You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had founded a private space company. Blue Origin, as it’s known, isn’t one for the spotlight as whilst it was founded in 2000 (2 years before SpaceX) it wasn’t revealed publicly until some years later. The company has had a handful of successful test launches however, focusing primarily on the suborbital space with Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) capable rockets. Indeed their latest test vehicle, the New Shepard, was successfully launched at the beginning of this year. Outside of that though you’d be hard pressed to find out much more about Blue Origin however today they have announced that they will be launching from Cape Canaveral, using the SLC-36 complex which used to be used for the Atlas launch system.
It might not sound like the biggest deal however the press conference held for the announcement provided us some insight into the typically secretive company. For starters Blue Origins efforts have thus far been focused on space tourism, much like Virgin Galactic was. Indeed all their previous craft, including the latest New Shepard design, were suborbital craft designed to take people to the edge of space and back. This new launch site however is designed with much larger rockets in mind, ones that will be able to carry both humans and robotic craft alike into Earth’s orbit, putting them in direct competition with SpaceX and other private launch companies.
The new rocket, called Very Big Brother (pictured above), is slated to be Blue Origin’s first entry into the market. Whilst raw specifications aren’t yet forthcoming we do know that it will be based off Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine which is being co-developed with United Launch Alliance. This engine is slated to be the replacement for the RD-180 which is currently used as part of the Atlas-V launch vehicle. Comparatively speaking the engine is about half as powerful when compared to the RD-180, meaning that if the craft is similarly designed to the Atlas-V it’s payload will be somewhere in the 4.5 to 9 tonne range to LEO. Of course this could be wildly different to what they’re planning and we likely won’t know much more until the first craft launches.
Interestingly the craft is going to retain the VTVL capability that its predecessors had. This is interesting because no sizeable craft has that capability. SpaceX has been trying very hard to get it to work with the first stages of their Falcon-9 however they have yet to have a successful landing yet. Blue Origin likely won’t beat SpaceX to the punch on this however but it’s still interesting to see other companies adopting similar strategies in order to make their rockets reusable.
Also of note is the propellant that the rocket will use for the BE-4 engine. Unlike most rockets, which either run on liquid hydrogen/liquid oxeygen or RP-1(kerosene)/liquid oxygen the BE-4 will use natural gas and liquid oxygen. Indeed it has only been recently that methane has been considered as a viable propellant as I could not find an example of a mission that has flown using the fuel. However there must be something to it as SpaceX is going to use it for their forthcoming Raptor engines.
I’m starting to get the feeling that Blue Origin and SpaceX are sharing a coffee shop.
It’s good to finally get some more information out of Blue Origin, especially since we now know their ambitions are far beyond that of suborbital pleasure junkets. They’re entering a market that’s now swarming with competition however they’ve got both the capital and strategic relationships to at least have a good go at it. I’m very interested to see what they do at SLC-36 as more competition in this space is a good thing for all concerned.
If you haven’t been deliberately avoiding mainstream media for the past couple days then chances are you’re already aware of Amazon’s latest announcement in Amazon Prime Air. It sounds like the world of science fiction, being able to place an order for something and then have it delivered by an automated right to your door in under 30 minutes. Indeed it pretty much is for the time being as whilst there seems to be a large amount of foundational work done on it the service is still many years away from seeing actual use. So this has had many asking the question: why would Amazon bother announcing something like this when its so far away form being a reality?
As many have already rightly pointed out the timing of the announcement seems to point towards it being an elaborate marketing campaign with Amazon managing to snag a good 15 minutes of advertising, ostensibly for free, from the 60 minutes program. This happening right before Cyber Monday is too much of a coincidence for it to be anything other than planned so, at least for the short term, Amazon Prime Air is a marketing tactic to get people to shop at Amazon. I’d hesitate to give credence to the theory that it’s been done to remediate Jeff Bezos image though as those rumours about his personality have been swirling for ages and I’d be astonished if he wasn’t aware of them already.
However the one thing that this idea has going for it is that Bezos is behind it and this isn’t the first wild gamble he’s undertaken in recent memory. Back in 2000 he founded Blue Origin a private space company focused on human spaceflight. Whilst it hasn’t made the headlines like its competition has it’s still managed to do a handful of test flights and has worked in conjunction with NASA on its Commercial Crew Development Program. Whilst this is a worlds away from flying drones to deliver products it does show that Bezos is willing to commit funding over a long period of time to see something achieved. Though this still leaves the question of why he made the announcement so soon unanswered.
For what its worth I think the reasoning behind it is to get the public talking about it now so that there’ll be some momentum behind the idea when it comes time for Amazon to start talking with legislators about how this system is going to work. If the FAA was anything to go by such a system wouldn’t see the light of day for another 13 years or so. Whilst it’s definitely not ready for prime time yet due to the numerous technical challenges it has yet to overcome it’s unlikely that they will take that long to solve. Putting the screws to politicians in this way means that Amazon doesn’t have to spend as much money on direct lobbying or convincing the public that it’s a good idea.
As for me personally I think it’s a nifty idea however its application is likely going to be horribly limited, especially in locations outside of the USA. A quick glance over this map reveals just how many locations Amazon has in various countries (don’t be fooled by those 2 locations in Australia, they’re just corporate offices) and since their drones need to launch from one of the fulfilment sites you can see how small a range this kind of service will have. Of course they can always widen this by increasing the number of distribution centres they have but that’s antithetical to their current way of doing business. It’s a challenge that can be overcome, to be sure, however I just don’t see it getting much air time (ha!) outside of major capital cities, especially in non-USA countries.
I’d love to be proven wrong on this however as the lazy introvert inside me loves not having to do anything to get stuff that I want and the instant gratification such a service would provide is just the icing on the cake. However it’s unlikely to see the light of day for several years from now and likely the better part of a decade before it comes to Australia so I’m not exactly hanging out for it. I think the idea has some merit though although whether that will be enough to carry it on as a viable business process will be something that only time will be able to reveal to us.