SpaceX isn't the only private company racking up space firsts. Having successfully flown to space and completed a powered landing last November, Blue Origin's New Shepard booster on Friday became the first rocket to repeat the feat. According to Blue Origin founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the single stage rocket lifted from its West Texas launch site, flew straight up to an altitude of 333,582 ft (101.7 km), which is past the Karman line that designates the official beginning of space, then descended for an autonomous powered landing.
Building on lessons learned from New Shepard's previous landing, the rocket's autonomous piloting system was tweaked to favor a more stable landing over a precision touchdown. While it initially tries to land on the exact center of the target, it is programed to tolerate a certain amount of drift – much in the same way as a pilot prioritizes touching down safely on the runway rather than lurching at the last second to center the white line.
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"I'm a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing," writes Bezos. "Why? Because — to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space — we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you're solving the classic inverted pendulum problem, and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger."
That bigger pendulum will be a family of orbital launch vehicles much larger than New Shepard. Bezos says the that details of the first, and smallest, of these will be released this year.
The coming year will also see the company begin full-scale testing of the BE-4 engine and conduct more New Shepard landings.
Source: Blue Origin