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Meet Blue Ring, Blue Origin’s Space Truck

A render of Blue Origin’s Blue Ring spacecraft in Medium Earth Orbit
Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s spaceflight plans have continued to grow, and the latest addition looks to position itself as a “Space Truck”. This dedicated space tug, known as Blue Ring, will be used for a multitude of tasks in Cislunar space. The first detailed look at this new tug was reported today by Irene Klotz of Aviation Week.

The spacecraft consists of a core structure, which houses its hybrid solar electric and chemical propulsion and spacecraft attachment points. A pair of Roll Out Solar Arrays will power the Electric Thrusters. When stowed, the spacecraft is launch vehicle agnostic, being able to fly with any launcher that has a 5.4 meter NSSL compliant fairing. Blue Origin did not comment on what engines will be used for the new spacecraft, though they did note that it is not one of their previous engines.

Blue Ring is designed to support a number of missions, including last mile delivery of ESPA Class payloads, with up to 1,100 pound satellites on each radial attachment point, and 2 ton payloads on a forward deck attachment point. Blue Origin is also planning to operate the spacecraft beyond cislunar space, potentially targeting destinations such as the Asteroid Belt and Mars. This is similar in both form and function to that seen by Rocket Lab’s Photon bus, and Firefly’s planned Elytra lineup.

In addition to this last mile delivery service, the spacecraft is also capable of refueling and moving spacecraft already in orbit. While this is currently a small market, the successes of Northrop Grumman’s MEV has raised considerable interest from GEO operators, whose missions are often limited by the amount of fuel on board instead of the lifespan of their physical satellites. By offering a temporary mission extension, this could help eliminate the cyclical nature of the commercial GEO Market’s launch needs.

Other potential missions for Blue Ring include reboosting the Hubble Space Telescope, something which NASA has issued a request for proposals. This in part stems from the approaching potential end of life for Hubble, but also from unsolicited proposals from SpaceX to use an upcoming mission as part of their Polaris program to rendezvous and dock with the orbiting telescope. One of the capabilities Blue Origin has been adamant about is their in-space cloud computing, which could enable more precise station keeping for Hubble than a traditional MEV.

Of note, the hybrid solar electric and chemical propulsion is a similar system that has been proposed for NASA’s Moon to Mars architecture. While the current Mars designs favor nuclear electric propulsion for the extreme duration burns, demonstrating the feasibility of a hybrid system in cislunar space could demonstrate technologies and bring down risk ahead of the more complex nuclear electric system NASA is investigating for a potential Mars mission.

Blue Ring is another major investment from Blue Origin into extended space operations, with Paul Ebertz, Senior Vice President of Blue Origin’s In-Space Systems commenting, “Blue Ring addresses two of the most difficult challenges in spaceflight today: growing space infrastructure and increasing mobility on-orbit” These include, but are not limited to, Zero Boil Off Cryogenic Management and Lunar Regolith Solar Panel Manufacturing. While the ambitious plans of Blue Ring will require significant investment and development, it has already attracted customers and is expected to fly as soon as 2025.

Acronyms Used:
ESPA – Evolved Secondary Payload Adapter
GEO – Geostationary Orbit
MEV– Mission Extension Vehicle
NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NSSL – National Security Space Launch

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