September 21, 2023

Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine fails dramatically during testing in Texas

BE-4 rocket motor test firing

Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine undergoes a test firing in Texas in 2019. (Blue Origin File Photo)

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture confirmed that one of its BE-4 rocket engines suffered a significant anomaly during testing at its West Texas plant in late June.

The incident first came to light today in a report from CNBC, which quoted anonymous sources as saying the engine exploded about 10 seconds after a test fire on June 30. CNBC said the engine was intended to be used for the second launch of United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. That launch, known as Cert-2, is intended to send Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane on an unmanned cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.

Blue Origin has already delivered two BE-4 engines to ULA for its first Vulcan launch, Cert-1, tasked with carrying the first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband network into low Earth orbit and steering Astrobotic’s robotic lunar lander on its way to the moon.

In an emailed statement to GeekWire, ULA said the anomaly is “not expected to impact our plans” for Cert-1. “The Cert-1 engines have successfully passed the acceptance test and the BE-4 engines are qualified for the Cert-1 mission,” said ULA.

The cause of last month’s anomaly is under investigation, Blue Origin said in an emailed statement today:

“In late June, we encountered an issue while testing Vulcan’s Flight Engine 3 at our West Texas facility. No personnel were injured and we are currently investigating the cause. ULA was immediately notified. The West Texas test facility can continue testing at the site. We already have an immediate cause and are working on remedial action. We will be able to meet our engine supply commitments this year and stay ahead of our customers’ launch needs.”

Getting Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines ready for their first launch has already taken years longer than Blue Origin or ULA expected when they announced the missile development project in 2014. The BE-4 is designed to use liquefied natural gas as fuel and deliver 550,000 pounds. of thrust with deep throttle.

The engines will be used not only on Vulcan’s first stage, but also on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is expected to launch for the first time no earlier than 2024. Blue Origin has already closed deals for several satellite launches. using New Glenn, and NASA plans to use New Glenn for the launch of a twin spacecraft to Mars in late 2024. If it takes longer than Blue Origin expects to address the issues created by the failed test last month, that could have a domino effect on those missions.

Meanwhile, the first Vulcan launch has been delayed due to a completely different problem: a fiery anomaly that ULA experienced while testing the Vulcan rocket’s Centaur V upper stage in March. ULA says it is modifying the upper stage to address issues created by that anomaly, which did not involve the BE-4 rocket engine.

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Update for 10:15 PM PT July 11: United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno discussed the June 30 incident in a series of tweets. Failing the engine acceptance test, or ATP, was “much less interesting than it sounds,” he said.

“They happen. That is why we test every part that comes off the line for acceptance before we accept the delivery.” said Bruno. He said he was “terribly” convinced that the failure of the test was due to poor workmanship of that particular engine, rather than an overlooked flaw in the engine design.

Here’s a sampling of other tweets in the thread:

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