This morning, Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos revealed some new details about his company’s future orbital rocket, the New Glenn — touting the vehicle’s reusability and how much it will be able to carry into space. He also showed off a shiny new animation of what the reusable rocket’s journey will look like during a typical mission, and it certainly looks familiar.
The main portion of the New Glenn will be powered by seven of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines and is designed to land back on Earth after launching into space. In the video, which Bezos released at a satellite developer’s conference in Washington, DC, the New Glenn takes off from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Blue Origin’s finished manufacturing facility, which is currently being built at the Cape, can be seen in the foreground as the rocket shoots toward the sky.
While in space, the top portion of the New Glenn will separate from the rest of the vehicle and send whatever payload it’s carrying into orbit. Then the main body of the rocket will head back to Earth. It will be steered downward using fins attached to the sides of the rocket and then land on a boat platform out in the ocean. It feels like... I’ve seen this somewhere.
Comparisons to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ocean landings were immediately made online after the video was shown, but to be fair, it’s not as if Blue Origin is just now jumping on the reusability train. The company’s New Shepard vehicle, which is designed to carry tourists to and from the edge of space, was launched and landed back on solid ground multiple times last year.
Plus, Blue Origin has been meaning to land rockets on boats for a while now. The company applied for a patent in 2010 called “Sea landing of space launch vehicles and associated systems and methods,” which basically sketched out the whole concept of rockets landing on floating platforms. Blue Origin was issued the patent in 2014, but SpaceX challenged the ruling in August of that year, essentially arguing that the idea was unable to be patented since many people had come up with the concept before. SpaceX was able to show evidence of this — something known as “prior art” — and ultimately Blue Origin canceled the majority of its claims under the patent.
Let’s be realistic: there are probably only so many ways you can land a rocket in the middle of the ocean. But, as my co-worker Sean O’Kane pointed out, there are some strong similarities between the design of the two boats that SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s rockets are supposed to land on: they each sport gray, yellow, and white coloring, and they have circular targets with writing around the edges. At least Blue Origin throws in a splash of blue for its image font?
Still, Bezos did announce some unique traits about the New Glenn this morning. The first version of the vehicle will be able to carry close to 100,000 pounds into lower Earth orbit, and nearly 29,000 pounds to a much higher orbit 22,000 miles up known as geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), according to reporters at the conference. SpaceX’s future Falcon Heavy, a larger variant of the Falcon 9, will supposedly be able to carry more to lower Earth orbit and GTO. The New Glenn will also be equipped with six landing legs, and Bezos says the vehicle can still land properly if one of the legs malfunctions.
Blue Origin already has its first customer for the New Glenn, too, which Bezos announced this morning. French-based satellite operator Eutelsat has an agreement with Blue Origin to fly a geostationary satellite on the New Glenn sometime between 2021 and 2022. The New Glenn is supposed to fly for the first time in 2020, and Bezos has said it will be capable of carrying satellites, and people, into orbit. “Eutelsat has launched satellites on many new vehicles and shares both our methodical approach to engineering and our passion for driving down the cost of access to space,” Bezos said in a statement. “Welcome to the launch manifest, Eutelsat, can’t wait to fly together.”
Correction: A previous version of the article said that New Glenn could carry more to GTO than Falcon Heavy. The opposite is true, and the article has been updated.