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BE-4 engine
Blue Origin employees move the BE-4 engine through the company’s production facility in Kent, Wash. (Blue Origin Photo via Jeff Bezos / Twitter)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is providing a sneak peek at his Blue Origin space venture’s BE-4 rocket engine, which could someday help power missions to the moon.

Today’s preview tweets comes a day before Bezos is expected to update his vision for commercial space missions at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C. The BE-4 engine, fueled by liquefied natural gas, is expected to play a key role in that vision.

Bezos announced that the first BE-4 has been built at Blue Origin’s production facility in Kent, Wash., and the second and third are “following close behind”:

If Blue Origin follows through on its routine, the BE-4 should eventually be sent down to the company’s test range in West Texas for full-scale firings. And if the engine passes those tests, United Launch Alliance is likely to give its go-ahead for the engines to be used on its next-generation Vulcan rockets.

Blue Origin also intends to use the BE-4 on its own New Glenn rockets, which are under development and due to be built at its Florida orbital operations facility starting next year.

The BE-4 is a step up from the hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine that Blue Origin is using on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship. One now-retired New Shepard went through five fully successful test flights to outer space and back, and more of the spaceships are in production.

New Glenn, which is named in honor of the late space pioneer John Glenn, is destined to send payloads into Earth orbit, and perhaps much farther. Last week, Bezos acknowledged that he envisioned the New Glenn as the foundation for a delivery service to the surface of the moon. Such trips could begin as early as 2020 if NASA agrees to a public-private partnership, Bezos said.

To get there, the New Glenn would have to be equipped with an upper stage powered by a modified version of the BE-3 engine. The fact that the BE-3 uses hydrogen and oxygen as propellants is well-suited for lunar comings and goings, since those chemicals can be produced from the moon’s water ice.

Bezos is expected to delve into Blue Origin’s future plans, in the short term as well as the long term, during Tuesday’s keynote address at Satellite 2017.

He’s not the only billionaire thinking about lunar missions: Last week, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced a plan to send two people on a trip far beyond the moon and back. Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace’s founder, Robert Bigelow, sketched out a plan to put a fuel depot in lunar orbit.

NASA is also considering a plan to put astronauts on the first flight of its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket in 2019 or 2020 for a round-the-moon flight.

Stay tuned for GeekWire’s reports from this week’s Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.

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