Blue Origin continues work on BE-7 lunar lander engine

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin has achieved a new milestone in the development of the engine that will power the lunar lander it seeks to provide for NASA’s Artemis program.

The company announced Dec. 4 that it started a fourth series of hotfire tests of the thrust chamber for the BE-7 engine. That thrust chamber was fired for 20 seconds on a test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where the company did previous tests of the engine.

“This thrust chamber test measured the ability to extract energy out of the hydrogen- and oxygen-cooled combustor segments that power the engine’s turbopumps, the key to achieving high engine performance,” said John Vilja, senior vice president of engines at Blue Origin, in a company statement.

Blue Origin announced the BE-7 engine in May 2019 when it unveiled its Blue Moon lunar lander. That lander is part of the “National Team” led by Blue Origin that also includes Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. It won one of the three NASA Human Landing System (HLS) awards in April to begin work on landers for the Artemis program.

The company started testing the BE-7 in June 2019 at NASA Marshall, and has accumulated 1,245 seconds of runtime to date. The engine, which uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, can produce up to 10,000 pounds-force of thrust, and can be throttled down to as little as 2,000 pounds-force. The company chose those propellants in part because they can eventually be produced from ice deposits believed to exist in the polar regions of the moon.

For the HLS program, the BE-7 will be used on the descent stage developed by Blue Origin and derived from its Blue Moon concept. It will also power the transfer element, led by Northrop Grumman and based on its Cygnus spacecraft, which will move the lander from a highly elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon to a low lunar orbit.

“The BE-7, a turbomachinery-based engine using the most efficient propellants, is optimal for deep-space maneuvers and landing on the moon,” Brent Sherwood, vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said in the company statement. “Our engine test series is steadily maturing what’s needed to get Americans safely on the lunar surface as soon as possible.”

Blue Origin and the other two companies that won HLS awards, Dynetics and SpaceX, are in the final phases of their 10-month contracts for initial development of the landers. NASA planned to select one or more companies for full development contracts in the spring of 2021, but that may be affected by both the presidential transition and a fiscal year 2021 appropriation that is likely to give the HLS program only a small fraction of the $3.2 billion it requested.

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For the first time, scientists detect the ghostly signal that reveals the engine of the universe

In research published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists reported that they’ve made the first detection of almost-ethereal particles called neutrinosthat can be traced to carbon-nitrogen-oxygen fusion, known as the CNO cycle, inside the sun.

It’s a landmark finding that confirms theoretical predictions from the 1930s, and it’s being hailed as one of the greatest discoveries in physics of the new millennium.

“It’s really a breakthrough for solar and stellar physics,” said Gioacchino Ranucci of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), one of the researchers on the project since it began in 1990.

The scientists used the ultra-sensitive Borexino detector at the INFN’s Gran Sasso particle physics laboratory in central Italy – the largest underground research center in the world, deep beneath the Apennine Mountains about 65 miles northeast of Rome.

The detection caps off decades of study of the sun’s neutrinos by the Borexino project, and reveals for the first time the main nuclear reaction that most stars use to fuse hydrogen into helium.

Almost all stars, including our sun, give off huge amounts of energy by fusing hydrogen into helium – effectively a way of “burning” hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element and the main fuel source in the universe.

In the case of the sun, 99 percent of its energy comes from proton-proton fusion, which can create beryllium, lithium and boron before breaking them down into helium.

But most stars in the universe are much larger than our sun: the red-giant Betelgeuse, for instance, is about 20 times more massive and about 700 times as wide.

Large stars are also much hotter, which means they are overwhelmingly powered by CNO fusion, which fuses hydrogen into helium by means of atomic nuclei transformed in an endless loop between carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

The CNO cycle is the dominant source of energy in the universe. But it’s hard to spot inside our relatively cool sun, where it accounts for only one percent of its energy.

The giant Borexino detector looks for neutrinos given off during nuclear fusion at the sun’s core.

Neutrinos barely interact with anything, and so they are ideal for studying distant nuclear reactions — but they are also extremely hard to detect.

Trillions of neutrinos from the sun pass through the Borexino detector every second, but it detects only dozens of them each day by looking for faint flashes of light as they decay in its dark 300-ton water tank.

Ranucci said the Borexino detector has spent decades measuring neutrinos from the sun’s main proton-proton chain reaction, but detecting its CNO neutrinos has been very difficult – only about seven neutrinos with the tell-tale energy of the CNO cycle are spotted in a day.

The discovery required making the detector ever-more sensitive over the last five years, he said, by shielding it from outside sources of radioactivity so that the inner chamber of the detector is the most radiation-free place on Earth.

The result is the only direct sign of CNO fusion ever

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NASA optimistic SpaceX Falcon 9 engine issue resolved, clearing way for crew launch

A “subtle” engine problem that triggered the last-second abort of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket earlier this month has been resolved, engineers believe, and if ongoing tests go well, NASA plans to press ahead with the launch of four astronauts atop another Falcon 9 on November 14, officials said Wednesday.

In the meantime, SpaceX “Crew-1” commander Michael Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi went into initial quarantine last weekend, taking additional steps beyond those already in place due to the coronavirus to ensure all four are virus-free for launch.

Liftoff from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 7:49 p.m. EST on Saturday, November 14. If all goes well, the Crew Dragon will execute an automated rendezvous, docking at the space station’s forward port eight-and-a-half hours later, around 4:04 a.m. the next day.

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The SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts during a visit to SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., spacecraft manufacturing facility (left to right): Shannon Walker, pilot Victor Glover, commander Michael Hopkins and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

NASA


If bad weather or other issues delay an on-time launch, the crew has a backup launch opportunity at 7:27 p.m. on Sunday, November 15, setting up a docking the following day. If not off the ground by then, the crew likely would have to wait until after a Russian spacewalk on November 18.

“The crew’s doing well,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “As we started to work through the (engine) anomaly and started to see a path to get to flight on the 14th, we did put the crew in a soft quarantine over this past weekend.

“They’ve been in a lot of the telecons and listening to what’s going on with the vehicles. We have a little bit more work to do on this engine anomaly, but I think we see a pretty good path to (launch). We’ll fly when we’re ready.”

NASA managers originally hoped to launch the SpaceX Crew-1 mission earlier this month. But the flight was delayed, first to allow more time between Rubins’ October 14 launch and the return to Earth of another three-man Soyuz crew on October 21, and then because of a last-second Falcon 9 launch abort Oct. 3.

The Falcon 9, carrying a U.S. Space Force Global Positioning System navigation satellite, was not damaged, but the flight was put on hold while engineers worked to pin down what went wrong and what might be needed to prevent additional problems.

During a teleconference Wednesday, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for Build and Flight Reliability, said the rocket’s flight computer commanded the abort after detecting unusual pressure readings in the turbopump machinery used by two of the rocket’s nine first stage engines.

The suspect engines were removed and shipped to SpaceX’s Texas flight test facility where engineers were able to replicate the pressure readings.

Koenigsmann said a detailed inspection revealed a tiny amount of nail polish-like red lacquer, used to clean components after anodizing treatments, that had

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With turbopump issues “sorted out,” BE-4 rocket engine moves into production

A BE-4 rocket engine undergoes tests in West Texas.
Enlarge / A BE-4 rocket engine undergoes tests in West Texas.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin appears to have solved some development issues related to the turbopumps in its powerful BE-4 rocket engine.

United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out,” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand. Bruno made his comments about one hour into The Space Show with David Livingston.

Bruno’s company, ULA, is buying the BE-4 engine to provide thrust for the first stage of its upcoming Vulcan-Centaur rocket. This booster may make its debut next year, although ULA is still awaiting delivery of BE-4s for the first flight. Two of these large engine—each providing about 25 percent more thrust than the RS-25s used on the Space Shuttle—will power each Vulcan rocket.

Blue Origin has been hotfire-testing the BE-4 engine for about three years, but there have been rumors of development challenges. Bruno himself confirmed during an interview two months ago that the turbopumps, which feed propellant at high pressure into the BE-4 combustion chamber, still required some troubleshooting. “It isn’t easy, but we know we can do it,” he told the Denver Business Journal in August.

Now, those problems have evidently been sorted out. Bruno said the focus at Blue Origin is shifting from development of the engine to ramping up production. “That is always a good moment in time in the development program, because that means your big technical stuff is behind you,” he said during Friday’s interview.

Blue Origin has spent the better part of the past decade developing the BE-4, which is a staged-combustion design running on methane and liquid oxygen. The engine will power both Vulcan-Centaur and also the company’s New Glenn rocket, which is unlikely to debut before at least 2022. It may seem odd for competing rockets to use the same engine, but as Bruno has explained, it was less expensive for ULA to procure its main engines from Blue Origin than Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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