Blue Origin, the secretive spacecraft company founded by entrepreneur and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced today they will develop a liquefied methane rocket engine in partnership with the largest space launch provider in the US, the United Launch Alliance (ULA). This comes on the heels of similar news from SpaceX, the private space exploration firm founded by Elon Musk. SpaceX announced in April that they will begin testing liquid methane as a fuel for the next generation Raptor engine at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The Raptor engine is anticipated to replace the current Merlin engine which powers the Falcon 9 rocket.
Methane rocket engines use high quality natural gas, which is refined into 99.9% pure liquid methane as the primary fuel. The methane is combined with liquid oxygen and burned in the thrust chamber of the rocket, producing the incredible lift required to escape Earth's gravity. Methane engines have numerous performance, storage and cost advantages over tradition RP-1 rocket fuel, which is made from Kerosene, a petroleum product. The fuel is also attractive because it can potentially be made from the atmosphere of Mars, eliminating the need to carry the fuel required for a return journey.
NASA tested a liquid methane engine in partnership with XCOR in 2007, shown in the video below. The liquid methane for the NASA tests was provided by Clean Energy, a natural gas provider and cryogenics specialist based in Newport Beach, CA.
This marks the first major partnership for Blue Origins, which has until now been a quiet player in the commercial space industry. The ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Founded in 2006, the ULA operates the Atlas and Delta rockets and have launched a combined total of 1,300 missions.
The official announcement can be found on the ULA website here.