockets. And as of the morning of Monday, Sept. 12th, he unveiled their newest and heaviest rocket – the New Glenn.

Much like SpaceX, Blue Origin has been committed to the creation of reusable rocket technology. This was made clear with the development of the New Shepard suborbital rocket, which was unveiled in 2006. Named in honor of the first American astronaut to go into space (Alan Shepard), this rocket made its first flight in April of 2015 and has had an impressive record, nailing four out of five soft landings in the space of just over a year.

New Shepard comes in for a landing with drag brakes and landing gear deployed. Image: Blue Origin.
New Shepard comes in for a landing with drag brakes and landing gear deployed. Credit: Blue Origin.

With the New Glenn – named in honor of astronaut John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth – the company now intends to take the next step, offering launch services beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and for crewed missions. As Bezos said during the press conference:

“New Glenn is designed to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space. The three-stage variant-with its high specific impulse hydrogen upper stage—is capable of flying demanding beyond-LEO missions.”

According to Bezos, Blue Origin will have both a two-stage and three-stage variant of the rocket. Whereas the two-stage will provide heavier lift capacity to LEO, the three-stage will be able to reach further, and will the company’s go-to when sending crewed missions into space. Work on the rocket began back in 2012, and the company hopes to make their first launch prior to 2020.

As Bezos said during the unveiling, this rocket carries on in the same tradition that inspired the creation of the New Shepard:

“Building, flying, landing, and re-flying New Shepard has taught us so much about how to design for practical, operable reusability. And New Glenn incorporates all of those learnings. Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and lifts off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines. Burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, these are the same BE-4 engines that will power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.”

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23rd, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The rocket will have a sea-level thrust of 1.746 million kg (3.85 million lbs), placing it ahead of the Delta IV Heavywhich has a sea-level thrust of about 900,000 kg (2 million lbs) – but behind the 2.268 million kg (5 million lbs) of the Falcon Heavy. Both variants will be powered by BE-4 engines, which are also manufactured by Blue Origin. The third-stage also employs a single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine that burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

However, the most interesting facet of the New Glenn is the fact that it will be reusable, with its first stage providing braking thrust and deployable legs (similar to the Falcon 9). In creating a heavy lift rocket that employs a retrievable first-stage, Blue Origin has signaled its intent to give SpaceX a run for its money when it comes to the development of reusable rocket technology.

It is also likely to raise the company’s profile, which has so far been limited to conducting sub-orbital research for NASA and dabbling in the space-tourism industry. But once the New Glenn is up and running, it is likely to begin securing contracts to provide resupply services the ISS, as well as contracts with companies and research institutions to place satellites in orbit.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit:
The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit:

According to The Verge, Bezos also hinted that his company has another project in mind – called the New Armstrong. While no details have been given just yet, the name of this rocket is a clear allusion to the Moon Landing, and hints that the company may have designs on possible moon missions in the coming decades.

This is an exciting time for the NewSpace industry. In the coming months, SpaceX is expected to conduct the first launch of the Falcon Heavy, which will be the most powerful rocket built in the US since the retirement of the Apollo program’s Saturn V launcher. And if they keep to their current schedule, Blue Origin will be following this in a few years time with the launch of the largest rocket of the post-Apollo era.

Big rockets and big lift capacities can mean only thing: big things lie ahead of us!

Further Reading: ArsTechnica, The Verge, Blue Origin

Three Words: SpaceX… Mars… 2018

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

Fans of Elon Musk and commercial space exploration are buzzing over the news! Back in 2002, when Musk first established the private aerospace company SpaceX, he did so with the intent of creating the technologies needed to reduce the cost of space transportation and enable crewed missions to Mars. And for the past few years, industry and the general public alike have been waiting on him to say when missions to Mars might truly begin.

Earlier this morning, Elon Musk did just that, when he tweeted from his company account that SpaceX plans to send a Dragon capsule to Mars by 2018. Despite talking about his eventual plans to mount crewed missions to Mars in the coming decades, and to even build a colony there, this is the first time that a specific date has been attached to any plans.

What was also indicated in the announcement was that the missions would be built around the “Red Dragon” mission architecture. As a modified, unmanned version of the Dragon capsule, this craft was conceived back in 2013 and 2015 as part of the NASA Discovery Program – specifically for Mission 13, a series of concepts which are scheduled to launch sometime in 2022.

Concept art showing a Dragon capsule landing on Mars. Credit: SpaceX
Concept art showing a Dragon capsule landing on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

Though the idea was never submitted to NASA, SpaceX has kept them on hand as part of a proposed low-cost Mars lander mission that would deploy a sample-return rover to the Martian surface. The mission will be deployed using a Falcon Heavy rocket, based on the mission profile and the illustrations that accompanied the announcement.

This mission would not only demonstrate SpaceX’s ability to procure samples from the Martian environment and bring them back to Earth – something that only federal space agencies like NASA have been able to do so far – but also test techniques and equipment that human crews will be using to enter the Martian atmosphere.

And if all goes well, we can expect that Musk will push forward with his plans for both crewed missions, and the development of all the necessary architecture to being work on his Mars Colonial Transporter, which he hopes to use to begin ferrying people to Mars to build his planned colony.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis of this announcement from our resident expert, Ken Kremer!