Blue Origin re-flies New Shepard used on Nov. 2015 flight
It has been less than two months since a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket lifted off, separated from the capsule that it carried, and carried out a controlled landing. Today, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, that same booster has launched – and landed – again.
Scant details at present have been released about today’s flight. However, given the fact that the video below was released earlier today, it is likely that Friday’s launch and landing closely paralleled last November’s flight. Here are the specifics that are available at this time.
The apogee (furthest point in its orbit) that New Shepard reached was some 333,582 feet (about 63 miles or 101 kilometers).
The capsule was slowed via a combination of retro-fire thrust and parachutes. According to information provided in the video, it appears the parachutes slowed the spacecraft down to about 15 miles per hour. Near the point of landing the “retro-thrust” slowed the vehicle even further to approximately three miles per hour.
In the video, Blue Origin states that New Shepard is the first rocket to fly above the Kármán line (the official designation of where space begins – some 62 miles or 100 kilometers), then land vertically on the Earth – and do it again.
The video concludes with the words: Launch. Land. Repeat.
Blue Origin’s founder, billionaire Jeff Bezos, provided the following information about the flight through a statement issued by the company:
“Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one.”
As it turns out, that noteworthy improvement should allow for last minute variables, a flexibility that would be potentially beneficial during the last moments of the mission.
“Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.”
During the Nov. 23, 2015, flight, New Shepard’s BE-3 engine re-ignited at 4,896 feet (1492 meters) above the ground, slowing the booster to 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) per hour before gently landing just over four feet from the landing pad.
As was the case today, the capsule returned to Earth via parachutes while the booster conducted a controlled descent. Blue Origin hopes to use this method to send paying customers on flights to space.
Today’s mission was unannounced, although a report issued by Space News’ Jeff Foust suggested that, given airspace restrictions published by the Federal Aviation Administration, another test flight was imminent. The Space News article went on to note a stretch of time that directly coincided with the launch carried out on Friday.
Bezos stated during a press conference held after last year’s flight that his company planned to fly the booster from that mission again.
Today’s events mark the fourth time since November 2015 that a booster has crossed the boundary of space and then carried out a landing.
SpaceX achieved the feat of having one of its Falcon 9 boosters launch the 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites to orbit, before safely touching down at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 on Dec. 21, 2015.
Then, on Jan. 17, SpaceX attempted to repeat its success – from the West Coast of the United States. The NewSpace firm’s follow-on efforts were carried out during the Jason-3 mission, carried out on behalf of NOAA. However, this time, SpaceX opted to tackle an old foe – a landing carried out on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships positioned out at sea. Due to an issue with one of the landing legs, they were unsuccessful (the stage did land, but it toppled over shortly after doing so).
With today’s flight, the tempo of these events appears to be accelerating. In fact, SpaceX has already stated that it has conducted a static fire test of the stage that landed safely back in December and that it functioned well (except for a single Merlin 1D engine).
“Though wings and parachutes have their adherents and their advantages, I’m a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because — to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space — we will need to build very large rocket boosters,” Bezos said.
Video courtesy of Blue Origin
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.