Private space firm Blue Origin doesn’t get as much attention as SpaceX, with all it smissions to the International Space Station and plans for Mars colonization. Still, Blue Origin is doing some fascinating things. Just yesterday at its Texas launch facility, it successfully tested the launch abort system on its New Shepard rocket. Although, “success” doesn’t quite get the point across. The launch was absolutely flawless.
New Shepard has been tested several times in the past, and like the SpaceX Falcon 9, it’s capable of reaching space and returning to land vertically on the ground. Blue Origin has launched the same exact rocket it used in today’s test four times previously. All it need was refurbishment and refueling to get ready for another launch.
What was different about yesterday’s launch is the addition of a mock crew capsule atop the New Shepard. About 40 seconds into the mission, the rocket was programmed to simulate an anomaly that would put the crew at risk. That triggered the abort system on the crew capsule to blast it clear of the booster. You can see the whole launch in the video below, but all the action comes a little more than an hour into the broadcast.
The crew capsule is equipped with a solid rocket booster packing 70,000 pounds of thrust. Unlike a liquid fueled engine, a SRB burns through all its fuel at a constant rate when ignited. This means that the booster in this launch was also subjected to incredible force when the abort system was activated. It was entirely possible the booster would be destroyed in the process. Blue Origin was careful to stress that it didn’t necessarily expect the New Shepard to survive this test, but it did. Not only did it survive, it continued into space and came back down for a perfect vertical landing (its fifth).
As for the crew capsule, the SRB pushed it clear of the booster as planned. After the rocket burned out, the drogue chutes were deployed to slow its descent, then the main chutes came out. It landed gently near the launchpad. Jeff Bezos, who owns Blue Origin, must be pretty happy with today’s test.
Blue Origin does have some very cool systems, but it’s still a few years behind the likes of SpaceX. The current New Shepard just goes straight up and back down — it doesn’t have enough power to get a payload into orbit and then return to Earth for a landing. However, this was the last launch for the current New Shepard. A next generation version of this rocket is being manufactured right now, so perhaps it will have more advanced capabilities.