Blue Origin flies New Shepard on suborbital test flight

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Updated 10:20 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin successfully flew its New Shepard suborbital vehicle for the third time in four and a half months April 2 as the company moves closer to commercial operations of the vehicle.

The vehicle lifted off from the company’s test site shortly after 11 a.m. Eastern time, according to a series of tweets by company founder Jeff Bezos. The vehicle’s propulsion module, the same one that flew earlier test flights in November and January, made a successful powered landing, he said. Its crew capsule, flying without people on board, parachuted to a safe landing.

The vehicle reached a peak altitude of nearly 103.4 kilometers, slightly above the “von Karman line” frequently used as the boundary of space and similar to previous test flights.

The flight represented a new degree of openness for the company. The company discussed previous flights only after they took place, with the sole advance warning in the form of temporary flight restrictions for the airspace above the launch site published by the Federal Aviation Administration. This time, however, Bezos announced the planned flight in a series of tweets April 1, and tweeted this flight in real time.

One difference on this flight from previous tests, Bezos said, was a change in the restart of the propulsion module’s BE-3 engine needed to perform the powered landing. The company planned to restart the engine at an altitude of just 1,100 meters, quickly going to high thrust to slow the vehicle for landing. “Impact in 6 sec if engine doesn’t restart & ramp fast,” Bezos wrote.

This flight also carried the experiments provided by universities. One, called the Box of Rocks Experiment from the Southwest Research Institute, was designed to study the interaction of small rocks in microgravity. A second experiment, Collisions into Dust Experiment from the University of Central Florida, examined the behavior of a layer of dust after the impact of a marble-sized object in weightlessness.

New Shepard launch
New Shepard lifts off from Blue Origin’s West Texas test site April 2. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin executives have said the company plans to increase the frequency of test flights as it prepares to bring New Shepard into commercial operations. Flights carrying commercial research payloads, but without a crew, could begin later this year, with commercial flights with spaceflight participants planned in about two years. Test flights with people on board the autonomously-piloted vehicles are planned for 2017.

The propulsion module used on this flight, and two prior ones, was the second one built by the company, after the first propulsion module was lost in an April 2015 test flight. Three more propulsion modules are under construction at the company’s headquarters near Seattle.

Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson said on a media tour of its headquarters last month that the company currently plans to build six propulsion modules and accompanying crew modules, the latter outfitted with what company officials said are the largest windows on any spacecraft. Production of additional New Shepard vehicles will depend on the outcome of the ongoing test flight program and market demand, he said.