Blue Origin prepares for October test of in-flight abort system
As the New Shepard spacecraft and booster accelerate through the most aerodynamically stressful part of their launch profile, also known as “max Q”, a flight computer detects an anomaly and triggers an in-flight abort. The crew module shoots away from the stricken booster, allowing the gumdrop-shaped capsule to safely return its occupants to a safe recovery. Although notional in description, this is what Blue Origin plans to verify in an early October 2016 test flight of the company’s reusable rocket and spacecraft.
The company already performed a pad abort test, nearly four years ago, during which the abort motor fired for nearly 2 seconds and lofted the craft to an altitude of 2,307 feet (703 meters). The capsule landed under its triple-parachute canopy 1,630 feet (497 meters) away from the pad.
Unlike the traditional tower-based, towed-tractor style abort systems used during Mercury and Apollo programs – and soon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft riding atop the Space Launch System – Blue Origin’s abort motor is integrated into the crew vehicle and is a “pusher” system: it pushes the capsule from below rather than pulling it from above as with the tower systems.
One of the values of this type of system is the abort motor isn’t jettisoned at the conclusion of the phase of flight for which it was meant. Instead, should it not be needed for a mission, it can be reused for future flights.
Eliminating the need to discard the abort system is part of Blue Origin’s efforts to provide a cost-effective, yet safe, spaceflight model.
Additionally, in the towed-tractor systems, the crew capsule could not re-enter the atmosphere or deploy parachutes should the tower fail to jettison. Removing this failure mode further enhances New Shepard’s safety margin.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos issued a release announcing the upcoming test and outlined some of the flight test’s parameters and expected outcomes.
The booster being used on this test will be the same flight-proven article that has survived multiple trips above the Karman line – the accepted boundary at 62 miles (100 kilometers) above which is considered “space”.
As New Shepard approaches 16,000 feet (4,877 meters), approximately 45 seconds after liftoff, a signal will be sent to the craft initiating an in-flight abort. Immediately, the abort motor’s 70,000 pounds (310 kilonewtons) of thrust will propel the capsule hundreds of feet from the booster, and out of the booster’s path.
During the acceleration phase of the abort, and subsequent deceleration after motor burnout, the New Shepard craft will transition through transonic velocities twice. Those phases represent critical, and difficult, control regions and represent a key test metric for this event.
Following this phase of the test, the capsule will transition to a more nominal descent profile, culminating with the deployment of the vehicle’s main parachutes and touchdown on the desert floor.
While the company would like to be able to recover the booster from this test and reward it with a display of honor in a museum, pre-flight simulations indicate this is unlikely, although not impossible, to occur.
At the initiation of the abort sequence, the full thrust and exhaust of the motor will be directed upon the forward end of the booster. Additionally, the aerodynamic characteristics of the entire vehicle will abruptly change from a body with a relatively smooth laminar flow to one leading with the less-shapely ring fin.
As the booster was never designed to survive an in-flight abort, the chance of a recovery is low. However, Bezos noted the booster will still be heavily laden with propellant, so should a crash be unavoidable, the resultant impact “…will be most impressive.”
This test follows the June 19, 2016, one-out parachute test the company performed on the New Shepard spacecraft. That test proved successful and was another step in Blue Origin’s plan to fully test its flight hardware throughout a multitude of failure scenarios.
Blue Origin plans to conduct the test in the first part of October and will stream the event live online.
Video courtesy of Blue Origin
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.