Blue Origin has conducted the fourth test of its New Shepard reusable rocket and Crew Capsule on Sunday in a flight that launched at 10:35 EDT (14:35 UTC). The launch and landing of the rocket’s stage took place at the company’s test site in West Texas – with an added single-parachute out landing test for the vehicle’s Crew Capsule.
Progress to date:
New Shepard is Blue Origin’s suborbital, reusable spacecraft designed to serve as a commercial space tourism vehicle for paying customers interested in spending a brief amount of time in microgravity.
Prior to Sunday’s flight, Blue Origin completed three successful test launches and landings of its straight-up/straight-down suborbital vehicle.
The first New Shepard flight took place in April 2015 and saw the New Shepard rocket launch successfully, delivering its Crew Capsule to an altitude of 307,000 ft – still inside Earth’s atmosphere and below the Karman line, the internationally recognized point (100 km, 62.13 mi, 328,084 feet in altitude) at which aeronautics ends and astronautics begins.
That first test did not result in the recovery of the booster because of a loss of pressure event in the booster’s hydraulic system.
The second flight occurred in November 2015 and saw the New Shepard booster loft its Crew Module to an altitude of 329,839 feet before returning under powered control to an upright landing – marking the first time a suborbital rocket successfully landed after a straight-up/straight-down flight.
The lack of media coverage of the event was due in large part to Blue Origin’s aversion to live coverage of its space endeavours.
Instead, the company has, to date, relied on heavily produced videos and near-time live tweets (for test flight three) for its interaction with the public.
After this second full-scale test and before the third, the New Shepard booster from the second test underwent a solo, non-capsule re-flight prior to April 2016.
The third full-scale test flight of the entire New Shepard system then occurred in April 2016 in a test to provide in-flight use of a new, more efficient Reaction Control System algorithm on the Crew Capsule as well as fly two microgravity experiments inside the Crew Capsule.
The first experiment was from the University of Central Florida. Called Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE), the experiment mimicked impacts between objects in microgravity.
The second experiment, Box of Rocks Experiment (BORE), was from Southwest Research and was designed to better understand the rocky soil on small, near-Earth asteroids.
Fourth test for same New Shepard booster:
With three successful tests of the same booster under its belt, Blue Origin embarked on its fourth such test, which again tested the New Shepard’s ability to launch and land successfully.
More importantly, this test will provide valuable, in-flight data and risk assessment for a single-parachute out scenario for New Shepard’s Crew Capsule.
According to Blue Origin, “On this flight, we’ll intentionally fail one string of parachutes on the capsule.”
The New Shepard Crew Capsule has three strings of chutes, and the company’s assessment of its capsule suggests that two of the three should still deploy nominally during this test.
Gliding back to Earth under two chutes instead of three, the Crew Capsule made use of its retro thrust system to properly decelerate to a safe human-rated landing velocity.
As Blue Origin noted, this procedure “Works on paper, and this test is designed to validate that.”
This is an important step in Blue Origin’s desire to begin ferrying paying tourism passengers to microgravity as the company’s investors and potential customers need to have confidence that the Crew Capsule’s critical landing systems have enough redundancies to safely return passengers to Earth in the event of an off-nominal flight event.
Nonetheless, was not the only objective for the flight. The Crew Capsule will also carry three pathfinder experiments.
One of these experiments is the National Science Foundation-funded Three-Dimensional Critical Wetting in Microgravity experiment from Purdue University.
This experiment will carry a two-phased (liquid and gas) fluid dynamics test vessel designed to help engineers better understand how liquids behave and move in microgravity – a key element in designing safe and affordable spacecraft.
Another pathfinder experiment is Effective Interfacial Tension Induced Convection (EITIC), which will test a 100+ year old theory that a fluid with inconsistent temperature throughout will yield a visible fluid motion.
This fluid motion is usually “overwhelmed” by gravity, thus making microgravity an ideal environment in which to test the theory.
The experiment could be highly beneficial to future spacecraft construction efforts in microgravity because there is a hypothesis that microgravity precludes this type of fluid motion.
EITIC is designed to try to answer this question.
Finally, the last pathfinder experiment on this mission is the Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics-B (MEDEA-B)
MEDEA-B will examine the mechanisms through which dust particles cling together in space – the first step in planetary formation.
Moreover, this fourth flight also represented a major shift for Blue Origin in its association with the public and media for space operations.
The flight was carried live via webcast, affording live updates, video, and images of the test flight.
(Images: Blue Origin)