SpaceX is to get an additional financial boost to help develop its Raptor rocket engine, as the U.S. Air Force has awarded a further $40.8 million to the company under its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
The Air Force had already agreed an initial contract worth $33.7 million awarded earlier in January, with SpaceX agreeing to contribute double that amount, $67.3 million, under the jointly funded program.
Prior to the contract in January, development of the engine was funded exclusively by SpaceX, however since the contract was signed, development has begun on a prototype upper-stage engine designed for potential use as an upper stage on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.
The Raptor prototype is powered by densified liquid methane and liquid oxygen, and it will have over three times the thrust of the Merlin 1D engine that powers the current Falcon 9. It is also earmarked to power the spaceship that Elon Musk is developing to send people to Mars. Work on the prototype is expected to be completed by 30 April, 2018.
Meanwhile, Blue Origins enormous BE-4 engine achieved a breakthrough recently when it was fired at half of its power for three seconds, as part of a hot-fire test conducted by the company last week.
The BE-4 was unveiled by Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, earlier this year and at present his aerospace company is largely self-funded. The engine test has been seen by many in the industry that Blue Origin is one step closer to making space tourism a reality and that the BE-4 will be ready to fly the first space tourists into sub-orbital space by April 2019.
However, it is not just space tourism that Bezos has an interest in. Like Musk, Bezos has already successfully landed a reusable rocket and this key engine test could be a sign that Bezos is ready to compete with Musk in securing both governmental and commercial launches. Indeed, there have been reports that United Launch Alliance is considering the BE-4 engine to power its new Vulcan rocket.
With an engine that is potentially more powerful than SpaceX’s new Raptor engine – the BE-4 has been dubbed the most powerful American-built rocket engine in decades – it looks like the race for space exploration is just getting off the ground.