Thursday, October 6, 2016

Blue Origin Conducts In-Flight Abort Test; Booster Lands Successfully

Moment of separation. New Shepard in-flight escape test, October 5, 2016. Photo & Caption Credit: Blue Origin

Poor weather conditions may have delayed the test for 24 hours, but that didn’t stop Blue Origin from putting on a heck of a show while testing the New Shepard’s launch abort system. At 11:36 a.m. EDT (15:36 GMT) on Oct. 5, after a nearly 40-minute hold, the rocket and capsule zipped off the pad for a final flight.

The old adage “any landing you can walk away from is a good one” may have originated with aircraft, but future flyers on Blue Origin’s New Shepard can rest easy knowing the company’s spacecraft was able to successfully activate its launch abort system in flight.

The capsule was rocketed from the booster in this intentionally-induced abort and landed under its three parachutes a few minutes later.

The flight took place at Blue Origin’s test facility in West Texas. At around 45 seconds after liftoff, just as the booster and spacecraft were passing through the area of greatest aerodynamic stress on the vehicles, also known as Max Q, controllers issued the “abort” command, activating the solid fuel rocket motor housed within the New Shepard spacecraft and shooting it away from the “stricken” booster.

As expected, the abort motor’s 70,000 pounds (310 kilonewtons) of thrust rocketed the capsule hundreds of feet from the booster and out of its path, allowing the craft to then descend to the desert floor under its three parachutes. Had occupants actually been on board New Shepard, they would have experienced a high load factor (g-force) for the duration of the abort motor’s firing – approximately two seconds – before entering a nominal descent profile.

The booster was able to power through the abort and make its way to space – without the capsule. While some of Blue Origin’s computer simulations showed this was possible, the likelihood of it actually happening was low.

However, as soon as the capsule’s abort motor had activated and cleared the module away from the booster, it became obvious that the rocket not only had survived the full brunt of the thrust from the escape pod, but also continued seemingly unperturbed by the fact that it had lost 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) from its top.

The booster’s BE-3 engine continued to fire for a few more minutes on an otherwise normal ascent profile. It did have to lower its thrust to make up for the lack of a capsule on top to ensure it didn’t go too high into space.

After reaching apogee – the highest point in its suborbital hop – the New Shepard rocket started falling toward Earth, as it was supposed to.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft safely landed under its three main parachutes at 4 minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff.

A few minutes later, the booster started to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

At 5 minutes and 40 seconds after launch, wedge fins were deployed from the ring fin to give the falling booster added stability in preparation for the re-ignition of the BE-3 engine.

At about 20,000 feet (6,100 meters), the ring fin around the top of the rocket had deployed drag breaks, cutting the descent speed in half.

Re-ignition of the BE-3 occurred at 7 minutes and 5 seconds, less than 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) from the ground and traveling just below the speed of sound.

Finally, 7 minutes 29 seconds after liftoff, the booster successfully landed, visibly dirty from both the re-ignition as well as the in-flight abort about six minutes prior.

“Look at her,” said Ariane Cornell of Blue Origin’s Strategy and Business Development team, a co-host during the live webcast. “What a test […] I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be raising a glass to both the booster and the crew capsule this evening. What an extraordinary test and a tremendous final flight for both craft.”

This was the fifth landing of this exact rocket, the first flight occurring back in November 2015.

In order to ensure the safety of the crew in future flights, Blue Origin had to prove the effectiveness of the abort system in this test, and, to all appearances, the company seems to have done just that. Early information indicates that the craft performed exceptionally well, and the crew – had there been any – would have survived.

With this test successfully concluded, Blue Origin can continue its preparations to launch crew and payloads sometime in 2017. The next versions of their New Shepard booster and capsule are already well into production at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington.

Written by: Curt Godwin
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