You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had founded a private space company. Blue Origin, as it’s known, isn’t one for the spotlight as whilst it was founded in 2000 (2 years before SpaceX) it wasn’t revealed publicly until some years later. The company has had a handful of successful test launches however, focusing primarily on the suborbital space with Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) capable rockets. Indeed their latest test vehicle, the New Shepard, was successfully launched at the beginning of this year. Outside of that though you’d be hard pressed to find out much more about Blue Origin however today they have announced that they will be launching from Cape Canaveral, using the SLC-36 complex which used to be used for the Atlas launch system.
It might not sound like the biggest deal however the press conference held for the announcement provided us some insight into the typically secretive company. For starters Blue Origins efforts have thus far been focused on space tourism, much like Virgin Galactic was. Indeed all their previous craft, including the latest New Shepard design, were suborbital craft designed to take people to the edge of space and back. This new launch site however is designed with much larger rockets in mind, ones that will be able to carry both humans and robotic craft alike into Earth’s orbit, putting them in direct competition with SpaceX and other private launch companies.
The new rocket, called Very Big Brother (pictured above), is slated to be Blue Origin’s first entry into the market. Whilst raw specifications aren’t yet forthcoming we do know that it will be based off Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine which is being co-developed with United Launch Alliance. This engine is slated to be the replacement for the RD-180 which is currently used as part of the Atlas-V launch vehicle. Comparatively speaking the engine is about half as powerful when compared to the RD-180, meaning that if the craft is similarly designed to the Atlas-V it’s payload will be somewhere in the 4.5 to 9 tonne range to LEO. Of course this could be wildly different to what they’re planning and we likely won’t know much more until the first craft launches.
Interestingly the craft is going to retain the VTVL capability that its predecessors had. This is interesting because no sizeable craft has that capability. SpaceX has been trying very hard to get it to work with the first stages of their Falcon-9 however they have yet to have a successful landing yet. Blue Origin likely won’t beat SpaceX to the punch on this however but it’s still interesting to see other companies adopting similar strategies in order to make their rockets reusable.
Also of note is the propellant that the rocket will use for the BE-4 engine. Unlike most rockets, which either run on liquid hydrogen/liquid oxeygen or RP-1(kerosene)/liquid oxygen the BE-4 will use natural gas and liquid oxygen. Indeed it has only been recently that methane has been considered as a viable propellant as I could not find an example of a mission that has flown using the fuel. However there must be something to it as SpaceX is going to use it for their forthcoming Raptor engines.
I’m starting to get the feeling that Blue Origin and SpaceX are sharing a coffee shop.
It’s good to finally get some more information out of Blue Origin, especially since we now know their ambitions are far beyond that of suborbital pleasure junkets. They’re entering a market that’s now swarming with competition however they’ve got both the capital and strategic relationships to at least have a good go at it. I’m very interested to see what they do at SLC-36 as more competition in this space is a good thing for all concerned.
There are times when I stare at this page for hours trying to think up something to write, hoping that a spark of inspiration hits me at just the right time and with enough force for me to spill out a few hundreds words. There are other times when I have no such trouble and today is one of those days. Just a couple days ago one of my favourite space companies, SpaceX, launched their Falcon 9 rocket into space carrying a prototype of their Dragon capsule which will one day bring astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Before I say anything about it though I think you need to see the launch for yourself:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sP5gykvTBpM
The whole video is awe inspiring in the simplicity of the image that hides the thousands of man hours required to make such an event happen. I watched the entirity of it with bated breath as even though the most difficult part is liftoff there are still so many things that can go wrong. You can then imagine my elation when the Dragon capsule reached orbit and the engines shutdown, making this launch nothing short of completely flawless.
As you would expect the space community is completely engulfed in the enormity of this achievement, and rightly so. SpaceX has proven that they’re quite capable of doing what is usually reserved for large governments and budgets in the billions on what amounts to a shoestring budget. Additionally they’ve shown that they’re quite capable of learning from their mistakes as this flawless launch avoided all the problems that they’d previously encountered. The incredible pace of development that they’ve managed to keep up over the past couple years shows just how talented the entire SpaceX team is and how much they mean to the future of space for all of humanity.
The launch itself isn’t the only thing making headlines either. You see around the same time as the launch some of my fellow Australians noticed a strange spiral lightshow up in the sky. Whilst many where quick to jump on the alien UFO bandwagon the space community cast our minds back 6 months to when a similar event happened over Norway. As it turns out they are obstensibly the same thing as our lightshow was caused by the Falcon 9 first stage booster spiraling back down to earth, venting its remaining fuel as it did. This was probably the only unexpected part of the Falcon 9 launch as SpaceX didn’t expect it to create such a show on its way back down and future launches of the Falcon 9 will not do this again.
So what does this launch actually mean for the future of space? Well the success of this intial flight means that all their processes and systems have been verified as fully capable of launching an orbital craft. Whilst the Dragon capsule is in orbit (I think it has returned already as the mission profile was 5 hours, but can’t find any confirmation of that) it will provide quite a lot of useful data on the real world flight characteristics of the craft. Additionally upon return it will verify their landing capabilities, ensuring that once this thing is used for people it won’t turn them into soylent jam. Most importantly it means that the next 2 scheduled flights can focus on their core objectives, rather than verification of core systems had this initial flight failed.
SpaceX currently has 2 more flights of the Falcon 9 planned for 2010 and if you look at their objectives you can see why I and every other space nut in the world is going ballistic:
|1||2010||5 hours||Launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft|
|2||2010||5 days||ISS Fly-by. Dragon will approach to within 10 km of ISS and exercise the radio cross-link, demonstrating the ability of ISS crew to receive telemetry from Dragon and their ability to send a command to the spacecraft. After this primary objective is completed, Dragon will leave the vicinity of ISS and perform a comprehensive set of in-space check-outs before returning to earth.|
|3||2010||3 days||Full cargo mission profile including mate to ISS|
Do you see it? This year could see the first fully private space vehicle actually docking with the ISS and delivering cargo to it! Whilst I understand that these times are tentative you can still see just how mind blowing this is, as we’re mere baby steps away from replacing the retiring space shuttle’s cargo delivery service and arm’s reach from delivering the people it used to carry.
So my congratulations goes out to SpaceX and all the supporting people for their success with launching the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule into orbit. Your hard work and dedication is paving the way not only for a new era of private space travel but also for NASA to return to its true goal of pushing the boundaries of what the human race is capable of. I look forward to watching your accomplishments roll on steadily and, one day, to be just another happy customer of the services that you provide.
See you SpaceX cowboy.