Private spaceflight company Blue Origin, helmed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, says it has landed its main rocket, New Shepard, back on Earth after launch. That would make it the first rocket ever to have gently landed and remained intact after taking off into space. It also means that Blue Origin has beaten SpaceX in the race to make the first reusable rocket; the Elon Musk-led space venture has been trying to soft-land its main rocket, the Falcon 9, for the past year.
To commemorate the landing, Bezos tweeted for the first time since setting up his Twitter account seven years ago.
Currently, all rockets that launch into space are either destroyed or abandoned post-takeoff. It's a design that significantly raises the cost of spaceflight, because an entirely new rocket must be built for each subsequent launch. Imagine having to rebuild every 747 after it flies from New York to Los Angeles. Private spaceflight companies have been looking for ways to save parts of their rockets after blasting off so that they can use them again, lowering their manufacturing costs. However, no one has managed to make it work just yet — until now.
Currently, all rockets that launch into space are either destroyed or unrecovered post-takeoff
Blue Origin made the announcement early this morning, with the release of a highly stylized video showing the rocket's test flight. The video comes off like an intense Hollywood action film, incorporating actual footage and CGI to depict the vehicle in space. It shows New Shepard as it climbs to an altitude of 329,839 feet — or sub-orbital space — which is where the vehicle's crew capsule detaches. If people had been onboard the capsule, they would have experienced four minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth. The crew capsule is designed to land any future passengers safely using a series of parachutes.
But the rocket's main fuselage, which houses most of the fuel and the rocket's engines, is designed to make a different type of soft landing. New Shepard uses a technique known as a propulsive landing, which involves reigniting the rocket's engines as the vehicle falls back down to Earth. The engines are used to control the rocket's descent, helping to slow it down and keep the vehicle upright so that it lands on the ground vertically. It's similar to how SpaceX wants to land its Falcon 9 rocket, though the company wants to vertically land on an autonomous drone spaceport in the ocean.
However, it looks like there are no hard feelings between the companies:
Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving VTOL on their booster— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
Though, Musk did immediately deliver some rocket shade following the announcement, noting there is a clear difference between the Falcon 9 and New Shepard.
The Falcon 9 is designed to deliver payloads into lower Earth orbit, whereas the New Shepard only takes passengers into sub-orbital space. Objects in sub-orbit are still in space, but they cannot make a full orbit around Earth and will eventually fall back to the surface.
Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but GTO orbit requires ~Mach 30. The energy needed is the square, i.e. 9 units for space and 900 for orbit.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
Update November 24th, 8:07AM: This article was updated to include a tweet from Jeff Bezos.