This morning, private spaceflight venture Blue Origin will try once again to launch and land its reusable New Shepard rocket — the company’s vehicle that’s designed to take passengers to and from the edge of space. It will be the fourth test flight for this New Shepard vehicle, scheduled to take off at 10:15AM ET. But just like the vehicle’s previous three tests, there won’t be any people on board this time around. The uncrewed test flight is just one of many that Blue Origin plans to do with the New Shepard before the vehicle starts carrying paying customers to space sometime in 2018.
Today’s launch and landing is pretty unique in a couple ways
Still, today’s launch and landing is pretty unique in a couple ways. For one, the company plans to intentionally crash land part of the New Shepard during the vehicle’s descent. The idea is to see if the spacecraft could still keep people safe in the event of a major failure. To simulate that nightmare scenario, some of the vehicle’s parachutes will fail to deploy on the way down, triggering a particularly hard landing.
And the other big first? We’ll get to watch all of this go down in real time during a live webcast. That hasn’t been an option for any of Blue Origin’s previous test flights. Up until now, the company kept all of its tests under wraps, only releasing information about them after the flights had been completed. But recently, Blue Origin has been starting to share more information about its endeavors with the public. For the last test flight, CEO Jeff Bezos announced the launch beforehand and then proceeded to live-tweet the event.
Today, a live webcast will begin at 9:45AM ET on Blue Origin’s website, and the flight gets underway half an hour later. That’s when the New Shepard’s BE-3 engine ignites, sending the vehicle shooting up into the sky. On top of the vehicle sits a crew capsule that is capable of holding up to six passengers (though it’s empty today). The rocket carries the capsule 62 miles above the Earth’s surface to suborbital space, where the capsule and rocket separate. It’s here that any passengers would experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Eventually, both portions of the vehicle fall back to Earth, and both are designed to survive the fall. The rocket portion reignites its engines again to lower itself gently down to solid ground, while a series of parachutes deploy on the capsule to help slow its descent.
The crew capsule will only have a few parachutes for help today
But this time, the crew capsule will only have a few parachutes for help. One of the capsule’s three main parachutes fill fail, as well as a smaller drogue chute that helps to stabilize the spacecraft’s descent. That means the capsule will come in pretty fast, but there a few backup systems that can help cushion its impact. Bezos noted the capsule is fitted underneath with retro-rockets, which fire right before the vehicle hits the ground. These help to push against the surface and slow the capsule’s fall a bit further. The spacecraft also has what is called a "crushable structure" that helps absorb some of the blow of landing.
Hopefully we'll get to see both the landing of the capsule and the rocket, though it's unclear what exactly will be shown in the webcast. Check back here around 9:30AM ET to follow our liveblog and then watch the test flight live.