It seems that Blue Origin is ready to step out of the cloak of secrecy it has worn for so long. Once an enigmatic and secretive company they have been making many more waves as of late, setting the scene for them to become more heavily involved in the private space industry. Progress hasn’t been all that fast for them however although, honestly, it’s hard to tell with the small dribs and drabs of information they make public. Still they managed to successfully fly their current launch vehicle, New Shepard, at the end of April this year. That test wasn’t 100% successful however as, whilst the crew capsule was returned safely, the booster (which has the capability to land itself) did not fair so well and was destroyed. Today marks a pivotal moment for Blue Origin as their second flight of their New Shepard craft was 100% successful, paving the way for their commercial operations.
The New Shepard craft isn’t your typical craft that we’ve come to expect from private space companies. It’s much more alike to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo as it’s designed for space tourists rather than transporting cargo or humans to orbital destinations. That doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting however as they’ve already demonstrated some pretty amazing technology that few other companies have been able to replicate. It’s also one of the most unusual approaches to sub-orbital tourism I’ve seen, almost being a small scale replica of a Falcon-9 with a couple unusual features that enable it to be a fully reusable craft.
A ride on a New Shepard will take you straight up at speeds of almost Mach 4 getting you to a height of just over 100KM, the universally agreed boundary of Earth and space. However not all of the rocket will be going up there with you, instead once the booster has finished its job it will disconnect from the crew capsule, allowing the remaining momentum to propel the small cabin just a little bit further. The cabin then descends back down to Earth, landing softly with the aid of your standard drag chutes that are common in capsule based craft. The booster however uses some remaining fuel to soft land itself and appears to be able to do so with rather incredible accuracy.
The final part of the video is what failed on the previous launch as they lost hydraulic pressure shortly after the craft took off. In this video though it’s clear to see the incredible engineering at work as the rocket is constantly gimbaling (moving around) the thrust in order to make sure it can land upright and in the desired location. This is the same kind of technology that SpaceX has been trialling with its recent launches, although they have the slightly harder target of a sea barge and a much larger rocket. Still the fact that Blue Origin have it working, even on a smaller scale, says a lot for the engineering expertise that’s behind this rocket.
I’m hopeful that Blue Origin will continue being a little more public as, whilst they might be playing with the big boys just yet, they’ve got all the makings of yet another great private space company. The New Shepard is a fascinating design that has proven to be highly capable with its second test flight and I have no doubt that multiple more are scheduled for the near future. It will be very interesting to see if the design translates well to their proposed Very Big Brother design as that could rocket (pun intended) them directly into competition with SpaceX.
It certainly is a great time to be a space nut.
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.