Why Blue Origin Plans to Crash-Land Its Reusable Rocket

The vehicle will land with one bum parachute to test its safety systems.
June 17, 2016, 11:00am
Image: Blue Origin

Hold onto your butts, space fans. Blue Origin is attempting the most daring test yet of its New Shepard reusable rocket, and for the first time, we can watch it live. The private spaceflight company, led by CEO Jeff Bezos, will send the vehicle to space and back with one deliberately failed parachute, in order to test the craft's safety systems.

The test is scheduled for Sunday. (It was originally slated for Friday, but was delayed by a leaky o-ring.) You can watch the test live at BlueOrigin.com.

Live-streaming rocket launches and landings are commonplace for SpaceX, led by rival billionaire Elon Musk; however, this would be a first for Blue Origin. The company has a reputation for conducting tests in secret, and only informing the public after they happened. This publicly-broadcast test seems to be a major step towards transparency.

Since Blue Origin's main goal is to send tourists into space, transparency will be key moving forward. The whole purpose behind these uncrewed test flights is to ensure the vehicle will be safe enough to carry humans up in outer space, and return them to the ground.

The New Shepard vehicle is designed to launch a crew of six, up to an altitude of 62 miles—the international boundary of space—where they will experience approximately four minutes of weightlessness. Both the crew capsule and the booster are designed to be reusable.

Once the rocket has reached suborbital space, the crew capsule will separate and the booster will plunge towards the Earth, where it will reignite its engines in order to gently touch down at the landing site. The crew capsule then deploys a trio of parachutes, which enable it to gradually lower itself to the ground.

Image: Blue Origin

If all goes according to plan, Sunday will mark the fourth round of test flights for this particular New Shepard suborbital vehicle at Blue Origin's testing ground in West Texas. The first two flight tests were conducted in November and January, followed by a third, more daring test in April. Each time, a booster (powered by Blue Origin's own hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine) sent an uncrewed space capsule just beyond the boundary of space, and landed it safely.

With three safe landings under its belt, the company wants to test how the vehicle responds when the landing doesn't go as planned.

"We're planning to demonstrate the redundancies built into the capsule on this re-flight of the vehicle by intentionally failing one drogue [a smaller parachute that helps it slow down] and one main parachute during descent," explained Bezos in a pre-test email announcement. "This should occur approximately 7 ½ minutes into the flight at an altitude of 24,000 feet."

Bezos boasted that the vehicle can handle this type of anomaly just fine and that any astronauts on board would be safe. However, for added protection, the capsule is equipped with backup safety systems, including retro rockets, a crushable structure, and shock-absorbing seats. According to a recent tweet, the flight will also "push the limit on booster maneuvers".

Along with space tourists, the company will eventually fly scientific payloads and researchers. The April test flight was the first to contain research experiments, with two tucked inside the craft's crew capsule: one from the University of Central Florida, designed to study how objects impact each other in a zero-G environment; and one from the Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio, Texas, which investigates the dynamics of rocky soil on small near-Earth asteroids.

Three more experiments are due to fly on Sunday: one from Purdue University, studying the shapes of fluids in zero-G; one from Louisiana State University and William Jewell College that focuses on temperature and composition differences in fluids and how they flow in microgravity; and a third from Germany's Braunschweig University of Technology, which will investigate the dynamics of dust collisions in the early Solar System.

Additional uncrewed test flights will continue through the rest of this year. If everything goes according to plan, Blue Origin will fly a crew of test pilots sometime next year before ferrying paying customers into space as early as 2018.

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