Watch One Of America’s Largest Rocket Engines Breathe Fire For Four And A Half Minutes

Ramish Zafar
Blue Origin BE-4 engine test fire
The BE-4 engine's first hot fire test in 2017. Image: Blue Origin

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Kent, Washington based aerospace company Blue Origin, known for being set up by the retail billionaire Jeff Bezos has tested its BE-4 rocket engine for a rare full duration firing. The BE-4 is one of America's largest rocket in terms of thrust generated, and it uses liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen as its fuel and oxidizer. The engine will power both Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket and the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket - which are two of the three new privately funded rockets in development in the U.S. The third rocket is SpaceX's Starship, which is significantly more powerful than both, and falls into the super heavy lift category - right alongside the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Space Launch System (SLS).

Blue Origin's BE-4 LNG Rocket Engine Successfully Tested For Full Duration Firing

The BE-4 engine has been at the center of several controversies and delays since the project started in 2014, and since then it has seen several executives changed at Blue Origin and some redesigns as well. However, 2022 proved to be a great year for the engine, when it was hinted in April that the Vulcan Centaur rocket which uses the BE 4 might launch a privately developed lunar lander on the Moon's surface by the end of this year.

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This engine is part of crucial efforts by the U.S. government to wean itself off of Russian engines for rockets that are integral to national security missions. Additionally, larger rockets are often constrained by their missions, and once contracted missions are over, it becomes cost prohibitive for the launch provider to maintain them.

The ULA, which is a joint venture of the aerospace divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin is headed by Tory Bruno, and the executive shared one of the first videos of the BE 4 successfully test firing for a full duration attempt.

The latest test saw the rocket engine fire up for four and a half minutes, and since it was successful, it marks another important step for its journey into space. A full duration test is crucial in engine development, as it lets engineers verify that the extreme stresses present on the engine's components have been sustained without any loss of performance. This lets them certify the engine for flight, after evaluating it after the test to remove any doubt about any component stressed beyond its rating.

Blue Origin's engine is designed to generate 540,000 pounds of thrust, making it more powerful than SpaceX's Raptor 2 which comes in at a close second with 510,000 pounds of thrust. The third engine in the same range is Aerojet Rocketdyne's RS 25 engine which generates 418,000 pounds of thrust. The most powerful rocket engine in the U.S. right now is Aerojet's RS-68 engine which generates a whopping 704,000 pounds of thrust, but unlike the RS 25 is not human rated since it tends to set itself on fire (a normal occurrence) at launch.

However, SpaceX's Starship is significantly larger than both the Centaur and the New Glenn because it uses 33 Raptor 2 engines. These let it have a design capacity of lifting at least 100 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), making it the only privately developed super heavy lift rocket in the U.S. SpaceX has melted at least 50 combustion chambers and destroyed at least 20 engines as part of developing the Raptor 2, according to its chief Mr. Elon Musk.

The Vulcan Centaur and NASA's SLS will be two new rockets that will take to the skies in the short term, and if everything works well, then SpaceX might also launch Starship for its first orbital test flight in November.

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