Blue Origin lands New Shepard spacecraft after flight to edge of space
Blue Origin successfully flew their New Shepard suborbital spacecraft and booster to space on an unpiloted test reaching a planned altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) before landing back at the launch site. The secretive launch was hailed as a triumph – one richly deserved.
The launch occurred at 11:21 p.m. CST (5:21 GMT) on Nov. 23, 2015, from the company’s West Texas launch site. New Shepard, named in honor of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, is a fully reusable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) rocket.
New Shepard is comprised of two parts: the booster itself and a crew capsule. The BE-3 engine provided 110,000 lbs of thrust during ascent pushing the craft to Mach 3.72 before coasting to the edge of space. The vehicle and capsule then separated. The capsule returned to terra firma via parachutes while the booster conducted a controlled descent. The BE-3 engine re-ignited at 4,896 feet (1492 meters) above the ground and slowed to 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) per hour before gently landing just over four feet from the landing pad.
“Rockets have always been expendable,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin in a statement. “Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.”
Bezos said that New Shepard flew a flawless mission even though it returned through 119-mile (192-kilometer) per hour high-altitude crosswinds to make the controlled landing.
“Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again,” Bezos said.
The capsule, which can hold six people, was uncrewed during this flight. It experienced about five times the force of gravity during its coast back down to Earth before deploying drogue parachutes at 20,045 feet (6,110 meters) above the ground. The landing of the capsule under the main parachutes occurred at 11:32 CST (5:32 GMT).
Bezos said the flight validates the vehicle’s overall architecture and design. The booster has a unique ring fin designed to shift the center of pressure aft to help control re-entry and descent. It has eight large drag breaks that deploy and help reduce the vehicle’s terminal velocity – the point where the force of gravity is the same as the opposite force of air resistance – to 387 miles (623 kilometers) per hour.
Hydraulically controlled fins steered the vehicle and precisely aligned with the pad. The BE-3 engine, which is described highly throttleable, re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed at the last 100 feet (30 meters) above the pad.
Not everybody was impressed, though. SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, took to Twitter to congratulate the Blue Origin team before going on to “clear up” the difference between space and orbit.
“Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but [geostationary transfer orbit] orbit requires ~Mach 30,” Musk tweeted.
Musk’s SpaceX has been working on their own reusable rocket with the Falcon 9 first stage booster.
“Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital VTOL flight began 2013,” Musk tweeted soon after. “Orbital water landing 2014. Orbital land landing next.”
SpaceX started their reusable test program in 2013 with the Grasshopper test article. It flew a number of times, but not more than 2,500 feet (762 meters). Later, an evolved test article, called F9R (Falcon 9 Reusable), flew a number of times as high as 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) before the vehicle self-destructed on Aug. 22, 2014, due to an in-flight anomaly.
SpaceX’s water landings were also not from orbit, as Musk tweeted, rather from a mission that was heading to orbit. The Falcon 9 first stage was on a suborbital trajectory and controlled itself to an almost successful touchdown on their Automated Spaceport Drone Ship on April 14, 2015. The booster landed on the platform, but toppled over due to “excessive lateral momentum“.
While Blue Origin did land, successfully, a reusable rocket from space before SpaceX, the two companies are attempting different things. Blue Origin plans to use their single BE-3 engine rocket for suborbital tourism and science missions. SpaceX has nine Merlin 1D engines lifting an entire second stage and payload downrange before, eventually, turning around and boosting itself back uprange to a landing pad near the launch site.
Musk has been at odds with Bezos for years now. In 2013, Bezos contested NASA’s decision to lease Launch Complex 39A, the former space shuttle launch pad, to SpaceX. Blue Origin wanted to launch a future orbital rocket they plan on producing from the historic site and to turn the pad into a multi-user commercial spaceport. Musk retorted by saying that “unicorns would be found dancing in the flame duct” before Blue Origin was ready to fly an orbital rocket within five years. The company has since announced an orbital vehicle will launch out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 36B, though no firm time frame has been set.
Additionally, there was a dispute over a Blue Origin patent covering the landing of rockets at sea. According to GeekWire, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board granted a motion to cancel the claims earlier this year.
Blue Origin’s test flight comes after another test in April powered the New Shepard system to 58 miles (93 kilometers). According to NASASpaceFlight, during the propulsive landing attempt, pressure was lost in the hydraulic system and the booster failed to touch down softly.
The company aims to begin commercial flights of research payloads by the middle of 2016. Eventually, people will be sent on suborbital flights with New Shepard. The company has stated that passengers will get views of the curvature of Earth through the largest windows to ever fly in space.
“We are building Blue Origin to seed an enduring human presence in space, to help us move beyond this blue planet that is the origin of all we know, “Bezos said in a statement. “We are pursuing this vision patiently, step-by-step. Our fantastic team in Kent, Van Horn and Cape Canaveral is working hard to not just build space vehicles, but to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space.”
Video courtesy of Blue Origin
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.