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Blue Origin's new, more powerful rocket will compete with SpaceX

Blue Origin's new, more powerful rocket will compete with SpaceX
A rendering of Blue Origin's planned New Glenn rocket alongside rockets made by other companies. (Blue Origin)

Seattle-area Blue Origin released details Monday about its new orbital reusable rocket, further pitting Jeff Bezos' space company against Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Named after astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth, the New Glenn rocket will lift off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven engines and have a diameter of 23 feet.

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That makes it more powerful than SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, but not quite as powerful as the Hawthorne company's Falcon Heavy rocket, which has yet to launch, but will have more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket, made by a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., has about 2 million pounds of thrust.

Blue Origin's rocket will come in two variants — a two-stage, 270-foot-tall rocket, and a three-stage, 313-foot-tall rocket that will be capable of flying beyond low-Earth orbit.

In an email to followers, Bezos said the company plans to launch New Glenn for the first time "before the end of the decade" at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket is designed to launch commercial satellites, as well as fly humans into space, he said.

"Our vision is millions of people living and working in space," Bezos said in the email. "New Glenn is a very important step."

Blue Origin has been testing its New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle at its West Texas facility. The vehicle is intended to take tourists into space, and the company has launched and re-landed the rocket booster four consecutive times.

The company said the lessons learned from New Shepard, especially about reusability, will be incorporated into New Glenn and its reusable rocket booster.

The new rocket will be powered by Blue Origin's BE-4 liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas engines, which the company has been developing for United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket. The engine is intended to replace the Russian rocket engines that have blasted U.S. government spy satellites into space.

Blue Origin has said the low-cost availability of liquefied natural gas allows for an "extended engine development program." Experts have also said methane is clean, meaning it is less likely to clog fuel lines and could reduce the amount of rigorous cleaning needed to clear particulates and make it easier to reuse rockets. Many rockets use liquid oxygen and kerosene as a propellant.

The company did not release details on pricing, but an analyst said the company will likely try to leverage the cost savings from its reusable rocket booster to be competitive with SpaceX, the industry's low-price leader.

"It's basically a declaration that they're entering the market," said Phil Smith, senior space analyst for the Tauri Group, a space and defense analytic consulting firm.

He said it is "fairly clear" New Glenn will be a heavy-lift vehicle, capable of carrying huge satellites into high orbits. That means Blue Origin could be setting itself up to compete with United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for lucrative national security launch contracts.

"These vehicles can tap any and all markets, so that gives maximum flexibility," Smith said.

Blue Origin has long been interested in ferrying tourists into space. The company has said its New Shepard will carry humans more than 62 miles above the Earth. But the company's next project could be even more ambitious.

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"Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong," Bezos said in the email, a possible hint of the company's plans to send the next launch vehicle to the moon. So far, Blue Origin has named each of its launch vehicles after the U.S. astronaut that first accomplished that feat. Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon.

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