Blue Origin, established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, scored a three-for-three with launches and landings of their sub-orbital New Shephard launch vehicle.
Intended to offer passengers the opportunity to experience the microgravity of space, New Shephard is a two stage vehicle comprising the capsule unit which will eventually carry 6 people to the each of space, and a rocket stage simply called the “propulsion module”. Both are designed to be fully re-usable in order to reduce the overall cost of launch operations.
Having first flown on November 23rd, 2015, when the capsule unit reached an altitude of 100.5 km (63 mi) before parachuting back to a soft landing and the propulsion module made a powered descent and landing, the April 2nd, 2016, marked the third successful flight for both capsule and propulsion module, the latter now having been used for all three successful flights in November 2015, January 2016 and April 2016.
During the flight, the capsule – which was carrying a small science payload – reached a maximum altitude of 103.4 km (64.4 mi) before making a return to Earth under its parachutes, while the propulsion module steered its way back to the launch site to make a powered landing.
Nor was this a run-of-the-mill return for the propulsion module, as a the ascent / descent engine was re-lit at a much higher altitude that is expected during operational flights, at around 1,107 metres (3,600 ft), in a manoeuvre designed to further test the engine’s reliability and the wear and tear it might suffer during a flight. Understanding both of these factors will help Blue Origin better identify the overall costs involved in refurbishing rocket and engines between flights.
The New Shephard capsule, whilst primarily intended to fly people on sub-orbital flights, can also be used for science research, as demonstrated in this flight, which saw the capsule carry the Box of Rocks experiment from the Southwest Research Institute, designed to explore how rocky debris settles in microgravity, and the University of Central Florida’s Collisions into Dust experiment, which aims to better understand how large bodies interacted with dust in the early Solar System.
While Blue Origin appear to be slightly ahead of SpaceX in terms of launching and recovering their rockets, it’s important to remember that the current New Shephard vehicle and the SpaceX Falcon 1.1 are very different beasts. Not only is the latter some 3 times bigger than New Shepard, the first stage of the vehicle flies much higher and faster than the Blue Origin vehicle, both of which make returning the first stage of the booster to a landing site to make a safe touchdown far more of a technical challenge.
That said, the sub-orbital capabilities of New Shephard are only one phase of Blue Origin’s plans. With the vehicle expected to commence crewed test flights in 2017 and offer sub-orbital tourist flights from 2018, the company plan to gradually uprate the vehicle to a point were it will also be able to undertake orbital launches and still be recovered.
Walking with Rovers
NASA is continuing to ramp public interest in Mars, with a new public outreach programme set to begin in summer 2016.
Destination: Mars builds on the ongoing cooperative work between the space agency and Microsoft in developing applications and opportunities for the Miscrosoft HoloLens system. As I’ve previously reported, NASA is already using the HoloLen aboard the International Space Station, and have also developed a means for members of the Curiosity science team put themselves “on” Mars using the HoloLens and data / images returned by the rover.
It is in the latter capacity that Destination: Mars is designed to work, offering the public, using the mixed reality capabilities of the HoloLens to “visit” Mars.