Thursday, December 14, 2017

Blue Origin Returns to Flight with New Shepard Launch

New Shepard Booster landing on the pad in West Texas after a successful Mission 7. Credit: Blue Origin

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ up-and-coming space launch company Blue Origin sent the latest version of the company’s New Shepard sub-orbital rocket on December 12. Liftoff occurred around midday EST from the firm’s launch facility outside of Van Horn, Texas.

The liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fueled booster produced some 110,000 lbf (489.3 kN) of thrust via its single BE-3 engine – propelling the latest test version of their capsule, complete with newly developed windows, to speeds in excess of Mach 3. The rocket reached an altitude past the Karman line – over 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth – which is the point that is considered to be the boundary of space.

After releasing the capsule to continue moving away from the Earth, the booster performed a series of burns to maneuver and slow it down to only 5 mph (8 km/h) when it made its landing a short distance from the launch site.

The capsule re-entered the atmosphere and floated down to Earth under its canopy of three parachutes before firing its thruster to perform a soft landing.

As was noted on Gizmodo, the flight did have a passenger (of a sort) in the form of “Mannequin Skywalker” – a test dummy that, according to Bezos, was given a good flight.

This booster is the third New Shepard rocket to be flown by Blue Origin. The first rocket was lost during its descent while attempting to land, while the second booster successfully flew five times. Its final flight was an in-flight abort test in which everyone expected the rocket to be destroyed – but it wasn’t.

Engineers had presumed that the exhaust from the firing escape thruster mounted underneath the capsule would push the top of the rocket over so far that it would not be able to recover, but it corrected its trajectory and returned for a fifth safe landing.

That booster is now retired and being used for promotional purposes and eventually will most likely be housed in a museum.

The New Shepard test capsule used today was flown utilizing the largest windows ever incorporated in a spacecraft, a point that the company has noted numerous times, as it should allow the occupants of the capsule some of the most spectacular viewing of our planet from space. It is hoped that the flight version of the capsule will be capable of carrying six astronauts and its 530 cubic feet (15 cubic meters) of interior volume will allow space tourists to float about the cabin to peer out all of those expansive windows before returning to Earth.

The successful flight moves the Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin company closer to its goal of launching ‘ordinary’ people into space sometime in the near future, hopefully by the end of 2018 or sometime in 2019. It also provided an opportunity for other space organizations that participated in the flight to highlight their work.

“It is exhilarating to be a part of the NanoRacks payload program, providing all types of researchers a unique microgravity opportunity,” NanoRacks Payload Engineer Mariel Rico said via a release issued by the company. “Experiments that long for both a cost-effective and quick turnaround for technology demonstration in a microgravity environment finally have a place to call their own. It is truly a privilege to work with both our friends at Blue Origin and our incredible team at NanoRacks, to make this opportunity possible.”

According to Nanoracks, this was the third flight in which NanoRacks has managed customer payload integration. A Blue Origin payload locker that NanoRacks incorporated onto this flight was dedicated to Orbital Medicine and was flown in collaboration with Purdue University Aerospace Engineering. The Thoracic PARG experiment was designed to demonstrate a new medical technology for managing collapsed lungs in microgravity.

Written by: Lloyd Campbell
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