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Bezos-backed Blue Origin achieves rocket landing

A suborbital rocket booster built by Blue Origin, an entrepreneurial space firm founded by Internet tycoon Jeff Bezos, streaked into space in the skies over West Texas and descended to a pinpoint propulsive touchdown on a landing pad, the company announced Tuesday.

The landing makes the New Shepard rocket, named in honor of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first commercial vehicle to blast off under its own power, reach the edge of space, and return to Earth intact.

Bezos said Blue Origin plans to fly the booster again after a review of data from the test flight, which took off at 1723 GMT (12:23 p.m. EST) Monday from the company’s rocket facility in West Texas.

The New Shepard rocketed into space on the power of a single BE-3 engine, burning a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. The top speed on Monday’s flight was Mach 3.72, and a prototype crew capsule carried on the launch reached a maximum altitude of 329,839 feet, or 100.5 kilometers), just beyond the internationally-recognized boundary of space.

The crew capsule, which had no passengers Monday, separated from the top of the booster after the BE-3 engine turned off. It parachuted to a landing 11 minutes after liftoff.

Meanwhile, the New Shepard’s trajectory arced up to about 329,500 feet (100.4 kilometers), Bezos said, and it began a supersonic fall back to the remote West Texas desert.

The rocket’s BE-3 engine, designed to adjust thrust levels to control its descent rate, restarted at an altitude of 4,896 feet (about 1,500 meters), and guidance software pivoted the engine’s thrust vector to steer it toward a landing pad, kicking up dust and debris as it settled on the touchdown zone at at a final velocity of 4.4 mph.

The single-stage New Shepard launch vehicle lifted off at 1723 GMT (12:23 p.m. EST) Monday from Bezos' West Texas ranch. Credit: Blue Origin

The single-stage New Shepard launch vehicle lifted off at 1723 GMT (12:23 p.m. EST) Monday from Bezos’ West Texas ranch. Credit: Blue Origin

“I can assure you here in mission control in West Texas, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Bezos told reporters Tuesday. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and my teammates here at Blue Origin I could see feel the exact same way.”

Like other well-heeled technology pioneers, such as Elon Musk and Paul Allen, Bezos established a space company after making billions helping foster the 1990s tech boom.

Founded in 2000, Blue Origin has often been secretive about its progress, but the firm has opened up in recent months as it has taken lease of a disused Atlas launch pad at Cape Canaveral, partnered with United Launch Alliance to build engines for the powerhouse space company’s new Vulcan booster, and closed in on its initial goal of operating a suborbital spacecraft to carry tourists into space.

Monday’s achievement is a key step on the road to fielding a fully reusable rocket booster — the “Holy Grail” of modern rocketry, Bezos says — after a test flight of the New Shepard in April ended with a crash landing after an otherwise successful launch.

Bezos addressed his company’s budding rivalry with SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, another Internet mogul. Musk congratulated Blue Origin on the successful rocket recovery on Twitter, and he compared the achievement to SpaceX’s work in the reusable rocket arena with its orbital Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX has attempted to land its Falcon 9 first stage on an ocean-going barge offshore Cape Canaveral on several operational satellite launches. While the results have been promising to SpaceX engineers — the 14-story booster has reached the landing ship intact on each attempt — the rocket has not yet nailed a landing without toppling over.

Another landing attempt is planned by SpaceX on the Falcon 9’s next launch in December, its first flight since a launch failure grounded the rocket in June.

Bezos’ Blue Origin is working on an orbital launch vehicle expected to begin test flights before the end of the decade from Cape Canaveral, and it will employ the same vertical takeoff and landing concept proven Monday, he said.

Like the Falcon 9 return concept, Blue Origin’s orbital launcher will come down on a barge in the ocean.

Jeff Bezos gives a sneak peek at Blue Origin's orbital launch vehicle in a September ceremony at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Jeff Bezos gives a sneak peek at Blue Origin’s orbital launch vehicle in a September ceremony at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Bezos said any rocket booster stage returning to Earth comes back from suborbital velocity, so the conditions experienced by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Blue Origin’s New Shepard are comparable.

“Keep in mind that the booster stage of all rocket systems is suborbital, and in fact, one of the things that you can do — and this is done by SpaceX today — is you can do an in-space deceleration burn, and that burn actually makes the re-entry environment very benign,” Bezos said. “In fact, you can make those entry environments (more benign) than what we’ve already done and demonstrated with our New Shepard booster.”

Bezos said it would be “a number of weeks” before the New Shepard booster is ready to fly again, but that turnaround timeline will be tightened as engineers gain experience.

Eventually, after a series of test flights, Blue Origin will begin crewed suborbital demo missions from West Texas in a couple of years, Bezos said, before launching commercial service.

“What we have demonstrated with this flight of New Shepard is a complete reuse of a booster stage, and that architecture, one of the things that I love about the vertical takeoff, vertical landing architecture, is it is scaleable to very large size,” Bezos told reporters Tuesday.

“(For) our orbital plans, we’ve leased pad 36 at Cape Canaveral, and we’re building an orbital system, but the first stage — the booster stage of that — will be architecturally identical to the vehicle that we just flew because the environments and everything else are very, very similar, and having demonstrated that, we’ve basically validated that architecture with this flight,” he said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space Flight

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Bezos-backed Blue Origin achieves rocket landing

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