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Privately-developed rocket’s safety system to be tested Wednesday

Blue Origin conducted a pad abort test in October 2012. Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin conducted a pad abort test in October 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, plans a dramatic flight test in West Texas on Wednesday to verify the performance of an escape system on its suborbital launcher designed to loft space tourists, researchers and commercial astronauts on short rides to the edge of space.

The test flight will be streamed live online by Blue Origin starting at 10:45 a.m. EDT (1445 GMT), and you can watch the webcast on this page.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster is a single-stage reusable rocket powered by a BE-3 engine, burning a combination of cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants to produce up to 110,000 pounds of thrust at full throttle.

The rocket Blue Origin intends to launch Wednesday has flown four times before, dating back to its maiden launch on Nov. 23, 2015, but this mission will be its last.

That is because engineers plan to sever the New Shepard rocket from its prototype crew capsule, which will be unoccupied on Wednesday’s flight, about 45 seconds after liftoff, just as the vehicle passes through Mach 1, the speed of sound.

The rocket is not designed for the intense loads associated with such a maneuver, which would only be commanded on an operational flight during an emergency.

In an email update last month, Bezos wrote that the booster will probably not survive the test flight.

“What of the booster? It’s the first ever rocket booster to fly above the Karman line into space and then land vertically upon the Earth,” Bezos wrote. “And it’s done so multiple times. We’d really like to retire it after this test and put it in a museum. Sadly, that’s not likely.”

The New Shepard’s abort system features a solid rocket motor mounted at the base of the crew capsule to push the spaceship away from the rocket to escape an emergency during launch.

Most previous human-rated space capsules, including the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, have their abort motors on top of the rocket, where they would pull the capsule away to get out of the way if the rocket failed. But Blue Origin’s suborbital crew capsule, like commercial orbital-class spaceships being developed by SpaceX and Boeing, has a “pusher” escape system.

The advantage is the escape motor does not have to be jettisoned and thrown away after every mission, as is the case with Soyuz flights. That makes the system more reliable by removing a potential failure mode, and less expensive because the abort motor can be reused until it is needed, then discarded.

The last flight of the New Shepard booster occurred on June 19, 2016. Credit: Blue Origin
The last flight of the New Shepard booster occurred on June 19, 2016. Credit: Blue Origin

With funding from NASA, Blue Origin tested the escape system during a pad abort test in October 2012, demonstrating the motor’s ability to drive the capsule away from an explosion on the launch pad.

NASA no longer provides monetary support to Blue Origin’s rocket development program, but the space agency still has “unfunded” agreements to offer engineering expertise.

While the pad abort test went well, Bezos said Wednesday’s flight is more challenging.

“This upcoming flight will be our toughest test yet,” he wrote. “We’ll intentionally trigger an escape in flight and at the most stressing condition: maximum dynamic pressure through transonic velocities.”

A successful escape test would demonstrate the abort motor’s capability to save the passengers aboard the crew capsule even during the most stressing part of the flight.

“We’ll be doing our in-flight escape test with the same reusable New Shepard booster that we’ve already flown four times,” Bezos wrote. “About 45 seconds after liftoff at about 16,000 feet, we’ll intentionally command escape. Redundant separation systems will sever the crew capsule from the booster at the same time we ignite the escape motor.”

During operational crew-carrying flights, a signal from the booster’s computer, the capsule, or mission control could initiate the abort sequence.

The solid-fueled abort motor will fire for about two seconds, long enough to propel the capsule to the side and several hundred feet away from the New Shepard rocket.

“It will traverse twice through transonic velocities – the most difficult control region – during the acceleration burn and subsequent deceleration,” Bezos wrote. “The capsule will then coast, stabilized by reaction control thrusters, until it starts descending. Its three drogue parachutes will deploy near the top of its flight path, followed shortly thereafter by main parachutes.”

While the abort system’s design requires the crew capsule to safely land, the New Shepard booster was never designed to survive such a maneuver.

“The capsule escape motor will slam the booster with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust,” Bezos wrote. “The aerodynamic shape of the vehicle quickly changes from leading with the capsule to leading with the ring fin, and this all happens at maximum dynamic pressure. Nevertheless, the booster is very robust and our Monte Carlo simulations show there’s some chance we can fly through these disturbances and recover the booster.”

Nevertheless, viewers can expect the test flight to be dramatic, and it could end in a fireball — all on purpose.

“If the booster does manage to survive this flight – its fifth – we will in fact reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum,” Bezos wrote. “In the more likely event that we end up sacrificing the booster in service of this test, it will still have most of its propellant on board at the time escape is triggered, and its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Privately-developed rocket’s safety system to be tested Wednesday

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