Blue Origin launched its reusable New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its third test flight Saturday, successfully boosting an unpiloted capsule out of the discernible atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness before a parachute descent to the company's West Texas launch site. The New Shepard booster, meanwhile, plunged back to Earth tail first, re-igniting its hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine at an altitude of just 3,635 feet. The engine quickly throttled up, four landing legs deployed and the rocket settled to a gentle touchdown, according to Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin.
The last-second braking maneuver occurred as planned just six seconds before the rocket otherwise would have crashed into the ground, a deliberate test "pushing the envelope" of performance, Bezos tweeted earlier in the day.
The rocket was carrying two experiments inside the crew capsule, including University of Central Florida's (UCF) Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE).
“Our first step toward millions of people living and working in space was launching and landing New Shepard,” said Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin president. “Now, our payload pathfinder customers are helping us take the next step by putting this reusable spacecraft to use in the name of science.”
COLLIDE concept may seem basic containing a box of dust, a marble and a camera, but the results could explain collisions in the early solar system, such as ice particles hitting the rings of Saturn.
"On the Earth things just stick together," said Joshua Colwell, UCF physics professor and principal investigator. "Without gravity we’re less certain."
Colwell was competitively selected in 2009 to be among the first researchers worldwide to build experiments for flight aboard the commercial space company’s new spacecraft.
Since then, Colwell and a team of undergraduate students have been working on the Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics, or MEDEA, project. Colwell was joined at the launch by Assistant Professor Addie Dove and Post Doctoral Associate Julie Brisset from UCF, who helped bring the project to completion.
MEDEA is aimed at shedding light on the process by which space dust builds up to form planets, or the rings around those planets. Results from the experiment will also help scientists understand the behavior of dust on the surfaces of small asteroids planned for visits by upcoming NASA robotic missions and eventual visits by asteroids.
“Suborbital spaceflight opens the door for an incredible range of scientific research and technology development, from biotech and materials science to fluid physics and engineering,” said Dr. Erika Wagner, Blue Origin head of payload programs. “The UCF team is tackling deep questions about the early solar system and asteroids, questions that simply can’t be answered back on Earth.”
The New Shepard vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle is capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of payloads per flight and will ultimately carry six astronauts to altitudes beyond 100 kilometers, the internationally-recognized boundary of space.
Blue Origin was established by Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos with a bold vision to seed an enduring human presence in space. In November 2015, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket became the first to fly to space and return to Earth via vertical landing. Less than two months later, the very same rocket launched and landed again, demonstrating reuse – a key enabler to a future in which millions of people are living and working in space.
This payload was part of Blue Origin’s Pathfinder Payloads program, demonstrating the integration and operation of scientific experiments during untended test flights of the New Shepard system to high altitudes.