Jeff Bezos unveils towering New Glenn reusable rocket

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The New Glenn will be larger than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy(Credit: Blue Origin)

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The Blue Origin rocket family got a bit larger today as Jeff Bezos unveiled the company's New Glenn heavy booster. Named after Colonel John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962, the New Glenn is a reusable, vertical-landing, heavy-lift version of the New Shepard rocket and will carry both astronauts and orbital payloads.

According to Bezos, the New Glenn will be a man-rated booster, which means that it can not only carry satellite payloads, but has a vibration and acceleration envelope within human tolerances. The rocket will have a diameter of 23 ft (7 m) and will be powered by seven of Blue Origin's BE-4 engines burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen to generate 3.85 million pounds thrust.

The New Glenn will come in two variants. The first is a two-stage rocket standing 270-ft (82 m) tall and will have a second stage using a single vacuum-optimized BE-4 engine. The second will add a third stage powered by a single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for sending payloads beyond low-Earth orbit. It will be 313-ft (95 m) tall – making it only 50 ft (15 m) shorter than the mighty Apollo Saturn V rocket

Bezos says that the first flight of the New Glenn won't be until the end of decade when it will lift off from Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Escape test

Today's announcement follows on last week's news that Blue Origin will carry out another test of its capsule escape system during a New Shepard flight.

Instead of a tower that's jettisoned during flight, the New Shepard system uses an solid-fuel escape motor built into the crew capsule. This not only saves costs, but allows the system to be used at any point in flight. This has already been tested in a launch pad escape test, but Blue Origin now wants to put it to work during an actual flight.

According to Bezos, about 45 seconds after liftoff when the New Shepard reaches an altitude of about 16,000 ft (4,900 m), the escape system on the unmanned capsule will be activated. The test will take place while the rocket is at the point of maximum dynamic pressure – when it is under the greatest stress as it enters transonic velocity.

Emergency systems will cut the capsule loose from the booster and ignite the escape rocket motor, which will use vector thrust to steer the capsule clear. Once stabilized by the reaction control system, the parachutes will deploy.

Meanwhile, the 70,000 lb of thrust from the rocket motor will very likely destroy the booster, which has already made four successful flights. If it does survive, Bezos says that it will be retired. Otherwise, its impact on the desert floor will be "impressive."

The test flight is scheduled for the first part of October and will be webcast live.

The animation below shows the New Shepard escape test.

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