Blue Origin sets date to test in-flight abort system
While much discussion over the past week has centered on other NewSpace companies, Blue Origin has been preparing to ready their New Shepard rocket and spacecraft for a critical in-flight abort test. Initially only announcing early October for this flight, Blue Origin has recently announced its plan to conduct this induced abort on Tuesday, October 4, 2016.
As part of its effort to certify the spacecraft is capable of carrying crew and protecting them in a contingency scenario, the company must first prove the spacecraft is capable of escaping a stricken booster. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, released a statement via e-mail in early September, which provided some details of the test.
“Like Mercury, Apollo, and Soyuz, New Shepard has an escape system that can quickly propel the crew capsule to safety if a problem is detected with the booster,” wrote Bezos. “Our escape system, however, is configured differently from those earlier designs.”
Unlike the traditional tower-based, towed-tractor style abort systems used during the 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 tower-based systems.
Blue Origin has already demonstrated the ability of the escape system to quickly and safely remove the spacecraft from the launch pad during an abort test conducted in 2012. This year’s test, however, promises to be significantly more aggressive.
“Our next flight is going to be dramatic, no matter how it ends,” Bezos said.
While the expectation is that the spacecraft itself fully survives the intentional failure, the prognosis for the booster isn’t quite so positive.
Having already survived four launches and subsequent landings, the chances of the booster surviving this abort test are exceedingly small, though not exactly zero. While the booster was never designed to survive with 70,000 pound-force (310 kilonewtons) of off-axis thrust pushing against it, the company’s computer simulations nevertheless indicate that it is possible the booster could survive both the shocking separation event and the significant change in the booster’s aerodynamic profile.
“Nevertheless, the booster is very robust and our Monte Carlo simulations show there’s some chance we can fly through these disturbances and recover the booster,” noted Bezos. “If the booster does manage to survive this flight – its fifth – we will, in fact, reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum.”
The more likely outcome, though, is the loss of the booster. Should that eventuality come to pass, the rocket will still be laden with a majority of its propellant and will present quite the sight as it crashes to the ground. Or, in the words of the company’s founder, “…its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”
As with its previous launch, Blue Origin plans to stream this event live via their website. Though no time for the test was given, the company indicated coverage was set to begin at 10:50 a.m. EDT (14:50 GMT).
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.