Blue Origin, the private space company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos has become the first company to successfully launch a rocket into space – and return all elements of the vehicle to Earth for re-use.
The flight, carried out in West Texas, took place on Monday, November 23rd. It comprised the company’s New Shephard capsule, being flown in an uncrewed mode, and a single stage, recoverable booster is powered by an engine also developed by the company.
Unlike SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Space corporation, all of whom are directly pursuing rocket and space vehicle designs capable of orbital flight, Blue Origin is taking a more incremental approach, with efforts focused on the sub-orbital market “space tourism” market. The company is looking to build a cost-effective launch system capable of lifting small groups of paying passengers into space on ballistic “hops” which allow them to experience around 4-5 minutes of zero gravity before returning them to Earth.
The November 23rd flight saw the uncrewed New Shephard vehicle hoisted aloft by the booster system which reached a speed of Mach 3.72, sufficient for it to impart enough velocity to the capsule so that it could, following separation, continue upwards to an altitude of 100.5 kilometres (329,839 feet), before starting its descent back to the ground and parachuting to a safe landing.
Following capsule separation, however, the booster rocket Also made a control descent back to Earth, rather than being discarded and lost. The design of the booster – which Blue Origin call the “propulsion module” to differentiate to from a “simple” rocket – means it is semi-capable of aerodynamic free-fall, and won’t simply topple over and start tumbling back to Earth. At 6.5 kilometres (4 miles) above the ground, a set of eight drag brakes are deployed to slow the vehicle, with fins along the outside of the module allowing it to be steered. At 1.5 kilometres (just under 1 mile) above the landing pad, the unit’s motor reignites, further slowing it to a safe landing speed and allowing it to precisely manoeuvre itself onto the landing pad.
Highlights of the actual test flight, mixed with computer-generated scenes of the New Shephard capsule carrying a group of tourists on their sub-orbital hop was released by Blue Origin on November 25th.
One of the first to congratulate Blue Origin on their flight was Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX, which is also pursuing the goal of building a reusable rocket system, but had yet to achieve a successful recovery of the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. However, as Musk pointed out, there are significant differences and challenges involved in bringing a sub-orbital launch back to Earth and a booster which has to reach far higher velocities in order to lob a payload into orbit, as SpaceX is already doing.
Not that Blue Origin doesn’t have orbital aspirations; both the “propulsion module” and New Shephard are designed to be integrated into a larger launch vehicle capable of placing the capsule into orbit. The November 23rd flight itself marks the second attempt to launch and recover both New Shepard and the propulsion module; in April 2015, the first attempt succeeded in recovering the capsule, but a failure in the drag brake hydraulic system on the propulsion module resulted in its loss.
Martian Moon Starting Slow Breakup?
Mars has two natural moons, Deimos and Phobos. Neither are particularly large; Deimos is only 15 × 12.2 × 11 km in size, and orbits Mars once every 30 hours; Phobos measures just 27 × 22 × 18 km, and orbits the planet once every 7 hours and 39 minutes. Both exhibit interesting properties, in that Deimos is slowly moving away from Mars, and may even break from Mars’ influence in a few hundred million years.
Phobos, however is doing the reverse; it is gradually closing in on Mars at a rate of about 2 metres (6.6 ft) every 100 years. This means that over time, it is being exposed to greater and greater gravitational forces as it approaches its Roche limit.