Blue Origin, perhaps the sleeping giant of the aerospace industry, will be going from a tiny suborbital rocket, to one of the biggest rockets ever made…
You’ve been asking and asking for me to do a video about Blue Origin’s massively ambitious New Glenn rocket. But I’ve withheld….
Why? Well, to date, we didn’t really have that much information… just some pretty animations, a few videos of them firing their BE-4 engine, and few basic specs of the vehicle. Blue Origin has been awfully quiet about this monster rocket…
UNTIL NOW!!! Finally. Blue Origin blessed us, or really their future customers, with a Payload User’s Guide!!!! Boy, that sounds like the lamest announcement ever… but in all reality, it is super super exciting as we finally get some nitty gritty specs on this beast.
So today, we’re finally going to do a quick rundown on Blue Origin, talk about their upcoming New Glenn rocket and then compare it to some of the other Heavy Lift Launchers it will be competing against.
Finally. I’ve been waiting for this one…
Since I haven’t done any videos on Blue Origin yet, let’s start off with a super quick rundown on who they are. Blue Origin was founded in the year 2000 by the richest human alive, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.
That’s right, they were founded two years before SpaceX. So wait, they’ve been around for almost two decades… and have no shortage of money… What the heck have they been up to?
That’s actually a fair question. Blue Origin is extremely tight lipped and we don’t often hear about what they’re working on until one day they’ll just announce, “Oh hey, we did this” and with the company motto being “Gradatim Ferociter” Latin for “Step by step, ferociously” they’re conservative on their timelines, slow to show off their details, but just as ambitious as the best of em.
So with that in mind, Blue Origin starting chasing the suborbital tourism game first, and still are to this day. In 2005, Jeff Bezos discussed plans for a vertical-takeoff and landing suborbital spaceship called New Shepard. Their first tests began all the way back in 2006 with the launch of a subscale demonstrator called Goddard.
Named after the pioneer of the liquid fueled rocket engine, Robert Goddard, this little guy was the company’s testbed to learn how to propulsively land, a key technology they would be utilizing in their upcoming New Shepard program. Think of it like SpaceX’s grasshopper program which served a similar purpose for SpaceX.
The only publicly shown flight only reached 86 meters (285 feet) and lasted 25 seconds. The vehicle flew at least 3 times in total with the last known flight in 2007.
In 2011, Blue Origin began testing a version of their booster for the New Shepard, climbing to over 13 km (45,000 feet) in altitude and reaching Mach 1.2 in the process. In 2012, the company did a pad abort test of their crew capsule.
By 2015, they began testing their first full New Shepard system which is an 18m tall (59 ft) booster and capsule designed to kiss the edge of space with up to 6 passengers onboard for a 20 minute flight. It’s a single stage liquid fueled booster powered by their BE-3 engine running on liquid Hydrogen and Liquid Oxygen.
Their plan was to separate the booster and the passenger capsule after main engine cut off, and have the capsule land via parachutes while the booster was going to attempt a rocketry first… land propulsively after touching the edge of space.
The first flight on April 29th, 2015 was a partial success with the capsule and booster almost reaching the Karman line, or the boundary of space before returning to Earth.
The capsule was safely recovered via parachutes, however their first attempt at landing a booster was not successful, siting a failure of hydraulic pressure in the control system, leading to a complete loss of the vehicle.
It only took 7 months for Blue Origin to return to their Texas launch site with a new New Shepard rocket, ready to continue testing their suborbital workhorse. Their launch on November 23, 2015, was picture perfect. After successfully reaching 100.5 km in altitude, the booster and capsule came rushing back down to Earth.
The Capsule popped its parachutes and was recovered exactly as planned. However, the booster continued falling back to Earth, just falling and falling and falling, gaining velocity with each passing moment, the ground coming closer and closer…. Until suddenly, its engine ignited exactly as planned and it performed the world’s first propulsive landing after reaching the edge of space. Sorry, I just had to add a little dramatic story telling element in there ;)
So yeah, they absolutely nailed their second flight. That exact same booster and capsule went on to fly again 4 more times. This is something that should absolutely be applauded, they took the same booster up to space, landed it precisely on a landing pad, and did that again for a total of 5 flights, with the last flight featuring an in flight abort, and despite firing a solid rocket booster on top of their rocket mid launch, the booster survived and was successfully recovered! Gahhhh! Now THAT’s impressive!
They’ve since retired that second booster, which now sits in the entryway of their factory and are now flying their New Shepard 3. Its flown three times to date, with the last one also being an abort test at apogee. This validated their abort system throughout every portion of flight providing extra confidence that their passengers are safe no matter what the circumstances.
So the New Shepard is crazy crazy impressive. Setting many spaceflight firsts and its getting really close to finally launching people! And I know, I know, it’s “just a suborbital rocket”, and although the total energy and velocities involved in these little hops is nothing compared to orbital flight, it’s still an absolutely incredible rocket…
So now I hear you, you’re sitting there going, Wait, I thought the video title was will Blue Origin be the king of Heavy Lift Rockets? How is this in anyway comparable to the Falcon Heavy?! Well, seeing as the New Shepard isn’t even as tall as one of Falcon Heavy’s landing legs, yeah, you’re right…
But now let’s check out Blue Origin’s next rocket….
Wait… they’re going from this to this?!?! From a Cessna to a 747?! This can’t be right… can it?
Well, it is. And it’s called New Glenn. Are you seeing a pattern yet? From Goddard, a guy who tested rockets, to New Shepard, as in Alan Shepard the first American to fly to space on a suborbital flight and now to New Glenn, as in John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
Come on, anyone can draw up a picture of a rocket and say it’s going to be crazy big and have super powerful lasers and stuff, so how seriously can we take this? Ummm, does this answer your question?
Ok, enough baiting you, let’s just dive into this thing. This thing is amazing.
Design work began in 2012 to develop a partially reusable, heavy lift rocket. In 2015, Blue Origin made their plans public, but dropped another fun hint claiming this rocket would be the SMALLEST of their orbital rockets! Woahh.
Not only that, it’s maiden voyage is scheduled for 2021, and Blue Origin is historically fairly accurate-ish in their dates, so this actually might hold.
New Glenn will initially launch from LC-36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida. This pad has hosted over 140 launches, formerly launching the Atlas II and III. Their factory at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park is located very close to their pad, only about 15 kms away.
Blue Origin is also working on securing a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. I’ll be curious if they’ll build another factory nearby, or how they’ll ship the rockets out that way. I’m assuming they’ll just ship them via the ocean.
New Glenn will be powered by 7 of the companies BE-4 engines. The BE-4 is racing to become the first operational orbital class rocket engine to run on Methane. The other is SpaceX’s Raptor engine. They’re both crazy impressive engines, but they take on the task in pretty different ways.
The Raptor engine is a full flow closed cycle methane engine that’s approximately the same size as SpaceX’s Merlin engine while the BE-4 is a closed cycle engine that’s closer in size to the RS-25 space shuttle main engine. Which makes it very, very big.
The BE-4 is very far along in its development. They’ve successfully hot-fired full scale versions of the engine many times, including some tests lasting over 200 seconds. The performance of the engine has been so attractive, it was chosen by ULA to be the engine they will use on their upcoming Vulcan rocket.
The upperstage of the New Glenn will feature two vacuum optimized versions of their BE-3 engine, the same engine that powers their New Shepard launcher. Combined, they produce just over a meganewton of thrust.
We can speculate similar efficiency to the RL10 vacuum engine, perhaps United States’ most prolific upperstage engine. Like the RL10, the BE-3U will be an expander cycle engine, but interestingly, it will be an open expander bleed cycle and not a closed cycle expander. The only other currently operating engine using this is the LE-5 series engine in Japan.
Blue Origin is also planning on using autogenous pressurization on both stages. This means they won’t use an inert gas like helium or nitrogen to maintain pressure in the fuel and oxidizer tanks, which is pretty cool as it can decrease complexity. SpaceX is also planning this in their upcoming Starship and Super Heavy rocket.
The vehicle’s fuselage is made out of aluminum, like most other rockets. There were rumors of Blue Origin making a carbon composite upper stage, but at least the initial version will be aluminum. There will be a common bulkhead on the upperstage, a technique first seen on the Saturn V.
Ok, all this is pretty impressive, but we haven’t gotten to the coolest part of New Glenn. Blue Origin will be recovering and reusing the first stage. Blue Origin is quoting up to 25 reuses out of these massive boosters. Seeing how well they’ve done with the New Shepard, I really hope that’s a metric they can hit. That’s impressive and will certainly help bring the cost down!
They’ll be doing a similar technique to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy by doing a propulsive landing downrange on a large ship in the ocean.
Now before you accuse them of ripping off SpaceX, two notes, first off, if they did, would it matter? Why wouldn’t you replicate an awesome system that works?! But second off, just to throw a little salt at the haters, Blue Origin actually filed a patent for a reusable rocket booster landing on a sea-going platform in 2010! CRAZY!
After a bit of a dispute between SpaceX and Blue Origin, the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board cancelled Blue Origins patent claim, meaning the case was lost and SpaceX was given the go-ahead to continue pursuing landing on a ship.
But like I said, I don’t care who did it first, or who’s idea it was, it’s clearly a great idea and is what helps allow a significant payload to be lofted into space while having enough propellant margins to propulsively land.
Unlike SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship, Blue Origin’s ship is actually a full blown Stena Freighter container ship called the LPV or landing platform vehicle. Another notable difference is the LPV will actually be moving while the rocket lands on it. This helps keep the landing platform stabile, allowing recovery during rough seas.
And although the propulsive landing might look fairly similar to the Falcon 9, the hardware Blue Origin will use couldn’t be more different. Instead of grid fins at the top end of the booster, the New Glenn will use small fins, similar to their New Shepard, although these fins don’t retract like they do on New Shepard.
The New Glenn also has what could almost be described as a pair of very stubby wings or strakes on the lower portion of the booster. These increase the surface area, helping the fuselage generate more lift, which can give the booster a little more cross range capability, and also gives the atmosphere more time to bleed off more energy.
Just like if you were skydiving, your terminal velocity would be slower if you were belly first compared to feet first. We can also see SpaceX perform a little bit of this with their Falcon 9’s, but with some additional surface area, New Glenn might be able to almost fly and slow down a substantial amount.
One thing to note is how far down range these boosters will likely land. One of the fun details to come out of the New Glenn Payload User’s Guide is how long the first stage will burn for.
The first stage burn will last an whopping 199 seconds, or 3 minutes and 19 seconds. Compare that to SpaceX who’s longest burn times are often not much over 2 minutes and 40 seconds, an additional 30 seconds or more of a vehicle traveling well over 2,000 meters per second… yeah that’s gonna put these recoveries very very far downrange.
Now again, we don’t know the exact flight profile, or MECO velocity, but judging by the fact that SpaceX’s furthest drone ship landing is around 680 km downrange, New Glenn will probably land significantly further downrange.
Blue Origin’s website does state the New Glenn will land “nearly 1000 km downrange” but I might venture to guess it might be beyond that.
Ok… so now that we’re finally done giving you a rundown and we’re getting pretty heavily into comparison mode, it’s time we actually stack up how the New Glenn will perform against the other launchers in its class that will be flying at the same time.
Some notes, before we get started. If we include all Heavy Launchers from around the world, our chart and screen will get pretty cluttery, so we’re just going to compare the 5 United States heavy lift launchers that will hopefully be near operating when New Glenn goes online.
We’re also leaving out super heavy lift launchers like the Starship / Super Heavy (previously BFR) and SLS since those are a different class of rockets all on their own.
Ooooo oooo oooo I like these! This is interesting!
First up is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the only other reusable launcher in this class. Next let’s see another three core heavy lifter, ULA’s mighty Delta IV Heavy. Then we have ULA’s other launcher, the Vulcan, now do note, this is not the Vulcan Heavy which won’t be online for a while longer, but even this with just the standard Vulcan with 6 solids is right within the same specs as the others.
Then we have Northrup Gruman Innovation Systems upcoming OmegA Rocket. But one quick note, they too will probably be making a heavy version of the Omega, but who knows when that’ll come out, and the one we’re showing is well within range of heavy lift vehicles. Besides, there’s very little info out about Omega in general, so I’m having to wing some info on it and the heavy version has even less info than. So take some grain of salt with the things on screen for OmegA.
And of course, we have Blue Origins New Glenn… which if you need a recap on this rocket, just look up…
All 5 of these rockets either already are flying payloads for the US Air Force or have won contracts by the Air Force…
So let’s start with the obvious things, their heights.
That New Glenn is MASSIVE. Standing at 95m, its much taller than rest with the Falcon Heavy at 70m and Delta IV Heavy at 71m, the Vulcan at 66m and the OmegA at 60m.
New Glenn is also the widest, by a large amount too at 7m wide, compared to 3.6m, well times three, so 10.8m of the Falcon Heavy, 5m again times 3 making it about 15m of the Delta IV Heavy, 5.4m of the Vulcan and 5m of the OmegA.
Next we need to check out their fairing sizes… Here’s where the New Glenn is in a class of its own. It’s internal volume is massive! A whopping 458 cubic meters, compared to the Falcon Heavy which shares the same relatively small fairing as the Falcon 9 at 145 m3. Then there’s the Delta IV which can have up to 233 m3 and I can’t find the exact numbers on Vulcan and OmegA but I believe there’s probably around that same 233 m3 region.
This massive fairing allows the New Glenn to do dual payloads with up to 10,000 kgs in either the upper or lower payload births. This is something that the ESAs Ariane 5 has done very well with, and now New Glenn is taking a note from its playbook.
Now let’s talk engines. There couldn’t be a wider variety of engines on these rockets. The New Glenn of course has those 7 BE-4 engines running Methalox on the first stage and 2 BE-3U’s on the upperstage running Hydrolox
The Falcon Heavy has 27 Merlin 1Ds running Keralox on the first stage and a single Vacuum optimised Merlin 1D on the upperstage running Keralox.
The Delta IV Heavy has 3 RS-68As running Hydrolox, and an upperstage with an RL-10B also running Hydrolox.
Then we have the Vulcan which actually has the same main engines as the New Glenn, the BE-4, but only has two. However, it can have up to 6 powerful strap on solid rocket boosters. It’s upper stage has 2 RL-10Cs running hydrolox.
Then there’s the OmegA which is just solids on solids with a dash of hydrolox on top! It’s a three stage rocket with a Castor 600 main booster, which is similar to the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket boosters but only two segments instead of 4, then it has a Castor 300 solid stage, and then it’s upper stage is similar to the Vulcan, as it too is RL10C powered, but down to just one which also runs hydrolox. and it can have up to 6 GEM-63XLs as well.
Ok, now let’s get to the fun stuff. THRUST. The New Glenn delivers a more middle of the road 16,800 kNs of thrust, much less than the Falcon Heavy’s 22,815 kNs, but much more than the Delta IV Heavy at 9,420 kN.
The Vulcan almost ironically comes in at virtually the exact same amount of thrust as the New Glenn, despite having literally the exact same engines… well but only two instead of 7, but what it lacks in BE-4s it makes up in SRBs, winding up with almost the exact same total thrust at 16,812.
The OmegA rocket has a combined 21798 kN of thrust with 7 SRBs firing. That sounds wild, I can’t wait to hear one of those fly!
Ok, so thrust is great and all, but what can these things actually deliver to orbit? Now before we dive into this, I do want to say I’ll only be quoting 3 booster recovery for the Falcon Heavy, as I think that’s how we’ll see it fly most of the time, and first stage recovery of New Glenn, as I don’t think they intend to ever expend one. So keep that in mind when looking at the figures here.
So first how much can these rockets get to Low Earth Orbit? New Glenn can loft a massive 45 tonnes to LEO, Falcon Heavy 30 tonnes (source 1, source 2), the Delta IV Heavy can take 28 tonnes, the Vulcan 27.5 tonnes, and the OmegA I can’t find an exact number on, but it’s probably ~ 30 tons.
And lastly, let’s compare how much they can shoot off to Geostationary Transfer Orbit. New Glenn can loft 13.6 tonnes, Falcon Heavy 8 tonnes (source), Delta IV H, 14 tonnes, Vulcan, 13 tonnes, and OmegA 10.1 tonnes.
A few reasons we see such massive differences in capabilities between these vehicles again, is due to their recoverability, the efficiency of their engines, and in some cases their physical size. For instance, Falcon Heavy, despite having by far the highest thrust at take off, has actually the smallest volume fairing and the lowest GTO capability.
The other big factor here is price. And at this point, we just don’t have any good information on all these launchers, or at least not enough to wisely factor in here. That being said, I think Falcon Heavy will be the one to beat as far as price, I’ll be very curious if New Glenn will be able beat it to though.
So all in all, New Glenn is shaping up to be a super impressive rocket. By the numbers, it’ll be the largest and most capable rocket flying when it goes online. Well, unless SLS or SpaceX’s Starship / Super Heavy (BFR) flies before it, which I doubt.
I have a feeling they’re going to be impressively cost competitive as well. Seeing how they’re planning to reuse the boosters 25 times, how they can do massive dual payloads, and with streamlined operations like having their factory being right next to their launch pad… this might shake up the industry quite a bit!
I am extremely excited to see this thing fly! And as you may know by now, I’m not a big fan of tribalism, or just picking one favorite rocket or company, I like to cheer on everyone! So of course, I will be cheering Blue Origin and their New Glenn rocket all the way to orbit! LETS DO IT!!! 2021 can’t come soon enough!
After digging into this rocket and Blue Origin, I’m definitely a big fan and cannot WAIT to see this baby fly!
Thanks everybody! That does it for me! I’m Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, bringing space down to Earth for everyday people!
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