Blue Moon: Jeff Bezos Reveals Blue Origin Lander to Send Astronauts to Moon
Jeff Bezos took the wraps off Blue Moon Thursday, Blue Origin’s ambitious new lunar lander that could help humans walk on the moon by 2024.
The tech entrepreneur took the wraps off a cargo variant of the lander, which can support sending 3.6 metric tons to the surface of the moon. Another variant has been designed to stretch, capable of carrying 6.5 metric tons in a human-rated ascent stage.
The lander uses the BE-7 engine, a new variant that offers 10,000 pounds of thrust by burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The engine will have its first test fire this summer and will be available for other companies to purchase.
Blue Moon: Why is Jeff Bezos Making a Lunar Lander?
Blue Moon is part of the company’s broader goal to expand humanity to eventually support one trillion people. Bezos summarized his philosophy with a newspaper quote, taken when he was still in high school: “The earth is finite, and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.”
As part of a wide-ranging presentation that also detailed his ambitions to start colonies in space, Bezos explained how Blue Moon and other vehicles would help reduce the costs of space travel and pave the way for future explorers — similar, he explained, to how Amazon used existing payment systems and postal services to run its business. These advancements would help humans expand and better use resources from outer space.
“There is no plan B! We have to save this planet,” Bezos said. “And we shouldn’t give up a future for our grandchildren’s grandchildren of dynamism and growth. We can have both.”
Blue Moon: Specifications for the Lunar Lander
Under development over a three-year period, Blue Moon is the company’s vehicle designed for lunar missions. The lander can support the United States government’s goal to return an astronaut to the moon by 2024.
The deck is aimed as a “simple” interface, so it can support a wide number of payloads. A davit system, inspired by naval systems, is used to lower off the deck onto the surface of the moon. The davit system can be customized for particular payloads.
Bezos demonstrated a large lunar rover that the lander could support. Blue Moon is large enough to carry four of these to the surface.
It uses precision guidance and descent sensors to land on the surface of the moon. A star tracker is used to autonomously navigate in space. Optical communications system uses a laser to provide gigabit data bandwidth, complemented by an X-band for 10-megabit radio.
The landing gear is stowed in an upward configuration to fit in the seven-meter payload bay. It can land on an incline of the moon up to 15 degrees. Flash lidar can do terrain mapping, able to land within 75 feet of the target. Without any GPS, the team can use preexisting maps and machine learning to determine its current location.
Blue Moon uses liquid hydrogen as its fuel for two reasons. First, it is high performance. Pound for pound, taking resources from the moon takes 24 times less energy than the Earth. The liquid hydrogen enables the team to more effectively use the same propellant.
The second reason is that, ultimately, the team plans to take water from the moon and use it to refuel. The moon has water ice in the permanently-shadowed Shackleton crater. The plan bears similarities to Elon Musk’s goal of propellant depots on Mars, creating liquid oxygen and methane to power the Starship’s Raptor engines.
The liquid hydrogen is used in three ways. It’s used for the descent engine. It also uses the boil-off to create a cold gas, passing around the liquid oxygen tanks to keep them cool. The gas is then pushed into an accumulator where it powers hydrogen fuel cells. The team did not use solar cells as the vehicle needs to survive the dark, two-weeks-long lunar night. The whole construction uses 2.5 kilowatts of energy, which would also make a solar cell prohibitively large.
“This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the moon,” Bezos said.
Blue Moon: How Its Other Vehicles Pave the Way for Lunar Landings
The lander builds on the company’s experience with New Shepard, a suborbital vehicle designed for space tourism. It has completed 10 consecutive landings, with two boosters used five times. The company plans to fly humans in New Shepard this year.
The New Shepard rocket uses hydrogen for rocket fuel, which is harder to use but sets up the company for more ambitious vehicles. It also uses vertical landing, which should become easier as the rockets grow bigger.
New Glenn, the larger successor, is so big that New Shepard would fit in the payload bay. It offers 3.9 million pounds of thrust. The rocket’s main focus is to offer cost, reliability and on-time launches. Uses liquefied natural gas, creating a blue trail. The second stage is powered by two BE-3U engines, the same as is used in New Shepard. The first stage is designed to be used 25 times. It can take 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit.
Refueling New Glenn costs less than $1 million with fuel and oxidizer, despite having millions of pounds of fuel on board.
It has high weather availability, and like Blue Moon it’s designed for human spaceflight. It’s expected to fly in 2021 for the first time.
With Bezos and his team working to pave the way for the next generation of space travel, Blue Moon could reach the surface of the moon very soon.