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Jeff Bezos gets his bearings on rocket engine

BE-4 rocket engine testing
The BE-4 rocket engine’s powerpack is installed on a stand at Blue Origin’s West Texas proving ground for startup transient testing. (Blue Origin Photo)

What’s the difference between ball bearings and hydrostatic bearings? You should have more of an inkling after checking out Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ latest update on the development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.

The engine is undergoing testing for use not only on the New Glenn rocket that Bezos’ space venture is planning, but also on United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket.

The BE-4 is designed to provide 550,000 pounds of thrust, propelled by liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas. Bezos says that kind of thrust should be enough to send a payload on the first leg of a trip to the moon when seven of them are firing together.

But that kind of performance can involve a lot of wear and tear, particularly if you’re using traditional ball and roller bearings. To maximize the engine’s reusability, Blue Origin’s team is taking a different approach. To keep the BE-4 running smoothly, Bezos says the turbine at the heart of the engine’s turbopump will use a thin film of the fluid propellants as its bearings.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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