Update July 18th, 11:35AM ET: Blue Origin pulled off another successful test launch today, landing both the New Shepard rocket and capsule after flight. The company ignited the capsule’s emergency motor after it had separated from the rocket, pushing the spacecraft up to a top altitude of around 74 miles — a new record for Blue Origin. The firing also caused the capsule to sustain up to 10 Gs during the test, but Blue Origin host Ariane Cornell said “that is well within what humans can take, especially for such a short spurt of time.”
This morning, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin will attempt the ninth test flight of its sub-orbital rocket, the New Shepard — a reusable vehicle designed to take tourists to the edge of space and back. And for this launch, the company will be testing out the vehicle’s escape motor once again. That’s the system that could help save the lives of future passengers if something were to go wrong during the climb through Earth’s atmosphere.
Like most vertical rockets, the New Shepard is designed to take off upright from a launchpad at Blue Origin’s facilities in West Texas. Perched on top of the vehicle is a capsule for crew members, which the rocket carries skyward during flight. Once the New Shepard reaches an altitude of around 62 miles — what’s often considered the edge of space — the capsule and rocket separate. If passengers were on board, that’s when they would experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Then, both the capsule and rocket fall back to Earth. Parachutes deploy to gently land the capsule, while the rocket reignites its engine to land upright on the ground.
However, operations will be a little different on this test flight. Blue Origin will be igniting the escape motor on the crew capsule. It’s a small engine located on the bottom of the capsule that can quickly propel the spacecraft up and away from the rocket booster in case there is an emergency during the flight. Blue Origin tested out this motor once before during a test launch in October 2016, fully expecting the motor to destroy the booster. When the motor ignites, it slams the booster with 70,000 pounds of thrust and forceful exhaust. And yet, the booster survived the test, managing to land on the floor of the Texas desert.
This time around, Blue Origin plans to ignite the motor at a higher altitude than last time, “pushing the rocket to its limits,” according to the company. It’s unclear how high the ignition will occur, though, and if the booster will survive the test again.
No passengers will be flying on this trip, except for Blue Origin’s test dummy, which the company has named Mannequin Skywalker. Mannequin will be riding inside the crew capsule along with numerous science experiments from NASA, commercial companies, and universities. Santa Fe company Solstar, which flew with Blue Origin during its last launch, is going to test out its Wi-Fi access again during the flight. NASA will have a payload designed to take measurements of the conditions inside the capsule throughout the trip, such as temperature, pressure, and acoustics. There’s even a bunch of payloads made by Blue Origin’s employees as part of the company’s own “Fly My Stuff” program.
The rocket going up today is the third New Shepard vehicle that the company has ever flown. The first one flew to a super high altitude in April 2015, but the booster was unable to land back on Earth after flight. The second iteration of the vehicle was much more successful, however. Blue Origin launched and landed the rocket and booster a total of five times before retiring the system. This third New Shepard has already done two launches and landings, and it sports some upgrades over its predecessors. For instance, this one actually has windows in the crew capsule; the second vehicle had its windows painted on.
Blue Origin is building even more vehicles to carry passengers, though there isn’t a firm date for when the first crewed flights will occur. The company’s president Rob Meyerson has estimated that the first test passengers could fly as soon as this year, while commercial flights could start in 2019. Blue Origin also plans to start selling tickets next year, too. A report from Reuters said that those tickets would cost at least $200,000, though Blue Origin claims nothing has been decided yet. “We have not set ticket pricing and have had no serious discussions inside of Blue on this topic,” the company said in a statement, according to GeekWire.
Today’s test launch is scheduled to get underway at 11AM ET, and Blue Origin’s live stream will begin around 20 minutes before takeoff. Check back then to watch this test launch live.