Following close on the heels of the CCtCap announcement, United Launch Alliance (which is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and operates the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets) announced an exclusive partnership with the secretive space startup Blue Origin. Blue Origin has been experimenting with rocket engines, but has played their cards close to their chest, making it difficult to independently assess their efforts. That may be changing. They will develop the Blue Engine 4 (BE-4) specifically to replace the Russian-built RD-180 that powers the Atlas V.
It will be difficult to beat the $10 million price tag Energomash charges for the engine, and also difficult to beat the performance; Russia is presently the world leader in staged combustion kerosene/LOX engines. Blue Origin has been working with methane, and this engine is expected to use liquified natural gas and LOX; this could mean substantial changes to the Atlas V’s tankage and the pad support equipment. Still, it would help their competitiveness to free themselves from dependence on a Russian supplier, and reduce the risk of political meddling in the program, and it’s absolutely a good deal for Blue Origin.
Things are about to get interesting in human spaceflight again. 😉
While we’re on the subject, Atlas V’s most recent launch was just yesterday. It lofted the mysterious CLIO satellite for an undisclosed US government customer.