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After a year away from test flights, Blue Origin launches and lands its rocket again

Nice to have you back, New Shepard

New Shepard Booster landing on the pad in West Texas.
Blue Origin

Private spaceflight company Blue Origin is back to launching rockets again after pulling off another successful launch and landing of its New Shepard tourist vehicle today. The sub-orbital rocket took off from the company’s facility in West Texas around noon ET, a source at Blue Origin confirmed to The Verge.

It’s the first big test flight the company has done in more than a year. In fact, Blue Origin has had a relatively quiet 2017 compared to the company’s previous years. In 2015, Blue Origin became the first to vertically land a rocket just after launching it to space; the company would then go on to launch and land that same New Shepard vehicle a total of five times. Blue Origin fully expected to crash the vehicle during its last launch in October 2016, too, but the rocket ultimately survived the test and was then retired from flight.

Now, Blue Origin is flying a brand-new test vehicle — one that is closer to the final version of the rocket that will actually carry people to space. For instance, the capsule on this rocket actually has windows, whereas the windows on the last vehicle were just painted on. Also this test flight had a few experimental payloads on board as well as a dummy, which Blue Origin appropriately named Mannequin Skywalker. It seems to have survived the journey to space and back just fine.

That means Blue Origin is likely getting closer to having people on board during its test flights. Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith said that the company is aiming to send its first customers to space in early in 2019 (though there is no word on ticket prices yet). Before customers fly, however, Blue Origin plans to do a series of flights with test pilots on board. Those could happen as early as next year, according to the company’s founder Jeff Bezos, though that’s still a little later than originally planned.

Mannequin Skywalker inside New Shepard’s crew capsule
Image: Blue Origin

Also, it’s unclear what Blue Origin’s strategy will be for viewing these tests. For a while, the company had been notoriously secretive about its launches, only tweeting about them after they had been complete. Eventually, the company got into the habit of live streaming the final flights of its previous vehicle. For today’s test, though, Blue Origin didn’t announce its plans to fly New Shepard.

The New Shepard is designed to provide passengers with a short, weightless experience during an 11-minute flight to space. Paying customers ride to an altitude more than 62 miles up, inside a crew capsule that sits on top of a rocket. Once there, the capsule and rocket separate, and passengers experience around three minutes of microgravity. The pieces then fall back to Earth: The capsule lands its crew gently with the help of parachutes, while the rocket does a powered landing, using its engine to lower itself slowly to the ground.

Although Blue Origin has barely flown the New Shepard this year, the company has made big strides on other projects, too. In March, CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a new animation and details about the future rocket the company is building, the New Glenn, which will be able to take cargo — and maybe even people — into orbit. And in October, Blue Origin successfully conducted the first full-scale test fire of its new BE-4 engine, a crucial piece of hardware the company has been developing for the last six years. Blue Origin plans to use the BE-4 to power the New Glenn, and the company also plans to sell it to the United Launch Alliance, to power the venture’s future rocket, Vulcan.

Update December 13th, 10:15AM ET: This story was updated to include information about Blue Origin’s dummy payload.