Blue Origin to test New Shepard abort system Wednesday

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GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Blue Origin plans to test the abort system on its suborbital New Shepard vehicle Wednesday (Oct. 5) as the company trickles out additional details about its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle.

The company announced last week that the test would occur Oct. 4 from the company’s test site in West Texas. The company did not release a launch time, but said a webcast of the event would begin at 10:50 a.m. Eastern.

On Monday, however, the weather outlook at the West Texas site prompted Blue Origin  to reschedule the test for Wednesday.

The liftoff will be similar to several previous New Shepard test flights, but 45 seconds into the flight the abort motor in the crew capsule of the vehicle will fire, sending it away from the propulsion module. The crew capsule will then parachute to a landing similar to that on a normal flight, when the crew capsule separates after main engine burnout.

Blue Origin warned, though, that the propulsion module is not likely to survive the abort test. “The booster was never designed to survive an in-flight escape,” Bezos wrote in a Sept. 8 message discussing the upcoming test, citing “70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust” slamming into the module from the crew capsule’s escape motor.

Bezos, though, did not rule out being able to land the module safely, saying there’s “some chance” it will be able to survive the aerodynamic forces from the abort event and land safely. “If the booster does manage to survive this flight — its fifth — we will in fact reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum,” he wrote.

The announcement of the New Shepard test comes days after the company offered a bit more information about the New Glenn vehicle that Bezos announced Sept. 12. Bezos, in a pair of tweets Sept. 26, said that Blue Origin had completed three weeks of wind tunnel tests of a model of the large orbital launch vehicle. One photo showed a module of the full rocket, and another of the “descent configuration” of the first stage as it returns for a landing.

The tests, Bezos said, studied the performance of the rocket at transonic and supersonic speeds. “Validated our CFD,” he wrote, referring to computational fluid dynamics modeling of the rocket.

The company has yet to release many details about New Glenn beyond its physical size and number of engines. The first stage uses seven BE-4 engines that Blue Origin is currently developing, and the second stage has one BE-4. An optional third stage uses a BE-3 engine based on the one used by New Shepard.

In an interview during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here Sept. 27, Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said that the company will provide more details about New Glenn in the coming months. “The beginning of next year is when we hope to release more information about New Glenn,” he said.

The timing of the wind tunnel tests announce came the same day that SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk announced a successful test of his company’s new Raptor engine. It was also a day before Musk’s major announcement of his Mars mission architecture at the IAC.

Meyerson said the announcement of the wind tunnel testing was not meant to “one-up” SpaceX. “This is not what we think about when we put out an announcement,” he said. “For the wind tunnel tests, three weeks of testing were completed. It’s significant and tied to the New Glenn announcement from the 12th, so it went out.”

He also sought to downplay any competition between Blue Origin’s and SpaceX’s launch vehicles, arguing that a future with an expanded human presence in space requires multiple providers. “We really believe in the success of all the other launch companies,” he said. “We’re going to need that to enable that future.”