Anything you can do, I can do better, is presumably what Jeff Bezos tells Elon Musk every day. The former, CEO of Amazon and Blue Origin, showed off his space company’s new reusable rocket at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington today, which it will use to launch satellites to space. And, well, it looks remarkably similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
The orbital rocket is called New Glenn, first revealed by Blue Origin in September 2016. So far, Blue Origin has only launched a suborbital vehicle called New Shepard on short hops into space. The reusable vehicle completed a number of spectacular launches and landings last year from the company’s test site in West Texas.
Expected to launch for the first time in 2020, New Glenn will use this same reusable technology to return its first stage to Earth – just like SpaceX does. In fact, a promotional video released today by the company showing New Glenn’s capabilities were remarkably similar to how SpaceX operates, although admittedly there probably aren’t too many ways to launch and land a rocket.
New Glenn will launch as a two or three stage rocket. Once it separates high above Earth, the upper stages will take its payload into orbit (the first customer will be Eutelsat), while the first stage will return to Earth and land. In the video, this was shown taking place on a barge, something SpaceX has done several times.
The two companies locked horns in 2012 when Blue Origin tried to file a patent for rocket landings on barges. SpaceX countered that they couldn’t patent something they weren't capable of doing yet, and the patent was eventually canceled. SpaceX then became the first of the two to land on a barge in April 2016.
New Glenn will be capable of taking about 45,000 kilograms (100,000 pounds) to low-Earth orbit and 13,000 kilograms (29,000 pounds) to geostationary orbit, about double what SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can do. But spaceX's upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket boasts 54,000 kilograms (119,000 pounds) to low-Earth orbit and 22,200 kilograms (49,000) to geostationary orbit.
Now where have I seen this before... Blue Origin
Last night, Bezos also revealed on Twitter New Glenn's rocket engine, called Blue Engine 4 (BE-4). And just last week, Bezos said he eventually wants to start sending cargo to the Moon to one day support human colonization there. Musk, for his part, had revealed just days prior a SpaceX plan to send astronauts around the Moon in 2018.
Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to always compare Blue Origin to SpaceX but, well, it’s hard to deny the similarities. Two billionaires are spearheading reusable rockets to send cargo and astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond. Rivalry or not, it’s only going to be good news for space fans in the coming years.