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BE-4 powerpack
In a photo from March 2017, the BE-4 rocket engine’s powerpack is installed on a stand at Blue Origin’s West Texas proving ground for start transient testing. (Blue Origin Photo)

In a rare update, the Blue Origin space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos reported that it lost a set of powerpack test hardware for its BE-4 rocket engine over the weekend, but added that such a setback is “not unusual” during development.

“That’s why we always set up our development programs to be hardware-rich,” the company tweeted today. “Back into testing soon.”

Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, Wash., but the BE-4 is being tested at its facility in West Texas, on ranchland owned by Bezos. The powerpack is the heart of a rocket engine, pumping fuel and oxidizer to the engine’s combustion chamber.

The current round of engine testing is key to the company’s fortunes: Blue Origin is planning to use the BE-4, which is powered by liquefied natural gas, on its own New Glenn orbital-class rocket. Blue Origin already has started lining up satellite customers for the New Glenn.

In addition, Boeing is said to be considering a modified version of the BE-4 for its proposed XS-1 military space plane.

Most crucially, the BE-4 is the “Plan A” propulsion system for United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle, which is meant to take the place of ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. “Plan B” is Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine, which is currently behind the BE-4 in development but completed a critical design review last week. Aerojet says the AR1 will become available in 2019.

ULA has said the outcome of Blue Origin’s full-scale BE-4 engine tests will determine whether it goes with Plan A or Plan B, with billions of dollars at stake for the companies concerned.

The BE-4 and Aerojet’s kerosene-fueled AR1 are both designed to provide more than 500,000 pounds of thrust, but Blue Origin’s approach is considered riskier because it requires creating a new type of engine. Blue Origin’s advantage is that it’s been working on the technology for several years already, funded primarily by Bezos (with some investment from ULA).

Bezos sent out tweets showing off the first fully assembled BE-4 engine in March, and said two more engines were “following close behind.”

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