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Blue Origin is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The company is developing technologies to enable private human access to space with the goal of dramatically lower cost and increased reliability. It is employing an incremental approach from suborbital to orbital flight, with each developmental step building on its prior work. The company motto is "Gradatim Ferociter", Latin for "Step-by-Step, Ferociously". Blue Origin is developing a variety of technologies, with a focus on rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space.
Initially focused on sub-orbital spaceflight, the company has built and flown a testbed of its New Shepard spacecraft design at their Culberson County, Texas facility. According to company statements, it initially planned on placing the New Shepard in commercial suborbital tourist service in 2010 with flights about once a week. In 2008 the publicized timetable stated that Blue Origin will fly unmanned in 2011, and manned in 2012. The first developmental test flight of the New Shepard was April 29, 2015. The uncrewed vehicle flew to its planned test altitude of more than 307,000 feet (93,500 meters) and achieved a top speed of Mach 3.
Late 2014 public announcements, and a contractual agreement to build a new rocket engine for major US launch system operator United Launch Alliance (ULA), have put Blue Origin into the middle of the orbital spaceflight technology business, as a rocket engine supplier.
As of April 2015[update], (ULA) is also considering the BE-3 for use in a new second stage—the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES)—which will become the primary upper stage for ULA's Vulcan orbital launch vehicle in the 2020s. The Vulcan will begin orbital flights in 2019 with an existing Centaur upper stage, and is considering three engines from various manufacturers for the ACES stage which would begin flight in 2023.
- 1 History
- 2 Facilities
- 3 Low-altitude flight platforms
- 4 New Shepard suborbital system
- 5 Orbital space systems
- 6 Test flights
- 7 Rocket engine development
- 8 Collaborations with NASA
- 9 Patent controversy
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has been interested in space from an early age. A profile published in 2013 described a 1982 Miami Herald interview Bezos gave after he was named valedictorian of his high school class. The 18-year-old Bezos "said he wanted to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit. 'The whole idea is to preserve the earth' he told the newspaper .... The goal was to be able to evacuate humans. The planet would become a park."
Since the founding of Blue Origin, the company has been famously tight-lipped about its plans. Early work—starting somewhat before the official incorporation of the company—involved work on planetary defense studies. The company has never publically announced involvement in that work nor results of the studies. The company was formally incorporated in 2000, but its existence only became public in 2003, when Bezos started buying land in Texas and interested parties followed up on the purchases. This was a topic of some interest in local politics, and Bezos' rapid aggregation of lots under a variety of whimsically named shell companies was called a "land grab".
In January 2005, Bezos told the editor of the Van Horn Advocate that Blue Origin is developing a sub-orbital space vehicle that will take off and land vertically and carry three or more astronauts to the edge of space. The spacecraft is based on technology like that used for the McDonnell Douglas DC-X and derivative DC-XA. Bezos told Reuters in November 2004 that his company hopes to progress to orbital spaceflight. As of January 2005[update], the company's website announced that it hopes to establish an "enduring human presence in space", but the 2007 version talks instead of aiming to "patiently and step-by-step, to lower the cost of spaceflight so that many people can afford to go and so that we humans can better continue exploring the solar system". Science fiction author Neal Stephenson worked part-time at Blue Origin until November 15, 2006.
In a 2011 interview, Bezos indicated that he founded the company to help enable "anybody to go into space" and that to do so, he must focus on two objectives: thus, the mission of Blue Origin is to decrease the cost of access to space and increase the safety of human spaceflight.
In September 2014, the company and United Launch Alliance (ULA) entered into a partnership where Blue will produce a large rocket engine—the BE-4—for the successor to the Atlas V, a 10,000–19,000 kilograms (22,000–42,000 lb)-class launch vehicle that has launched US national security payloads since the early 2000s. The announcement included that Blue had been working on this engine for three years prior to the public announcement, and that the first flight on the new rocket could be as early as 2019.
In April 2015, Blue Origin announced that it had completed acceptance testing of the BE-3 engine that will power the New Shepard space capsule that will be used for Blue Origin suborbital flights.
Development facility and headquarters
The company is headquartered on 26 acres (11 ha) of industrial land in Kent, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, where its research and development is located. As of May 2015[update], the 260,000-square-foot (24,000 m2)-facility houses over 350 persons working on engineering, manufacturing and business operations.
East coast of US
As of April 2015[update], Blue Origin is evaluating multiple locations on the East coast of the United States to construct an orbital launch facility along with manufacturing facilities to build large launch vehicles. The project is known internally as Project Panther. Blue Origin would like to have a launch facility outside of US government control of NASA or the US Air Force—just as SpaceX has done with their private launch site, now under construction in south Texas—while NASA would like to see the selection use underutilized government land. Among locations under consideration are two in Florida—in Brevard and Volusia counties—as well as locations in Georgia and North Carolina.
In 2013, Blue Origin had attempted to lease a different part of the Space Coast, when they submitted a bid to lease Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, following NASA's decision to lease the unused complex out as part of a bid to reduce annual operation and maintenance costs. The Blue bid was for shared and non-exclusive use of the complex such that the launchpad was to have interfaced with multiple vehicles, and costs for using the launch pad would have been shared over the term of the lease. One potential shared user in the Blue Origin notional plan was United Launch Alliance. A competing bid for commercial use of the launch complex was submitted by SpaceX, which submitted a bid for exclusive use of the launch complex to support their crewed missions. In September 2013—prior to completion of the bid period, and prior to any public announcement by NASA of the results of the process—Blue Origin filed a protest with the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) "over what it says is a plan by NASA to award an exclusive commercial lease to SpaceX for use of mothballed space shuttle launch pad 39A." NASA had planned to complete the bid award and have the pad transferred by October 1, 2013, but the protest "will delay any decision until the GAO reaches a decision, expected by mid-December." SpaceX has said that they are willing to support a multi-user arrangement for pad 39. In December 2013, the GAO denied the protest and sided with NASA, which argued that the solicitation contains no preference on the use of the facility as multi-use or single-use. "The [solicitation] document merely asks bidders to explain their reasons for selecting one approach instead of the other and how they would manage the facility." In the event, NASA selected the SpaceX proposal in late 2013 and signed a 20-year lease contract for Launch Pad 39A to SpaceX in April 2014.
West Texas launch site
Blue Origin has a high-altitude rocket flight facility located in West Texas, near the town of Van Horn. Current launch license and experimental permits from the US government Federal Aviation Administration allow flights up to a maximum altitude of 106 kilometers (66 mi) with no more than one flight per week. As of May 2015[update], Blue has a staff of approximately 50 supporting the West Texas facility.
The launch pad is located at, about 3.9 miles (6.3 km) north of a check-out building.
Low-altitude flight platforms
Blue Origin's first flight test vehicle, called Charon, was powered by four vertically mounted Rolls-Royce Viper Mk. 301 jet engines rather than rockets. The low-altitude vehicle was developed to test autonomous guidance and control technologies, and the processes that the company would use to develop its later rockets. Charon made its only test flight at Moses Lake, Washington on March 5, 2005. It flew to an altitude of 316 feet (96 m) before returning for a controlled landing near the liftoff point.
Charon is currently on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.
The next example, named the Goddard (also known as PM1), first flew on November 13, 2006. The flight was successful. However, a second test flight filed for December 2 never launched. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, two further flights were performed by Goddard.
New Shepard suborbital system
The company is currently building the New Shepard system for suborbital spaceflight. The New Shepard system is composed of two flight vehicles: a Crew Capsule for carrying three or more astronauts, launched by a rocket-powered Propulsion Module. The two vehicles lift off together, and are designed to separate during flight. After separation, the Propulsion Module returns to Earth to autonomously perform a rocket-powered vertical landing. The Crew Capsule follows a separate trajectory, returning under parachutes for a land touchdown. Both vehicles will be recovered and reused. The New Shepard will be controlled entirely by on-board computers. In addition to flying astronauts, it will provide frequent opportunities for researchers to fly experiments into suborbital space.
In an interview with television show host Charlie Rose on November 19, 2007, Bezos reported that the construction of a second test vehicle was in progress and that a third development vehicle would be built after that, before any commercial flights would begin.
A Federal Aviation Administration NOTAM indicated that a flight test was scheduled for August 24, 2011. The August 24, 2011 test flight in west Texas failed when ground personnel lost contact and control of the vehicle. The company recovered remnants of the spacecraft after a ground search. Blue Origin released the results of the cause of the test vehicle failure on September 2. As the vehicle reached a speed of Mach 1.2 and 45,000 feet (14,000 m) altitude, a "flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered [the] range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle."
On October 19, 2012, Blue Origin conducted a successful Pad Escape at its West Texas launch site, firing its pusher escape motor and launching a full-scale suborbital Crew Capsule from a launch vehicle simulator. The Crew Capsule traveled to an altitude of 2,307 feet under active thrust vector control before descending safely by parachute to a soft landing 1,630 feet downrange.
Blue announced in April 2015 that they intend to begin autonomous test flights of the New Shepard in 2015, with initial flights occurring as frequently as monthly. They "expect a series of dozens of flights over the extent of the test program [taking] a couple of years to complete. The first developmental test flight of the New Shepard was April 29, 2015. The uncrewed vehicle flew to its planned test altitude of more than 307,000 feet (93,500 meters) and achieved a top speed of Mach 3. The crew capsule separated from the propulsion module before returning to Earth for a landing under parachutes.
Orbital space systems
Blue Origin has also started developing systems for orbital human spacecraft. The reusable first-stage booster will fly a suborbital trajectory, taking off vertically like the booster stage of a conventional multistage rocket. Following stage separation, the upper stage will continue to propel the astronauts to orbit while the first-stage booster will descend to perform a powered vertical landing similar to the New Shepard suborbital Propulsion Module. The first-stage booster would be refueled and launched again, allowing improved reliability and lowering the cost of human access to space.
The booster rocket will loft Blue Origin’s biconic Space Vehicle to orbit, carrying astronauts and supplies. After orbiting the Earth, the Space Vehicle will reenter Earth’s atmosphere to land on land under parachutes, and then be reused on future missions to Earth orbit.
Blue Origin successfully completed a System Requirements Review (SRR) of its orbital Space Vehicle in May 2012.
Engine testing for the Reusable Booster System (RBS) vehicle began in 2012. A full-power test of the thrust chamber for Blue Origin BE-3 liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen rocket engine was conducted at a NASA test facility in October 2012. The chamber successfully achieved full thrust of 100,000 pounds-force (about 440 kN).
- First test flight: 5 March 2005 (Charon)
- Second test flight: 13 November 2006, 06:30 (Goddard)
- Third test flight: 22 March 2007 (Goddard)
- Fourth test flight: 19 April 2007 (Goddard)
- Fifth test flight: 6 May 2011 (New Shepard propulsion module (PM2))
- Sixth test flight: 24 August 2011 (PM2, failure, loss of vehicle)
- Pad escape test flight: 19 October 2012
- New Shepard First Developmental Test Flight: 29 April 2015 (West Texas)
Rocket engine development
Blue publically announced the development of the Blue Engine 3, or BE-3, in January 2013, but the engine had begun development in the early 2010s. BE-3 is a new liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX) cryogenic engine that can produce 490 kilonewtons (110,000 lbf) of thrust at full power, and can be throttled down to as low as 25,000 pounds-force (110 kN) for use in controlled vertical landings.
By late 2013, the BE-3 had been successfully tested on a full-duration suborbital burn, with simulated coast phases and engine relights, "demonstrating deep throttle, full power, long-duration and reliable restart all in a single-test sequence." NASA has released a video of the test. As of December 2013[update], the engine had "demonstrated more than 160 starts and 9,100 seconds (2.5 h) of operation at Blue Origin’s test facility near Van Horn, Texas."
BE-3 engine acceptance testing was completed by April 2015 with "450 test firings of the engine and a cumulative run time of more than 500 minutes." The BE-3 engine will power the New Shepard space capsule that will be used for Blue Origin suborbital flights beginning later in 2015.
The BE-3U engine is a modified BE-3 for use on upper stages of Blue Origin orbital launch vehicles. The engine will include a nozzle better optimized for operation under vacuum conditions as well as a number of other manufacturing differences since it is an expendable engine whereas the BE-3 is designed for reusability.
Blue Origin began work on a new and much larger rocket engine in 2011. The new engine, the Blue Engine 4, or BE-4, is a change for Blue Origin in that it is their first engine that will combust liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants. The engine has been designed to produce 2,400 kilonewtons (550,000 lbf) of thrust, and was initially planned to be used exclusively on a Blue Origin proprietary launch vehicle. Blue did not announce the new engine to the public until September 2014.
In late 2014, Blue Origin signed an agreement with United Launch Alliance to co-develop the BE-4 engine, and to commit to use the new engine on an upgraded Atlas V launch vehicle, replacing the single RD-180 Russian-made engine. The new launch vehicle will use two of the 2,400 kN (550,000 lbf) BE-4 engines on each first stage. The engine development program in 2011.
Pusher escape motor
Blue Origin developed a pusher escape motor for its suborbital Crew Capsule.
In late 2012, Blue performed a full-scale flight test of the escape system on the full-scale suborbital capsule.
Collaborations with NASA
Though privately funded, Blue Origin has worked with NASA on several development efforts. The company was awarded $3.7 million in funding in 2009 by NASA via a Space Act Agreement under the first Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program for development of concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations. NASA co-funded risk-mitigation activities related to ground testing of (1) an innovative ‘pusher’ escape system, that lowers cost by being reusable and enhances safety by avoiding the jettison event of a traditional ‘tractor’ Launch Escape System, and (2) an innovative composite pressure vessel cabin that both reduces weight and increases safety of astronauts. This was later revealed to be a part of a larger system, designed for a biconic capsule, that would be launched atop an Atlas V rocket. On November 8, 2010, it was announced that Blue had completed all milestones under its CCDev Space Act Agreement.
In April 2011, Blue Origin received a commitment from NASA for $22 million of funding under the CCDev phase 2 program. Milestones included (1) performing a Mission Concept Review (MCR) and System Requirements Review (SRR) on the orbital Space Vehicle, which utilizes a biconic shape to optimize its launch profile and atmospheric reentry, (2) further maturing the pusher escape system, including ground and flight tests, and (3) accelerating development of its BE-3 LOX/LH2 100,000 lbf engine through full-scale thrust chamber testing.
In 2012, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program released its follow-on CCiCap solicitation for the development of crew delivery to ISS by 2017. Blue Origin did not submit a proposal for CCiCap, but is reportedly continuing work on its development program with private funding.
In August 2014, SpaceX challenged Blue Origins US Patent 8,678,321. The Petition challenges the patentability of 15 claims of the '321 patent on the grounds of obviousness under 35 U.S.C. 103.1. On March 3, 2015, The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board approved SpaceX’s request for an inter partes review of 13 of 15 claims the company made about Blue Origin’s Patent No. U.S. Patent 8,678,321, which is titled, “Sea landing of space launch vehicles and associated systems and methods”. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded the patent in 2014.
“On the current record, SpaceX has demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of prevailing on the asserted ground of anticipation of claims 1–3…and the asserted grounds of obviousness of claims 4–13,” the decision reads. “As such, we authorize institution of an inter partes review of claims 1–13 of the ’321 patent. Our decision to institute acts as a preliminary measure of SpaceX’s evidence as having enough merit to take the case to trial.”
In a separate decision, the board rejected the SpaceX’s request for a review of claims 14 and 15. The decision said that Blue Origin’s patent describing the process for igniting, shutting off, and reigniting a rocket motor was too vague to determine whether SpaceX could prevail on these counts.
- Armadillo Aerospace
- Interorbital Systems
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- Lunar Lander Challenge
- Masten Space Systems
- McDonnell Douglas DC-X
- Quad (rocket)
- Reusable Vehicle Testing program by JAXA
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