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.
Even though I only discovered a real driving passion for space a couple years ago I’ve always been fascinated with the night sky and the beauty that it holds. I spent many nights out on my parents farm just staring up at the sky that was littered with stars and punctuated by our celestial sister, the moon. Being an avid science fiction fan for as long as I can remember the thought of journeying into space was always something I dreamed about, hoping one day to visit alien worlds and maybe one day venturing to other stars.
My real passion was sparked by the idea that sometime very soon anyone who wanted to could travel to the final frontier. Suddenly my boyhood dreams of floating weightlessly out in the cold void of space were no longer a thing of fantasy, they were tangibly real. I spent hours upon hours researching the technology wanting to know every detail of how they did it. I found myself lost in a world that I had ignored for so long, a place where science fiction was becoming science fact right before my eyes. I then resolved myself to becoming a part of this anyway I could and all my actions since then have been focused towards supporting my end goal of escaping the earth’s gravity well.
However I never once thought that anything short of a large enterprise would be able to accomplish such a task that first inspired me down this path. The idea wasn’t foreign to me though as I’d always held the somewhat romantic idea of building my own spacecraft to get into orbit. I squarely place all the blame for this idea on my first ever encounter with Star Trek, which was in the form of the movie First Contact. Still it seems some people were far more inspired than I was by similar ideas and they’ve gone ahead and built their own spaceship:
Copenhagen Suborbital’s HEAT rocket and Tycho Brahe capsule ready to launch. Credit: Copenhagen SuborbitalIt’s something like the movie “Astronaut Farmer,” but this is for real. And it’s in Danish. Copenhagen Suborbitals,headed by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, hope to launch the world’s first amateur-built rocket for human spacetravel. As of this writing, the launch countdown clock on the Copenhagen Suborbitals’ website reads 7 days and 12 hours, which would put the launch on August 30 at about 1300 GMT. This upcoming flight will be an unmanned test flight, but if all goes well, Madsen hopes to be inside the single-passenger capsule named Tycho Brahe for a manned flight in the near future. They have a sea-launch site on the Baltic Sea near Bornholm, Denmark, and their HEAT 1-X rocket is ready to go.
The team has been building their rocket since about 2004. Copenhagen Suborbitals is a non-profitendeavor, based entirely on sponsors and volunteers. Their mission: launch a human being into space. If they are successful, Denmark would become only the fourth nation to send a human into space. But this project is completely private – no national funds have been used. “We are working fulltime to develop a series of suborbital space vehicles – designed to pave the way for manned space flighton a micro size spacecraft,” said Madsen and von Bengtson on their website.
It’s this kind of endeavour that just leaves me gobsmacked at the ingenuity and dedication that we humans are capable of. Running the entire operation on donations and volunteer time would make you think that such a project would never get the legs needed to actually design, build and test a rocket capable of carrying someone into space. They’ve done what I had considered to be firmly out of the reach of the everyman but their work shows that we’ve really transitioned into the space age, where those with the drive to do so can build their very own space ship.
The craft itself is something to marvel at. Looking like a tiny version of many of the larger launch systems available they take the interesting option of having the single passenger of the craft standing up. All human carrying spacecraft to date have had their passengers sitting down or laying supine. This is because the forces acting on you as you launch can be quite hefty and the human body can take a lot more force when it’s strapped down than when you’re standing up. However for Copenhagen Suborbitals the choice to have the passenger stand up means the rocket can be quite a lot slimmer. This does mean that the thrust of the rocket had to be scaled back so that the forces on the passenger were reduced, but they’ll still be pulling a hefty 4Gs.
For propulsion they use a hybrid rocket motorsimilar to the ones found in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. These are arguably the defacto choice for cheap and small space endeavours as they have many of the characteristics of more expensive engines (restartable, throttling) at a fraction of the cost. Copenhagen’s engine differs from Virgins in that its oxidizer is liquid oxygen rather than nitrous oxide which is interesting as LOX requires cryogenic storage, far more complicated than N20. Still LOX would provide a better specific impulse so the choice was probably made for performance reasons (I can’t seem to find the reasoning behind the switch on their site).
With the launch scheduled for just a few days from now I can’t wait to see how this rocket performs and I wish them all the best in the first full test. It’s projects like these that reaffirm my passion for space and inspire me to chase my dreams, however ambitious they may seem. With such talented people working on these problems and solving them in such interesting and varied ways I know we’re already well into the space age and the next decade will only see things get better.
Damn it’s a good time to be alive 😀