Blue Origin capsule escapes rocket failure during uncrewed flight over Texas – Spaceflight Now


A frame-by-frame view of the apparent engine failure on Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster, followed by the ignition of the capsule’s abort engine. Credit: Blue Origin

The suborbital rocket developed by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin suffered its first launch failure on Monday, when the main engine of the New Shepard booster appeared to shut down about a minute after liftoff from West Texas. The crew capsule, which was carrying NASA-funded experiments but no people, landed safely under parachutes after triggering a shutdown engine to escape the failed thruster.

The unplanned in-flight abandonment saved the company’s reusable capsule and the mission experience payloads stowed inside. But one of Blue Origin’s two operational suborbital New Shepard boosters, which housed its own research payloads, was lost during the failed launch.

Blue Origin’s live webcast showed the rocket lifting off from the company’s sprawling 80,000-acre launch facility north of Van Horn, Texas at around 10:26 a.m. EDT (9:26 a.m. CDT; 2:26 p.m. GMT) , after a delay of almost an hour.

A single hydrogen-powered BE-3 engine propelled the 18-meter-tall booster from the launch pad. About a minute after liftoff, as the rocket neared supersonic speed, the BE-3 engine plume appeared to change color and shape, then the powerplant appeared to shut down, causing the rocket to tilt on its planned path at an altitude of about 28,000 feet (8,500 meters).

The solid-fuel abort engine at the bottom of the crew pod fired immediately, delivering an instantaneous boost of 70,000 pounds of thrust to pull the craft away from the failing rocket.

The four-tonne capsule flipped and plummeted after the brief abort engine fire, which propelled the vehicle hundreds of meters from the New Shepard rocket. Guided by the reaction control system’s thrusters, the capsule’s motion stabilized as it deployed three narcotic parachutes and three main chutes for a relatively smooth return to ground. The capsule was designed to land at a speed of around 3 mph (5 kilometers per hour).

“It looks like we encountered an anomaly on today’s flight,” said Erika Wagner, director of payload sales for Blue Origin and host of the company’s launch webcast on Monday. “It was not planned and we don’t have details yet, but our crew pod was able to successfully escape.”

The craft fired soft-landing boosters and touched down on the desert floor in West Texas about five and a half minutes after takeoff.

“You can see how our back-up safety systems came into place today to keep our payloads safe during a non-nominal situation,” Wagner said after the capsule landed. “Security is our highest value at Blue Origin. That’s why we built so much redundancy into the system.

Blue Origin later tweeted that the capsule’s exhaust system worked as expected. The company performed a flight demonstration of the capsule’s escape system in 2016, proving the abort engine could safely propel the spacecraft and passengers away from rocket failure. During the 2016 test, the New Shepard booster survived the abort maneuver and returned to the ground for a vertical landing on a nearby airstrip.

Blue Origin said the booster touched down after the failed launch on Monday. The behavior of the engine may suggest a failure of the propulsion system, leaving no chance of recovering the rocket intact.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for ensuring public safety during commercial spaceflight, said it would oversee Blue Origin’s internal investigation into the failed launch.

“The anomaly that occurred triggered the capsule’s escape system,” the FAA said in a statement. “The capsule landed safely and the booster impacted within the designated danger zone. No injuries or damage to public property were reported.

“This was a payload-only mission; there were no humans on board,” the FAA said. “Before the New Shepard vehicle can resume flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the crash affected public safety. This is standard practice for all accident investigations.

Monday’s mission, numbered NS-23, marked the 23rd flight of a New Shepard rocket and the ninth launch of the reusable booster, paired with the “RSS HG Wells” crew capsule, which also completed its ninth flight. It was the first time a New Shepard rocket had failed launch. The New Shepard booster’s first test flight suffered a failed landing in 2015 and Blue Origin lost the vehicle.

The NS-23 mission was originally scheduled to launch on August 31, but bad weather forced the company to cancel launch attempts for three consecutive days. Officials later moved the launch date to Monday, September 12.

Blue Origin has launched six flights to suborbital space with human passengers since July 2021, when company founder Jeff Bezos joined three others on a suborbital launch. Most recently, the company sent six passengers into suborbital space on August 4, using a different booster and capsule in Blue Origin’s fleet. In total, Blue Origin has carried 31 people into space to date.

Chris Boshuizen, a space industry entrepreneur who bought a seat on a New Shepard rocket last year, said the presence of the crew capsule’s launch escape system gave him the confidence he needed to travel to space with Blue Origin.

“For my flight on NS-18 last October, it was ultimately knowing that I was sitting on (a) giant solid rocket motor that gave me the confidence I needed,” said Boshuizen tweeted. “Luckily we didn’t need to use him, but I was glad he was there.

“As you saw today the exhaust engine fires hard and pulls 11+ Gs so it won’t be a fun ride but you will survive,” Boshuizen tweeted.

“It’s not the result everyone wants, they’ll probably find the cause and eliminate it, and it’s one less thing to go wrong on future launches.”

The booster and capsule flown Monday were dedicated to flying science and research payloads in space, according to Blue Origin. The company’s crew-configured rocket and capsule are being refurbished for future flight.

Blue Origin has built and flown four New Shepard vehicles so far, including the rocket destroyed on landing in 2015, another vehicle now retired, the rocket lost on Monday, and the human rocket dedicated to human spaceflight missions.

The NS-23 mission carried 36 payloads from research institutions and student organizations, half of which are funded by NASA. The rocket was meant to soar into the rarefied upper layers of the atmosphere, targeting an altitude just above 60 miles (100 kilometers), the internationally recognized limit of space.

The BE-3’s main engine was expected to ignite for approximately 2 minutes and 20 seconds and then extinguish before the crew capsule separated from the New Shepard thruster. The capsule and booster were supposed to reach apogee, the highest point of flight, before falling back to Earth for landing.

The 36 payloads flying on the NS-23 mission included hydrogen fuel cell technology developed by Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Inc., a company based in Windsor, Connecticut, with a NASA-funded contract to develop a fuel cell system. advanced modular power supply. AMPES fuel cell technology could be used to generate power for future lunar rovers and surface habitats, and the launch of Blue Origin was expected to allow engineers to test some of the hardware in microgravity.

Another NASA-funded experiment on Monday’s New Shepard flight came from Honeybee Robotics, a subsidiary of Blue Origin, and was designed to study the resistance of planetary soils under different gravity conditions.

A University of Florida investigation aimed to test a fluorescence imaging system enabling biological research on suborbital missions, and researchers at the MIT Media Lab conducted an experiment called “Wax Casting” to test how would-be explorers might produce their own non-toxic solid rocket. microgravity propellants, such as paraffin and beeswax. The Wax Casting experiment was supposed to study how molten candle wax and a similar liquid called heptadecane react when spun in tubes aboard the New Shepard capsule.

The University of Central Florida Electrostatic Regolith Interaction Experiment, also supported by NASA, was to study the behavior of charged dust particles in microgravity. Information from this experiment could help engineers develop strategies to prevent lunar dust from damaging the electronics, solar cells, mechanical equipment and spacesuits of astronauts on the moon, according to UCF.

There was also an experiment on the NeoCity Academy mission NS-23 in Kissimmee, Florida, where six high school students developed a survey to study the effects of microgravity on ultrasonic sound waves. Another project from Anatolia College in Greece attempted to create a painting in space.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on the launch pad before the NS-23 mission. Credit: Blue Origin

Two suites of sensors flying on the New Shepard rocket were designed to measure data about the environment outside the vehicle. A fiber optic sensor system developed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center was to monitor the structural health of the vehicle, collecting temperature and stress data on the NS-23 mission ahead of future use on orbital launch vehicles.

A space sensor platform from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory was also mounted on the New Shepard thruster. It was designed to study environmental conditions in the lower ionosphere, a difficult-to-study region of Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists hope to expand the platform’s capabilities on future flights to include telescopes, cameras and the deployment of small sensors, according to Blue Origin.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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