Tag Archives: Blue Origin

Blue Origin to do New Shepard launch abort test

The competition heats up: For the next test flight of New Shepard, tentatively scheduled for early October, Blue Origin plans to test the capsule’s launch abort system, separating the capsule prematurely from its propulsion module during launch.

“We’ll be doing our in-flight escape test with the same reusable New Shepard booster that we’ve already flown four times,” Bezos wrote. “About 45 seconds after liftoff at about 16,000 feet, we’ll intentionally command escape. Redundant separation systems will sever the crew capsule from the booster at the same time we ignite the escape motor. The escape motor will vector thrust to steer the capsule to the side, out of the booster’s path. The high acceleration portion of the escape lasts less than two seconds, but by then the capsule will be hundreds of feet away and diverging quickly. It will traverse twice through transonic velocities—the most difficult control region—during the acceleration burn and subsequent deceleration. The capsule will then coast, stabilized by reaction control thrusters, until it starts descending.”

If all goes well, the capsule will make a normal descent under three drogue parachutes, and then its main parachutes, to the ground. And the booster? It may not fare so well. It was not designed to survive an in-flight escape, Bezos noted, as it will be slammed with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force and hot exhaust. At Max-Q it is not clear whether the propulsion module will survive—in some Monte Carlo simulations it does, but in others it does not.

I suspect they already have at least one new propulsion module ready to go, and plan to use it with the reused capsule in future tests.

Blue Origin to use two launchpads at Cape Canaveral

The competition heats up: Even though it is years away from flying its first orbital rocket, Blue Origin has expanded its plans at Cape Canaveral and now plans to remodel and use two different launchpads there for orbital flights.

The Kent, Wash.-based company filed a permit Sept. 6 to build and operate two orbital launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, taking up launch complexes 11 and 36. The company originally announced its plans to blast off its rockets at launch complex 36 last year at the same time revealing its decision to build a rocket manufacturing facility near Space Florida’s Exploration Park in Merritt Island. Taking up launch complex 11 (LC-11) is a new development.

This means that when the company starts testing its orbital rocket it will likely be doing it in public, from the Cape, rather than in the secretive manner in which it developed its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft out in Texas.

Concrete poured for Blue Origin factory

The competition heats up: Blue Origin this week began pouring concrete for its new rocket factory in Florida.

The Florida facility will be devoted to orbital operations, involving a spacecraft currently known as “Very Big Brother.” The orbital craft could eventually be offered to NASA as a transport ship for cargo or astronauts flying to and from the International Space Station. It could take on other missions as well.

They hope to open the facility by 2018.

More evidence ULA will pick Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a press interview published in late July, a ULA executive confirmed that the company is going to pick Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket.

ULA used a Russian engine for its expendable Atlas V booster but has long relied on U.S. suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne. For Vulcan’s reusable engine, ULA is turning to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The company’s cutting-edge BE-4 is powered by liquid natural gas instead of kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

By partnering with a startup like Blue Origin, ULA gains other advantages. “There is a world of difference between the culture at Blue Origin and the culture at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said [Dr. George F. Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs]. “We knew we could absorb some of their culture by osmosis, just by working with them.” That influence shows up in cross-team collaboration. “We are literally breaking down walls to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ workspace,” Sowers said.

Sowers is very careful to say nothing about the Atlas 5 and the engine that will replace the Russian engine in its first stage. ULA originally signed its deal with Blue Origin with the Atlas 5 in mind, but has not made a final decision between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne because Congress appears to favor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine, and Congress is a very big gorilla you do not upset. However, their development plans for Vulcan are incremental and closely linked with the Atlas 5. They plan to introduce Vulcan piecemeal in various upgrades of Atlas 5 as they go, so if they are set on using Blue Origin’s engine in the Vulcan rocket, it probably means that they plan on using it to replace the Russian engine in Atlas 5. This interview appears to confirm this.

New Shepard aced its landing test

The competition heats up: According to an email sent out by Jeff Bezos, the recent New Shepard capsule landing test, with one parachute disabled, was a complete success.

Besides the three parachutes, New Shepard is slowed in its descent by a retrorocket that fires just before the capsule hits the ground. Bezos’ email also provided pictures of the “crushable ring” on the bottom of the capsule, which can help decelerate the craft if it hits the ground too fast (acting sort of like the bumper on a car). “Even with one chute out, the crushable barely crushed,” wrote Bezos, who is also founder and CEO of Amazon.com.

“When new, the crushable is about 5.5 inches [14 centimeters] high and can crush down to less than 1 inch [0.4 cm] high, providing a constant deceleration force as it crushes. After the mission, the crushable was still over 5 inches [12.7 cm] high along nearly the entire circumference of the ring,” Bezos wrote.

No word on when the next test flight will take place.

New rocket company raising investment capital

The competition heats up: Two former employees of SpaceX and Blue Origin have teamed up to start their own rocket company, aimed at using 3D printing technology to build rockets “with zero human labor.”

The funding rounds are described in two documents filed in May and this month with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The first filing reports that $1.1 million in equity was sold to investors. The second filing serves as a new notice of $8.4 million in equity sold, out of a $9.6 million offering.

The filings indicate that Relativity Space is based in Seattle, but in response to an email inquiry, the company declined to say anything further about its location, its business plan or its investors. “We are entirely in stealth mode and will comment more when we are ready,” the company said.

New companies come and go, but the fact that the guys in charge of this come from these two companies, and have already raised significant investment capital, suggests attention should be paid.

Blue Origin breaks ground on rocket factory

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has broken ground on a Florida factory for building its orbital rockets.

At 750,000 square feet, the new custom-built facility is designed to be large enough to accommodate manufacturing, processing, integration, and testing of orbital rockets. To put that size in perspective, SpaceX’s rocket facility in Hawthorne, California is nearly one million square feet. Bezos stated that the entire rocket would be manufactured in this facility with the exception of the rocket engines themselves.

What this means is that Bezos is satisfied with the results of the test flights of his suborbital New Shepard spacecraft, and is now ready to upscale to a orbital rocket that would compete with SpaceX and everyone else in the increasingly competitive launch market.

New Shepard successfully completes fourth flight

The competition heats up: Blue Origin today completed the fourth test flight of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft, successfully landing intact its capsule with only two parachutes.

That’s four flights in about seven months, which for a test program seems a reasonable pace. I would expect them to soon begin testing faster turnaround times for the spacecraft, just to see if they can launch and repeat more quickly.

NASA signs Blue Origin for suborbital missions

The competition heats up: NASA has contracted with Blue Origin to use its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft for suborbital research missions.

The company hasn’t actually won any contracts, but is now certified to bid on any of NASA’s suborbital research work, as are Masten Space Systems, Near Space Corporation, UP Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, and World View Enterprise. The difference is that of all these companies, only Blue Origin has a ship built and already flying.

Billionaires propose big space plans

At separate interviews given during a media conference held this week in California, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos each expressed their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish in space over the next few decades.

First, Jeff Bezos outlined his belief that, in order to protect the Earth, humanity is going to have to eventually move its heavy manufacturing off the planet and into space. He thought colonizing the planets was a cool idea, but his focus remained with Earth, and using space as a way to protect it.

Musk meanwhile revealed his company’s long range plans for Mars, including their firm intention to send a Dragon capsule to the red planet during every future launch opportunity, beginning with 2018. Each mission will provide information needed to improve and develop their engineering so that they can hopefully send humans there by 2024.

A realistic appraisal of both men’s proposals will quickly recognize that they are probably overly optimistic. Bezos might be right that we should move our heavy industries into space, but he is not realistic to think this can happen soon, or is even possible. Musk’s company SpaceX might be laying the groundwork for the eventual colonization of Mars, but to think it will begin happening by 2024 is unrealistic.

Still, what both men are proposing are things that they are personally helping to make happen. Neither man has to get anyone else’s permission or approval to push these dreams. All they need to do is make sure the products they are building for accomplishing these tasks can also make money by providing services to others. Since this is exactly what both men are doing, they will likely achieve far more than anyone can imagine, even if the specific proposals they are putting forth now do not happen in their lifetimes.

This bright and very possible future is far different than the powerpoint proposals that NASA and big government have offered to us over and over again for the past four decades. Those ideas, while also ambitious, could never happen because they were dependent on the approval of too many other players, Congress, the public, the press, the bureaucracy. They were not founded on profits, so they became a drain on the economy instead of a source of wealth. The result was that we have gone nowhere and developed little new space technology in the years since the last Apollo landing.

Only now, with our renewed reliance on capitalism and profits, are we finally beginning to see the dreams expressed in those NASA powerpoint proposals coming to life. And it isn’t the government that is making them happen, but free individuals, with big dreams and the will to pursue them.

Expect there to be privately funded manned missions to Mars in the next decade. And expect there to be factories in orbit, far sooner than anyone expects.

Blue Origin selects company to build its rocket factory

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has selected the construction company that will build its Florida rocket manufacturing facility.

This decision indicates that Blue Origin is now very confident in the designs of both its New Shepard capsule/rocket and its BE-4 rocket engine, and knows enough about both to begin committing money and resources to manufacturing both repeatedly.

Aerojet Rocketdyne pitches its AR1 rocket engine to reporters

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week Aerojet Rocketdyne pitched its AR1 rocket engine, still under development, as the ideal replacement for the Russian engine in the Atlas 5.

The U.S. Air Force awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a contract in February worth up to $534 million over five years to certify and start delivering flight-ready AR1 engines in 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne says it already has kicked in $70 million, with its total investment expected to exceed $250 million over the life of the contract.

Van Kleeck, vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s advanced space and launch business unit, said the Air Force contract — the largest of several propulsion-related awards the service has made in recent months — is a sign of the Air Force’s confidence in the AR1’s ability to provide an expedient replacement for the RD-180 engine the Defense Department is under pressure from Congress to stop using.

United Launch Alliance, however, has anointed Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine as the front runner to replace the RD-180 by serving as the main engine for the Denver company’s next-generation rocket Vulcan.

“The AR1 engine can fly both on an Atlas and Vulcan and it’s the only engine that can do so,” Van Kleeck said.

Aerojet has been losing business to the newer commercial space companies like Blue Origin, and desperately needs to find a customer for the AR1. In the long run the Air Force contract won’t suffice, as it really is no more than government corporate welfare and cannot sustain them as a company. This press conference was part of that effort.

Video of Saturday’s New Shepard flight

Blue Origin has released video of its New Shepard test flight on Saturday, once again in a slick edited presentation rather than raw video of the flight itself. I have embedded this video below the fold.

As promised, the propulsion module came down at full speed until only a few seconds before impact, then fired its engines and gently slowed, then hovered, then touched down without harm. The long shot of it coming down is especially breathtaking.
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New Shepard flies again, for the third time

The competition heats up: On Saturday Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its reusable New Shepard suborbital capsule/rocket spacecraft

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.

This flight also carried some science experiments, demonstrating that Blue Origin’s customers will not be limited merely to space tourists.

New Shepard to fly this weekend

The competition heats up: Jeff Bezos indicated today on Twitter that the next New Shepard flight will be this weekend.

“Working to fly again tomorrow,” Blue Origin founder and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos tweeted on Friday. “Same vehicle. Third time.” Adding to the intrigue, Bezos said there was a higher chance of a crash on the upcoming unmanned test flight. During its descent, the booster’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine will re-light closer to the ground — just 3,600 feet up — and at higher thrust than before.

“Pushing the envelope,” said Bezos. “Impact in 6 sec if engine doesn’t restart & ramp fast.”

I will be out caving this weekend, so my reactions will have to wait until I return on Sunday night. Should be quite exciting however, especially as this will be third flight into space for this ship/rocket, a first as far as I know in space travel. There have been some vehicles reused, but I don’t remember any that reached space and were reused more than once.

ULA head rejects his engineer’s remarks about Aerojet Rocketdyne

The heat of competition: The head of ULA has disavowed his engineers’ remarks that plugged Blue Origin’s engine for the Atlas 5 while dissing Aeroject Rocketdyne’s.

The engineer was giving a talk at the University of Colorado this week where he made it pretty clear that ULA favors Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne, but had to make believe they were treating both companies equally in the competition to replace the Atlas 5’s Russian engines in order to keep the Air Force happy. Bruno is probably now doing some damage control, as the government still wants to justify the Aerojet Rocketdyne contract (whose only real purpose was as a government pork barrel jobs program). Considering all the money the Air Force and congressmen give to ULA, he has to keep them both happy. And telling the world that their Aerojet contract is a waste of government money is not a very good way to do this.

Nonetheless, he also admitted that Blue Origin is way ahead in development, and is thus most likely to win the competition anyway.

Blue Origin engine testing update

The competition heats up: Jeff Bezos has released an update on Blue Origin’s test program of its BE-4 rocket engine, being built as a possible replacement for the Russian engines in the Atlas 5.

Bezos’s final comment kind of explains why Boeing has favored them over Aerojet Rocketdyne for this engine:

One of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly. Building these two new test cells is a $10 million commitment, and we as a team made the decision to move forward in 10 minutes. Less than three weeks later we were pouring the needed three-foot thick foundations. Private funding and rapid decision making are two of the reasons why the BE-4 is the fastest path to eliminate U.S. dependence on the Russian-made RD-180.

I imagine however a lot of Congressmen are upset by this. If they do it too cheaply or too quickly there will be far less opportunity to spend pork in their districts!

Jeff Bezos gives a tour of Blue Origin

The competition heats up: Jeff Bezos gave his first tour of Blue Origin’s facilities for eleven journalists on Tuesday.

The article is chock full of interesting details about the company’s plans. To me these details about their New Shepard test program are the most interesting:

“We’re going to fly it until we lose it,” he said. The plan is to test the spaceship many, many times without humans aboard. At some point, Blue Origin will run a test in which the crew capsule will have to blast itself clear from the propulsion module at maximum dynamic pressure – a scenario during which the propulsion module will almost certainly be destroyed.

Not to worry, though: More crew capsules and propulsion modules are already under construction at the factory. “By the time anybody gets on, I think you should be willing to bring your mom,” Bezos said.

They also hope that this test program will proceed to launching humans by 2017.

Air Force awards contracts for American rocket engine

The competition heats up: The Air Force today awarded developmental contracts worth $160 million total to both Aerojet Rocketdyne and the partnership of ULA/Blue Origin for the development of an American-built rocket engine to replace the Russian engines in the Atlas 5 rocket.

Here is the ULA press release.

New Shepard launch update

The competition heats up: Blue Origin expects to do about one launch per month of its New Shepard rocket in the next two years leading up to commercial space tourism flights in 2018.

Reports from the meeting quoted [Blue Origin executive Brett] Alexander as saying there would be a couple of dozen such test flights over the course of the next two years – which works out to an average of one flight per month. Alexander also told the gathering that it’s still too early to announce the ticket price for passenger flights.

Blue Origin to increase New Shepard launch rate

The competition heats up: Blue Origin expects to increase the rate of test flights for its New Shepard reusable rocket in 2016.

“We expect to shorten that turnaround time over time this year, and fly this vehicle again and again,” [Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson] said. Those upcoming tests will use the same New Shepard vehicle that flew the previous two flights, with hardware and software modifications as needed between flights. Meyerson said the company still plans to perform “dozens” of test flights of New Shepard over the next couple of years before the company is ready to carry people on the vehicle. “It really depends on how the flight test program goes,” he said. “It could be a little faster than that, or it could be a little longer than that, depending on what we learn.”

I expect that by the end of 2016, the U.S. will have two proven reusable first stage rockets and two operational orbital cargo spacecraft. And that doesn’t count the likely first demo flight of Falcon Heavy.

Blue Origin reflies and lands New Shepard again

The competition heats up: Blue Origin yesterday successfully re-flew its New Shepard booster, vertically landing it for the second time.

Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.

They are not clear whether the capsule was re-flown as well. They do say they intend to re-fly New Shepard many times in 2016, probably at an increasing rate. If so, I would say that the race to be the first to sell suborbital tickets to tourists is won by Blue Origin, and that Virgin Galactic and XCOR have been left in the dust.

I have embedded the company’s video below the fold of yesterday’s flight.
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FAA flight restrictions suggest upcoming New Shepard flight

The competition heats up: New temporary FAA flight restrictions scheduled for January 22 and 23 in the area where Blue Origin does its test flights suggest that the company is about to do another New Shepard test.

It is likely that they will re-fly the booster that they successfully landed in their November 23 flight.

Musk vs Bezos vs Branson

The competition heats up: Two stories today highlight the entertaining and totally beneficial space race that now exists between private American space companies, instigated by SpaceX’s successful vertical landing of its Falcon 9 first stage.

The first is a Popular Mechanics post showing two graphics comparing the flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket with Falcon 9’s first stage.

As they correctly note,

Both companies did a big thing and deserve accolades for it. The race is on to bring on true reusability, which has the potential to drive down the cost of space launches if done correctly. But Jeff Bezos is working with a rocket barely the size of the engine of the Falcon 9 first stage. For suborbital flight, Bezos did a big thing. For orbital flight, SpaceX did an even bigger thing. In suborbital flight, Bezos may have beat SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket to a full suborbital flight and return, but he isn’t ready to fly with the Falcon yet.

Blue Origin is posed to become SpaceX’s biggest competitor, but they clearly are behind in the race and will need to do a lot to catch up.

The second article is an excellent essay by Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc noting that at this stage the race isn’t really between Musk and Bezos but between Bezos and Richard Branson.

Messier notes that Bezos’ New Shepard rocket is built to sell tickets to tourists on suborbital flights. He is not competing with SpaceX’s orbital business but with Richard Branson’s space tourism business at Virgin Galactic. And more significantly, it appears that despite a ten year head start, Richard Branson appears to be losing that race, and badly.

Not only that, but while SpaceShipTwo is essentially a deadend, capable only of suborbital tourism, Bezos’s New Shepard was designed to be upgraded to an orbital ship and rocket. Once they chaulk up some suborbital ticket sales and some actual flights, something they seem posed to do in the next two years, they will likely then begin moving into the orbital field. They will then leave Virgin Galactic far behind.

Blue Origin lands first stage rocket vertically

The competition heats up: Yesterday Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin did its second test flight of its New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule, and successfully recovered the rocket’s first stage, landing the stage vertically using its rockets.

As Jeff Bezos wrote at the link:

Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.

This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design. Our unique ring fin shifted the center of pressure aft to help control reentry and descent; eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 mph; hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet above the landing pad; then the highly-throttleable BE-3 engine re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph to touchdown on the pad.

When you watch the video you’ll see that we took the liberty of engineering all the drama out of the landing.

I have posted video of the flight below the fold.

SpaceX has been attempting this with its orbital Falcon 9 rocket for the last two years. They have come very close, hitting their target and almost landing. They plan to try again in December. Blue Origin however has beaten them to it, even if they have done it with a suborbital rocket.This demonstrates unequivocally that the concept is sound and that a rocket’s first stage can be recovered. It also demonstrates that of all the rocket companies in the world, SpaceX and Blue Origin are in position to dominate for at least the next decade. I am very confident that SpaceX will succeed in its efforts to recover its first stage. I am also very confident that Blue Origin’s plans to upgrade New Shepard into an orbital rocket/capsule will proceed quickly.

In both cases, the companies will then move forward, capable of recovering and reusing significant parts of their rockets, thus making it possible to significantly lower the launch cost and thus charge their customers less. No one else is in this position, or even close to it. The launch market will belong to them.
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