In a new email update from company founder Jeff Bezos on Thursday morning, Blue Origin detailed plans for the next flight of its reusable New Shepard propulsion module and capsule – a dramatic flight test of the escape system. Such an escape system is added to the spacecraft so that, in the event of a missile failure, the capsule can escape quickly to protect the passengers inside.
For the New Shepard system, this escape motor is mounted under the capsule and will fire in an emergency to push the spacecraft away from the rocket. Traditionally, such launch abort systems were mounted above the capsule in the “stack”, meaning that they are consumed during every flight, whether used or not. But Blue Origin is looking for a fully reusable launch system, so it integrates the escape motor under the capsule so it doesn’t get flung off during flight.
Blue Origin isn’t the first to try this “under” mounting. For example, NASA experimented with it nearly a decade ago in the Max Launch Abort System, but the space agency ultimately stuck with a more traditional launch abort system for its Orion spacecraft. Blue Origin is therefore the first company or space agency that has developed such an escape system this far and has passed multiple tests.
According to Bezos, the company has tested this escape system in multiple ground tests and on the launch pad. But now the company plans to conduct the first flight tests of an escape system since the mid-1960s and the Apollo program. And it will do this at the so-called “Max Q”, the point of maximum dynamic pressure as the rocket moves through the lower atmosphere at transonic speeds.
“We will do our in-flight escape test with the same reusable New Shepard booster we have already flown four times,” Bezos wrote. “About 45 seconds after liftoff at about 16,000 feet, we will order intentional escape. Redundant separation systems will separate the crew pod from the booster at the same time we ignite the escape engine. The escape engine will generate thrust to push the pod to the side, outside the path of the booster. The high-acceleration part of the escape takes less than two seconds, but by then the capsule will be hundreds of meters away and rapidly diverging. It will go through transonic speeds – the most difficult area of control – twice during the acceleration burn and the subsequent delay. The capsule will then roll out, stabilized by reaction control thrusters, until it begins to descend.”
If all goes well, the capsule will make a normal descent under three drogue parachutes and then the main parachutes to the ground. And the booster? It may not go so well. It wasn’t designed to survive an in-flight escape, Bezos noted, because it will be slammed with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force and hot exhaust. With 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.
“If the booster manages to survive this flight — the fifth — we will, in effect, reward him for his service with a retirement party and put him in a museum,” Bezos wrote. “In the more likely event that we end up sacrificing the booster in the service of this test, it will still have most of its propellant on board at the time the escape is activated, and the impact on the desert floor will be very impressive.” .”
The test flight will take place in “early October”, and as part of Blue Origin’s increasing openness, the company will once again offer a full webcast of the proceedings. The test is part of the company’s plan to ensure the robustness of its New Shepard launch system, a fully automated rocket and capsule that Blue Origin plans to use to transport space tourists to suborbital space, possibly as early as 2018. Blue Origin will also utilize the reusable technologies in this vehicle as part of a larger, orbital rocket likely to fly by the end of the decade.
List image from Blue Origin