Last week Space X filed a dispute with the United States Patent Office against their rival’s patent for a powered vertical landing of rockets at sea, which forms a key part of Space X’s future plans.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin originally filed US Patent #US-8678321-B2, titled “Sea landing of space launch vehicles and associated systems and methods” in 2009. Anyone who has been following SpaceX in the last couple of years can see the awkward position this would put SpaceX in, given its plans and the huge amount of work it has put in to recovering rockets at sea.
Blue Origin is one of Space X’s direct competitors and the prospect of possibly having to fork over a lot of money in licensing fees to a direct competitor is probably one embarrassment to be avoided at all costs given the way that the two corporations have butted heads in the past.
On reviewing the filing on Docketalarm, it becomes apparent that Space X are disputing the patent on the basis that Blue Origin have laid claim to practices already well known and described in detail in great stretches of time before the patent was originally filed:
“…The reusable launch vehicle techniques described in Section IV above were known to persons of ordinary skill in the art by at least the late 1990s, but this fact went largely unnoticed by the patent owner during the original prosecution of the ‘321 patent. The Background portion of the ‘321 patent pays lip service to the existence of prior art reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), but does not describe them in any detail. Nor does the specification identify any specific drawback of existing RLVs that the alleged invention seeks to address.
The ‘321 patent instead attempts to lay claim over the technique described by Ishijima in 1998 of landing a reusable space launch vehicle on a “sea-going platform,” such as a “free-floating, ocean going barge” or other vessel.”
“The specification does not provide any detailed description of how to land the booster stage (110) at sea. In fact, the specification admits that details associated with “launching and landing space launch vehicles” are “well-known,” and therefore not set forth in the specification “to avoid unnecessarily obscuring the various embodiments of the disclosure.””
In comparison to Space X, Blue Origin is probably the most secretive of all the new generation of spaceflight companies, founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. The last press release from Blue Origin on their website is dated 2012 and the last news from Nasa in December of last year.
The US Patent Office is infamous for being involved in lengthy patent wrangling lawsuits between corporate titans like the infamous Apple/Nokia cases. Companies can get bogged down in extensive litigation for years.
But in this battle of internet-boom-billionaire-titans, who would you stake your money on?
Image: Visual depiction of the system as filed by Blue Origin in 2009.