Private space company Blue Origin says it has finished work on a rocket engine for a reusable sub-orbital spaceship and expects to begin flight tests this year.
The firm, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, said that testing and development of the liquid-hydrogen-fuelled rocket engine, called BE-3, has been completed, the last major milestone before it is attached to the company’s New Shepard capsule.
The spaceship is designed to fly three people or a mix of passengers and payloads to altitudes of roughly 100km and will launch from Blue Origin's facility near Van Horn, Texas, south-east of El Paso.
It is also designed to be reusable. The crew capsule and propulsion modules separate in flight, with the former returning to earth using parachutes and the latter able to carry out an autonomous rocket-powered vertical landing.
"The engine is ready for flight ... and ready for other commercial users," Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson told reporters on a conference call. He declined to be more specific about when New Shepard would fly, except to say "soon."
The BE-3 can be continuously throttled between 110,000-lbf and 20,000-lbf thrust, which will be essential for its vertical-landing capability.
It was designed and fabricated at Blue Origin’s design, development and production facility in Kent, Washington, with combustion chamber testing carried out at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and final full-engine testing at the company’s Texas facility.
"The BE-3 has now been fired for more than 30,000 seconds over the course of 450 tests,” said Bezos. “We test, learn, refine and then test again to push our engines. The Blue Origin team did an outstanding job exploring the corners of what the BE 3 can do and soon we’ll put it to the ultimate test of flight.”
Unlike rivals SpaceX and Boeing, Blue Origin has decided to follow an incremental approach to space exploration. Work is already underway on a liquefied natural gas engine called BE-4 that will produce 550,000-lbf thrust to give the New Shepard capsule orbital flight capabilities.
The system has been selected by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to serve as the primary propulsion for its Next Generation Launch System and the two firms are working in partnership on it.
Meyerson also said that the recently completed BE-3 engine also will eventually be modified to serve as an upper-stage motor to fly satellites into orbit.