New Shepard hat trick for Blue Origin

by Chris Bergin

Blue Origin conducted another test flight of its New Shepard rocket at the weekend, continuing a test program aimed at its suborbital space tourism goals. Marked by a successful – and sporty – landing at the company’s West Texas site, this booster has now launched and landed three times since its debut in November. The vehicle’s capsule also enjoyed a safe return to terra firma.

Blue Origin:

Traditionally media shy, Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos provided a handful of welcome “near-live updates” via Twitter during the event on Saturday, although photos and videos of the test were once again drip fed many hours after the test.

However, given Blue Origin’s target audience of the space tourism sector, the PR exercise of only showing polished productions of their tests is understandable.

A live stream of such tests is unlikely to be forthcoming for some time, given the potential of a failure and the impact that would have on its interested customers.

Regardless, the company is enjoying notable successes of late with its suborbital booster since New Shepard conducted its first test flight last April. That test enjoyed a successful launch but failed to conduct a landing of the booster.

However, the second flight was a success, launching to 330,000 feet prior to landing without an issue, allowing for the opening milestone of a reuse test.

That reuse test was conducted at the start of this year when that same rocket was turned around for a launch and landing test.

“The very same booster that flew above the Karman line and then landed vertically at its launch site last November has now flown and landed again, demonstrating reuse,” noted Mr. Bezos in a release at the time.

2016-04-03-235054That second test resulted in New Shepard reaching an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers) before both capsule and booster gently returned to Earth.

It also included software improvements related to the landing approach.

The third flight also changed the test parameters, with the rocket launching even higher, this time to an apogee was 339,138 feet (103.4 km).

Its return was also altered to push the test objectives on the landing side of the booster.

2016-04-03-233412This time, the booster dived back towards the ground without propulsion, only restarting its BE-3 engine at an altitude of 3,635 feet (1.1 km). Any problems with ignition, or the ramp up of the engine, would have likely seen the booster destroyed.

“Pushing the envelope. Impact in six seconds if the engine doesn’t restart and ramp up fast,” warned Mr. Bezos ahead of the test.

However, all went to plan – as had been observed by locals prior to the release of official imagery – as the BE-3 used its thrust to slow New Shepard to a soft bullseye landing on the test site pad in West Texas.

2016-04-03-233318Video – released around 36 hours after the test – showed the booster racing back towards the ground at pace, before the BE-3 ignited and then quickly pushed to full thrust, ably slowing the vehicle down with very relatively little altitude to spare.

The booster landing came before the crew capsule had already safely returned under parachutes.

The test provided an opportunity to test a new, more efficient, Reaction Control System (RCS) algorithm on the Crew Capsule.

“Big performance win if it works,” noted Mr. Bezos ahead of the test.

2016-04-03-234510The capsule also had two passengers onboard in the form of university microgravity experiments.

The first was a University of Central Florida experiment called Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE). This experiment is designed to mimic impacts between objects in microgravity.

A Southwest Research Institute experiment also rode with the capsule, with the “Box of Rocks Experiment (BORE)” experiment designed to better understand the rocky soil on small, near-Earth asteroids.

Further details on the test are yet to the published, with the schedule for the next test currently unknown.

While Blue Origin’s near-term target is the suborbital realm, it does hold aspirations for the orbital market. This will involve a larger rocket powered by a 550,000-lbf thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen engine known as the BE-4. That engine is expected to start a test program this year and is set to become the powerhouse for ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

Blue Origin’s orbital rocket was shown during the announcement that an agreement to take over the historic Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) at Cape Canaveral had been signed.

More details are expected later this year, although the company has noted its ambitions will result in the creation of over 300 jobs at its East Coast home base for production and launches.

(Images via Blue Origin)

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