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Military’s primary launch provider picks Blue Origin’s new engine for future rocket

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The competition is finally over

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine
Image: Blue Origin

The military’s primary launch provider, the United Launch Alliance, has selected the main engine for its next-generation rocket, a vehicle called the Vulcan. The company — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — will use an engine manufactured by Blue Origin, an aerospace company helmed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, ULA announced today. News of the decision was first reported this morning by The Wall Street Journal.

Known as the BE-4, the rocket engine has been under development since 2011. It runs on liquid oxygen and liquid methane, making it the first engine to use such propellants. And when complete, each engine will supposedly generate 550,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff. Blue Origin plans to use the BE-4 to power its future orbital rocket, the New Glenn. However, the company has also been jockeying for the last four years to get a contract with ULA in order to use the engine in the Vulcan.

“We are pleased to enter into this partnership with Blue Origin and look forward to a successful first flight of our next-generation launch vehicle,” Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO said in a statement. Blue Origin did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, but CEO Bob Smith did provide a statement with the announcement: “We can’t thank Tory Bruno and the entire United Launch Alliance team enough for entrusting our engine to powering the Vulcan rocket’s first stage.”

Such a selection comes at no surprise. ULA announced in 2014 that it was partnering with Blue Origin to partially fund development of the BE-4. Since then, ULA CEO Tory Bruno has maintained that the company was the frontrunner for the gig. But while Blue Origin has been working on the BE-4, another engine manufacturer, Aerojet Rocketdyne, has also been vying to use its hardware on Vulcan. That company has been developing its own engine, AR1, specifically for the Vulcan and ULA has waited to officially pick which company it would partner with.

The writing has been on the wall that Aerojet would lose the bid. Blue Origin has been further along in the development process, despite a mishap last year that led to the loss of hardware during testing. Recent financial documents filed by Aerojet Rocketdyne showed that the company may stop funding development of the engine with its own money soon and that it wouldn’t have flight-ready hardware by the end of 2019, Ars Technica reported.

An artistic rendering of the Vulcan
Image: United Launch Alliance

Moving to the BE-4 is big news for ULA, as the company attempts to transition from its reliance on the RD-180 — a Russian-manufactured engine used to power ULA’s primary rocket, the Atlas V. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, tensions heightened and Congress decided to ban the use of Russian-made engines to launch national security satellites. Since ULA has almost monopolized launching national security payloads for the last decade, the ban had big implications for the company and it started looking for possible replacements for the engine. Ultimately, ULA decided to create an entirely new rocket that would build on the capabilities of its two primary vehicles, the Atlas V and the Delta IV. The ban was modified in 2016, with Congress allowing ULA to purchase up to 18 RD-180s to be used through 2022.

ULA plans to fly the Vulcan for the first time by 2020, while Blue Origin also plans to launch its new vehicle, the New Glenn, before the end of the decade. Those timelines may shift significantly, though. The fact that the two companies are developing similar rockets was a point of concern for ULA, according to the WSJ, since they could potentially compete. That reportedly led to months of negotiations.

Meanwhile, since Aerojet Rocketdyne has lost the bid for its AR1, the engine manufacturer is in a tough spot. ULA’s Vulcan may soon become the company’s primary rocket, and supplying the main engines on the vehicle could be a lucrative deal worth hundreds of millions, if not billions. Aerojet Rocketdyne still has deals to make the main engines for NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System, and the company currently supplies ULA with the main engines for its Delta IV rocket, as well as the upper stage engines for its other vehicles. It will also supply the engines for the upper stage of the Vulcan.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne is excited to be part of the Vulcan team with our RL10 upper stage engine,” Steve Warren, a spokesperson for Aerojet Rocketdyne, said in a statement to The Verge. “That’s our big thing — this RL10-CX is a terrific engine. We’re really excited about that.”

Warren said that Aerojet Rocketdyne will continue to work on the AR1 regardless. “The AR1 is a great engine too, and we’re going to build this engine,” he said. “And it’s going to be ready for hot-fire testing in 2019. So we’re going to still build this engine.”

Update September 27th, 12:15PM ET: This article was updated to include statements from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Update September 27th, 4:15PM ET: This article was update to confirm that Blue Origin was selected.