At a presentation at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington DC in March, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos showed off the latest rocket design to emerge from his Blue Origin rocket company. While similar to past artist’s impressions of the rocket, the new design will apparently to employ a pair of elongated “wing” strakes on the body of the reusable first stage of the rocket. Bezos explained that they would be used for stabilisation, especially in windy conditions, while also allowing a larger cross range for the vehicle. This removes the need to use fuel in a deceleration burn to slow down and stabilise the stage on the way to its rocket-powered landing.
Bezos explained that the LOx (liquid oxygen)/liquid natural gas rocket powered stage, employing BE-4 engines, would still need a downrange landing. This would take place on a moving (stabilised) ship landing pad, which would cope better with rough sea conditions than a stationary vessel. The landing gear has six legs, allowing a successful landing even if one leg fails to deploy correctly. The stage would be reused but not significantly refurbished.
The expendable second stage is powered by a BE-4 engine optimised for vacuum conditions. That completes the basic New Glenn 2 rocket.
An expendable LOx/liquid hydrogen powered BE-3 engine upper stage would fly on the New Glenn 3 to deliver a payload of 13 metric tons to GTO (Geostationary Transfer Orbit).
Bezos reminded the audience of satellite and launch executives that the only way a reusable rocket would work economically would be for it to require little expensive and time-consuming refurbishment between flights.
Perhaps bigger news for Blue Origin, revealed in the conference presentation, was that the satellite operator Eutelsat had taken out a New Glenn launch booking with the launch provider. Whether or not this will be on the maiden flight of the rocket remains to be seen. The booking was for a launch to take place in 2021 for a yet-to-be-identified Eutelsat payload.
Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer appeared on stage with Bezos for the announcement, in which Belmer reminded the audience of the various launch firsts that Eutelsat had previously taken part in ranging from maiden flights on new versions of Ariane 5 to recent flights of Falcon 9. After the presentation/panel Belmer later explained that he had not been put under pressure to “pick European” (i.e. an Arianespace rocket) and that it would not have mattered even if he had. “We are an international publically quoted company. We can do what we like.” said Belmer.
One very sweet note was when Jeff Bezos revealed that he had received an actual note written by the late astronaut, and first US man to orbit Earth, John Glenn, just before he died. In the letter, Glenn thanked Bezos for the honour of Bezos naming his rocket after him, but jokingly reminded him that he was the first Glenn in space. Bezos has put the letter in a frame on his office wall.
Update on 9 March 2017: LEO constellation operator OneWeb has contracted for five launches of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.