In April, Blue Origin, the aerospace company established by Jeff Bezos, successfully conducted the first test flight of its New Shepard space vehicle. While the launch was a success, the propulsion module was unable to be recovered as planned due to a loss of pressure in the hydraulic system on descent. But sticking to the old adage of, if you don't first succeed, try, try again, Blue Origin has now successfully launched and landed a re-usable rocket designed to take paying customers on a suborbital flight to the edge of space.
With the goal of a sustainable approach not only to space tourism, but also space exploration in general, the Blue Origin endeavour has been designed from the ground up with economic sustainability as one of the driving factors, with both launch vehicle and spacecraft, collectively known as New Shepard, boasting the ability to be reused multiple times.
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The BE-3 engine that powers the craft is capable of outputting 110,000 pounds of thrust, serving as both the ascent thruster and a controlled descent tool. During the recent test, which took place on Nov. 23 at the company's launch facility in West Texas, upon re-entering the atmosphere and jettisoning the space vehicle, the thruster section was initially stabilized by passing air through a ring at the top of the launch vehicle, centering the air pressure.
Then, whilst still falling at roughly the speed of sound, the thruster block deployed a series of eight air brakes, cutting its speed to 623 km/h (387 mph). With its velocity reduced, the ascent phase saw exterior fins powered by hydraulic actuators combat crosswinds of up to 119 mph (191.5 km/ph) and navigate the vehicle to a position 1,524 m (5,000 ft) above the landing pad. As the landing gear deployed, the BE-3 thruster re-ignited and throttled up, allowing the booster to touch down at the launch pad on four landing struts at a gentle 4.4 mph (7.1 km/ph).
Aside from serving as a
proof of concept for Blue Origin's approach, the successful completion of the
test has allowed the company to beat SpaceX's Falcon 9 first stage
thruster in the race to create a reusable launch vehicle. SpaceX came close to achieving the feat in April, successfully touching down on the deck of a drone barge before tipping over.
However, for this to be a fair comparison it must be noted that the Blue Origin launch vehicle is only designed to boost its spacecraft to the edge of space for a short time, while the Falcon 9 launch vehicle rocket is far more heavy duty, aimed instead at facilitating a full orbital insertion, only then (theoretically) returning safely to its launch pad for refurbishment and re-use – something which Elon Musk was quick to point out via twitter.
Competition aside, the attempt to cut costs via the use of reusable launch vehicle components will prove to be a key factor in the democratization of spaceflight.
Video of the touch down can be viewed below.
Source: Blue Origin