Private spaceflight company Blue Origin is planning to conduct the next test flight of its New Shepard rocket in early October — and it looks like it’ll be the most explosive test yet. That’s because the company is going to try out the vehicle’s escape system during flight. It’s a technique that saves the crew capsule portion of the New Shepard in case the rocket portion of the spacecraft fails. It also involves igniting a big explosive fire underneath the crew capsule, which will likely lead to the destruction of the rocket.
And we’re going to get to watch the drama live
But the best part is, we’re going to get to watch the drama live. Just like the last test flight of the New Shepard, Blue Origin will provide a live webcast of this event, according to an email update from CEO Jeff Bezos. He said that he’ll provide more details of the test soon.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a reusable rocket designed to take paying customers to the edge of space to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. The vehicle consists of a crew capsule — capable of carrying up to six passengers — that sits on top of a rocket booster. During flight, the booster carries the capsule up to around 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, an altitude that’s often considered the boundary to outer space. The capsule then separates from the booster, and both eventually fall back to Earth. A series of parachutes slow the capsule to help it touch down gently, while the booster reignites its engine and lands upright on solid ground. Both portions of the vehicle can then be used again for subsequent flights.
This will be the fifth test flight of the same New Shepard vehicle, which made history in November after becoming the first rocket to fly to the edge of space and then land vertically back on Earth. Blue Origin has been conducting a series of test flights with the vehicle at the company’s facility in West Texas. That also involves testing out failure scenarios too. During the last New Shepard flight, for instance, Blue Origin purposefully didn’t deploy one of the capsule’s parachutes to see if it could still land safely (which it did).
The crew capsule's escape system tested on the launch pad. (Blue Origin)
Now, the company wants to see if the crew capsule can keep any future passengers safe in case the New Shepard has a problem during the climb to space. That’s where the escape system comes in. To help save the crew, a rocket motor is located underneath the capsule. If there’s an issue with the rocket booster — either during flight or on the launch pad — the motor will fire for about two seconds and carry the capsule a safe distance away. Then, the capsule’s parachutes will deploy and help it land gently, as if the vehicle was returning from space.
A rocket motor is located underneath the capsule
Blue Origin has already tested out this system on the ground, but it hasn’t tried it out during flight yet. At about 45 seconds after launch, when the New Shepard is at 16,000 feet up, the company will intentionally start the capsule’s escape sequence. This animation gives a pretty good idea of what that’s going to look like.
While the upcoming test is meant to keep the capsule safe, it’s likely the booster portion of the New Shepard isn’t going to survive this test. When the capsule’s motor ignites, it’s going to slam the booster with a lot of forceful heat exhaust, which may make it hard to land the vehicle upright afterward. Still, Bezos says it’s possible that the booster may survive. And if it does, the spacecraft is in for a special treat. "We will in fact reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum," said Bezos. Otherwise, we’ll get to witness the booster explosively collide with the floor of the Texan desert.
The first paying customers may fly in 2018
Blue Origin hopes to start doing the first crewed flights of the New Shepard using test pilots in 2017. After that, the company is aiming to take its first paying customers on the vehicle in 2018. However, there’s still no word yet on how much a ride will cost.
The company is also working on another rocket capable of achieving orbit around Earth. That vehicle will be constructed at Blue Origin’s future manufacturing facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which is just now being built. Bezos promises to provide more details about that new rocket in his next email update.