Blue Origin set to test New Shepard Friday as company makes progress on BE-4 engine – UPDATE
It’s one thing to test a rocket to make sure everything works properly, but engineers will tell you that the other thing you also have to test is how systems work when things go wrong. Blue Origin plans on doing exactly that on Friday, June 17. As reported on Geekwire.com, their New Shepard test that day will determine how the capsule behaves when one of its return parachutes fails.
Testing for parachute failure
As Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos put it on a recent Twitter post, “Flight to test one-chute-out failure scenario & push [the] envelope on booster maneuvers.” In short, the plan is to see how well the New Shepard’s engines and automation system handle emergency situations. Normally, after liftoff, the New Shepard capsule separates from the launch stage and flies on a parabolic arc to provide zero gravity to the crew/cargo before descending on its three main parachutes. This time, Blue Origin’s engineers plan to test how the capsule descends without one of those parachutes.
Geekwire.com reported that the demonstration won’t necessarily end in a crash:
Three independent parachutes are used to ease the crew capsule’s descent. If one fails, the other two should still hold up. There’s also a retro-thrust system that’s designed to cushion the landing.
Such maneuvers will be critical for ensuring passenger safety in the future, as the vehicle will be completely automated.
Phys.org reported that Bezos declared in an email:
“One of the fundamental tenets of Blue Origin is that the safest vehicle is one that is robust and well understood. Each successive mission affords us the opportunity to learn and improve our vehicles and their modeling.” Blue Origin has already experienced flight accidents, destroying a vehicle in 2011 when it veered out of control. However, as Bezos stated to the Wall Street Journal at the time, “We’re signed up for this to be hard.”
According to Space.com, Bezos stated:
The crew capsule is equipped with a two-stage crushable structure that absorbs landing loads, along with seats that use a passive energy-absorbing mechanism to reduce peak loads to the occupant[.] As an added measure of redundancy, the crew capsule is equipped with a ‘retro rocket’ propulsive system that activates just a few feet above the ground to lower the velocity to approximately 3 ft/sec [0.9 m/sec] at touchdown. This final maneuver causes the dust cloud you can see when the crew capsule lands.
The Friday test will be conducted at Blue Origin’s test facility in West Texas. According to the Blue Origin media team, the company and Bezos will be posting details about the flight and the webcast on their Twitter accounts later this week.
BE-4 engine hardware progress
In addition to the New Shepard flight test, Bezos highlighted in a recent e-mail the hardware that Blue Origin has been using to fabricate the BE-4 engine, which is designated to be flown on United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan launch vehicle. According to Bezos:
“We’re making multiple copies of the BE-4 to take us through our development campaign, along with a healthy amount of hardware spares to mitigate schedule and technical risks encountered along the way – a ‘hardware rich’ approach to development. To maintain a fast pace, we’ve elected over the past years to invest heavily in key machines, tooling and people for the production of BE-4 so we can control critical processes in-house.” These processes include fabricating the engine’s main combustion chamber, nozzle, main propellant valve, and gaseous oxygen (GOX) dome.
While hardware progress continues, Blue Origin is also doing static testing of engine components. Bezos’ email stated: “We’ve also started testing the BE-4 preburner in our recently commissioned pressure-fed test cell. We’re developing the transient start sequence for the preburner, and we’re making good progress.”
The market goal of the BE-4 is to replace the RD-180 engine currently powering the Atlas launch vehicles and ending U.S. dependence on Russia.
On June 16, 2016, Bezos posted the following statement on Twitter:
Replacing leaking O-ring in capsule’s nitrogen gas pressurization system. Rescheduling flight to Sunday. #GradatimFerociter
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) June 16, 2016
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.