Blue Origin’s 9th New Shepard flight tests high-altitude abort mode
For the second time in 2018, Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket system. This particular uncrewed flight evaluated a high-altitude abort mode for the capsules launch escape system.
The test took place at 11:11 a.m. EDT (15:11 GMT) July 18, 2018, from the company’s test facility north of the town of Van Horn, Texas, in the western part of the state. A landing of both the booster and capsule occurred successful seven and 11 minutes later, respectively. Overall, this was the ninth flight of the New Shepard test program since April 2015.
“Anything could have happened today, and this is the best possible outcome,” Ariane Cornell, the head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, said during the company’s webcast.
When the countdown reached zero, the BE-3 engine at the base of the 60-foot (18-meter) tall rocket ignited and spooled to full power. Eight seconds later, the booster with the capsule leapt off the pad, rising into the blue Texas sky.
Continuing to accelerate and gain altitude, most of the flight performed as a normal flight would. About two minutes, 20 seconds into the flight, after the rocket had achieved a maximum ascent velocity of about 2,236 mph (3,598 kph), the main engine cut off as planned and the capsule separated.
However, some 20 seconds later, the purpose of the test flight commenced—the high-altitude abort. This involved the firing of the Aerojet Rocketdyne-built solid rocket motor at the base of the capsule. It pushed the pressurized vessel, which is designed to hold up to six people, away from the booster and higher in altitude. From there, the test evaluated the capsule’s ability to use its onboard thrusters to stabilize itself to ensure a proper orientation for reentry.
Aside from firing its abort motor and achieving the its highest altitude to date—some 389,846 feet (118,825 meters)—the capsule’s descent proceeded as it would during a normal flight.
At about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters), while the vehicle was falling at some 200 mph (320 kph), three drogue chutes deployed. This ensured the capsule remained upright as the three main parachutes were pulled out a few seconds later.
The three main parachutes slowed the capsule to a leisurely 16 mph (26 kph) as it continued to descend to the ground in West Texas. Moments before landing, retro rockets fire to cushioned the shock of landing.
Inside the capsule was the company’s test dummy, dubbed “Mannequin Skywalker,” as well as several experiments, including an in-capsule Wi-Fi access test, data gathering of the conditions inside the vessel and an evaluation of a new vibration isolation platform.
Meanwhile, the booster part of the New Shepard system continued its trajectory and began a controlled fall, extending air brakes during the descent.
At an altitude of about 7,000 feet (2,100 meters), after the booster had slowed to some 375 mph (600 kph), the BE-3 engine ignited for a second time to perform a landing burn, touching down softly on a pad about two miles (3.2 kilometers) north of its launch pad.
The fully-reusable booster is the third used by Blue Origin. The first one had a landing failure in April 2015. The second one flew five times between November 2015 and October 2016 before being retired.
The July 18, 2018, flight was the third performed by the third booster. Its previous flights were in December 2017 and April 2018.
New Shepard is being developed by Blue Origin to send people and experiments on suborbital hops. According to a Reuters report, the company hopes start launching with people as early as next year for about $200,000 to $300,000.
Founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in 2000, the company is also developing a larger reusable orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, which could launch from Florida as early as 2020.
Video courtesy of Blue Origin
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 blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.