Blue Origin set to launch next New Shepard
Blue Origin is getting ready to fly a New Shepard suborbital rocket sometime between Dec. 11–14. On Dec. 9, 2017, the company issued a notice to airmen, also called a NOTAM, for the area around its rocket site near Van Horn, Texas.
New Shepard is a fully reusable rocket system designed to take experiments and eventually people on suborbital hops above the Karman line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth that represents the beginning of space. After the launch, the capsule separates and lands back on Earth with a parachute while the booster performs a powered descent and landing.
Altogether, the system is some 60 feet (18 meters) tall and is powered by a single Blue Origin-built BE-3 engine that burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The capsule has an interior volume of about 530 cubic feet (15 cubic meters) and has an emergency escape motor built by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The NOTAM issued calls for a launch window between 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. (14:30–21:00 GMT) daily at the West Texas facility. The airspace affected includes an area some 19.6 miles (31.4 kilometers) in radius around the test facility. It is intended “to provide a safe environment for rocket launch and recovery”, and no pilots are allowed to operate aircraft in the area during the window’s times.
This will be a new rocket and capsule, as the previous one was retired in 2016 after flying five times. The final flight was noteworthy as it was an in-flight abort test of the capsules emergency escape system. The booster was not expected to survive; however, it continued regardless as if nothing had happened on its way toward space, sans the capsule. Like the four previous flights, it landed successfully minutes later.
This particular vehicle will be the third iteration of New Shepard. The first model, NS1, flew once in 2015 before a hydraulic failure caused the booster to crash during its powered descent. The capsule was recovered via a parachute, as planned.
According to Space News in September 2017, NS3 will include modifications for improved reusability as well as panels on the rocket for easier servicing. Additionally, the capsule will include real windows. Previous iterations only had painted windows.
Blue Origin is currently working on a number of projects in addition to New Shepard. The next big item for the company will be to complete the development of its BE-4 engine, which is larger and will consume liquid methane and liquid oxygen. That engine has the potential to be used on United Launch Alliance’s upcoming Vulcan rocket.
Moreover, seven BE-4 engines will be used to power Blue Origin’s upcoming orbital-class rocket called New Glenn. The first flight of the 270-foot (82-meter) tall vehicle, which will be built near Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, is expected sometime in 2020.
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.