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January 2016 marked the historical vertical landing of a previously used suborbital rocket, Blue Origin’s New Shepard. This rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first American who traveled into space. Headed by technology entrepreneur and investor Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is one of the many competing commercial space travel companies. The first successful vertical takeoff and landing, or VTVL, was completed in November 2015 and took the scientific community by surprise, bringing the organization into the limelight. New Shepard is being designed to carry humans into low Earth orbit, or LEO, and further designs aim to assist civilian space travel. Though SpaceX, a similar commercial rocket company, was able to accomplish vertical landing with Falcon 9 in 2015, the two tests conducted did not launch the rocket into space prior to descent whereas Blue Origin’s rocket completed the suborbital flight.
Suborbital flights do not launch the crew capsule out of the range of gravitational pull. Therefore, this capsule only remains in space for an approximate four minutes before descending back to Earth. The successful VTVL completed in November 2015 reached an apogee of 329,839 feet or 100.5 kilometers—right outside the internationally recognized boundary of space—with a thrust of 110,000 pounds with the help of a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen combustion engine named BE-3.
At this point, the first stage of the rocket separated from the crew capsule and descended to Earth at a speed of Mach 3.72, which is 3.72 times the speed of sound. Drag breaks released at the top of the rocket booster and reduced vehicle speed by half.
Furthermore, the BE-3 rocket booster engine reignited at about 4,896 feet above ground level, thus allowing for ample time to slow the vehicle’s velocity. The November landing occurred at a slow 4.4 mph. The crew capsule, which deployed parachutes at 20,045 feet above ground, also made a successful landing approximately 11 minutes after takeoff. Upon inspection of all parts, the capsule parachutes were replaced along with the rocket’s pyro igniters. Software improvements were made for further reuse.
Last month, the same New Shepard completed another successful VTVL, demonstrating its reusability. The vehicle reached an apogee of 333,582 feet, or 101.7 kilometers, above ground. There, the capsule and booster were separated before both returned to Earth for recovery.
Key to the vehicle’s vertical landing mechanism is the software allowing for up to 4 feet of landing margin, meaning the rocket can descend to a landing pad within 4 feet of the intended target point. This larger margin of error allows for greater probability of success when landing the vehicle. Fins at the base of the booster pivot to guide landing and increase precision.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has completed similar VTVL tests in recent months. However, it is designed to make orbital journeys into space and to the International Space Station. This requires greater speeds and thrust and a slimmer design that makes vertical landing more challenging.
In December 2015, it successfully landed at Cape Canaveral after delivering 11 communications and GPS testing satellites into space for ORBCOMM—an industry team led by engineers from Sierra Nevada Corp and Argon ST. This landing was SpaceX’s third attempt of its kind in recent months but the first successful one.
Since then, SpaceX has carried out a mission for NASA using Falcon 9. The ocean surface topography satellite named Jason-3 was lifted into orbit this month from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. However, Falcon 9 tipped over after a nearly successful drone ship landing. According to Jeff Bezos, one of the legs experienced an issue with the locking mechanism, causing the rocket to tip over and explode.
Blue Origin plans on exploring orbital missions in the future that are similar to SpaceX’s Falcon missions. The rockets will aim to assist agencies in carrying out space missions with both payloads and astronauts. The private company is currently working on building a new engine that will use liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen as propellants for the rocket. These elements will ease reuse and maintenance of the rocket systems. The current BE-3 engine will be modified to have a larger nozzle to assist operation in orbital space.
Successful commercial VTVL rockets and demonstrated reuse can greatly benefit both space exploration and space tourism by cutting industry costs dramatically. Currently, rocket payloads cost about $10,000 per pound. SpaceX is aiming to bring down these costs to $1,000 per pound. Through further experimentation, redevelopment, recovery and reuse of these vehicles, NASA hopes to reduce that cost to $100 per pound by 2025.
Research and advancements in the field of VTVL reusable rockets can help solve an even more pressing issue that the United States is facing today. With only a limited supply of Russian-manufactured engines used to power United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V due to tensions between Russia and the U.S., it is becoming increasingly important to develop new vehicles for military launches.
Recently, in response to rivalry between ULA and Space X, a partnership between ULA and Blue Origin was struck to develop an engine produced in the United States, called the BE-4. The current competition between ULA’s Atlas V, Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 could be key to finding a solution in the coming years, giving the U.S. the ability to lift satellites and implement manned missions from an entirely U.S. manufactured and operated rocket.