Blue Origin New Shepard mission 9
Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle lifts off on its ninth test flight July 17 from the company's West Texas test site. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

FARNBOROUGH, England — Blue Origin conducted a successful test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle July 18 that demonstrated its crew capsule escape system.

The vehicle lifted off from the company’s West Texas test site at 11:11 a.m. Eastern. The launch, the ninth test flight in the overall New Shepard development program, was announced a day in advance by the company.

The vehicle’s propulsion module boosted the crew capsule on a standard trajectory. About 20 seconds after the capsule separated, the capsule fired its solid-propellant escape motor in a planned test of its performance at high altitudes.

The motor performed as expected, giving the capsule an extra boost and setting an altitude record of 118.8 kilometers before landing by parachute 11 minutes after liftoff. The propulsion module, about 30 meters away from the crew capsule when the motor fired, was unaffected by the test and made a powered vertical landing on a pad near the launch site.

“It’s an important test in our march towards flying humans into space, which hopefully will be soon,” Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, during a company webcast of the test.

While this flight was primarily intended to demonstrate the vehicle’s escape system, the crew capsule carried eight research and technology demonstration payloads, similar to what the vehicle has done on previous suborbital test flights.

Those payloads some that flew previously, like the Schmitt Space Communicator developed by Solstar, a New Mexico company seeking to demonstrate the use of wifi communications technologies in space. Another reflown payload was an electromagnetic field experiment from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, previous versions of which went on the sixth and seventh test flights of the vehicle.

Another payload offered an unusual synergy with another part of Blue Origin. Thai company mu Space, which ordered a launch of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket in 2017, included a package with several experiments from universities and organizations in Thailand.

“We are excited to join the upcoming New Shepard flight. We are really curious how microgravity affects the structure and properties of things, and we hope this flight will help us understand the science behind it,” said James Yenbamroong, chief executive and founder of mu Space, in a preflight statement.

Another experiment, Granular Anisotropic Gases, was developed by Otto-von-Guericke University in Germany and funded by the German space agency DLR. The flight of experiment was arranged Olympiaspace, a European “commercial space agency” that took care of logistical and regulatory matters for the payload.

This launch was the ninth for the New Shepard program, and the third for this particular combination of crew capsule and propulsion module. The next flight, Cornell said, will feature “finished customer interiors” like those that will be used on commercial flights of the vehicle, intended to carry up to six people.

Blue Origin has provided only vague schedules about when human flights would begin, with company officials saying recently they anticipated starting to fly humans on test flights by the end of this year. The company has yet to start selling tickets for the vehicle and has not established an official price for those flights.

Cornell didn’t offer a timetable for crewed flights beyond “soon” during the webcast but said they could begin “after a couple more tests.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...