On Tuesday, Blue Origin used a modular transport to roll its first stainless steel test tank to Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This tank is part of the company’s efforts—under the codename “Project Jarvis”—to develop a fully reusable upper stage for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.
Ars revealed the existence of this effort last month, and we are now publishing the first photos of the tank prototype. A source at Blue Origin said this tank could start to undergo a series of tests to determine its strength and ability to hold pressurized propellants as soon as next month.
Although Blue Origin has not publicly discussed this effort to build a reusable upper stage for the New Glenn rocket, sources said the company’s primary goal is to bring down the overall launch cost of the New Glenn rocket. The vehicle’s large upper stage, which has a 7-meter diameter and two BE-3U engines, is costly. Making New Glenn fully reusable is necessary for Blue Origin to compete with SpaceX’s Starship launch system.
The tank project is one aspect of the reusable upper stage program, and the other aspect is selecting and finalizing a design for the second stage. Both of these projects, operating within Blue Origin’s Advanced Development Programs unit, are making progress.
Project Jarvis encompasses the tank program, which is intended to rapidly prototype a propellant tank to withstand the rigors of multiple launches and re-entries. The company’s engineers are studying the use of stainless steel as a material for these tanks, as SpaceX has chosen to do with its Starship booster and upper stage. Stainless steel is cheaper and better able to withstand atmospheric heating during re-entry, but it’s about five times heavier than composites.
In an effort to move quickly and test whether SpaceX’s iterative design philosophy can be mimicked, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has empowered the engineers leading Project Jarvis to innovate in an environment unfettered by rigorous management and paperwork processes. This has led to the rapid development of the tank rolled to Launch Complex 36 on Tuesday.
At the same time, another team has been studying three different approaches for the design of a re-entry vehicle, sources said. One is to fit the upper stage with large wings so that it would look and function something like a spaceplane, separating from the first stage, delivering its payload, and then returning to a runway.
In the past, Bezos has expressed doubts about wings. “Some people like wings,” he told Ars during a factory tour in 2016. “Some people like parachutes. None of these are bad. The reason I like vertical landing is because it scales so well. With wings, they scale pretty well to a certain size, but they end up being a lot of dead weight to carry.”
The second approach involves using an aerospike engine that would double as a heat shield during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. This approach has promise, but it likely would necessitate the design and construction of a new engine, which would be an expensive and time-consuming process.
The final approach is similar to SpaceX’s Starship concept: land the vehicle vertically using a combination of flaps and propulsive burns. This appears to be the leading contender among the three approaches, and Blue Origin is expected to make a final decision before the end of this year.
Regardless of the final design, the propellant tanks for each of the three designs would be cylindrical, allowing the Project Jarvis team to move ahead with its development program. Sources indicated that the construction of this test tank has proceeded much more rapidly than other programs at Blue Origin, which may validate Bezos’ experiment with rapid, iterative development.
“Jeff wants to heavily emphasize the ferociter in our motto now,” one source said of Blue Origin’s Gradatim Ferociter motto, which means step by step, ferociously.
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica