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Image Credit: Blue Origin.

Blue Origin conducts 17th suborbital flight of New Shepard rocket

Blue Origin, on August 26, 2021, successfully conducted an uncrewed suborbital flight of their New Shepard rocket from Launch Site One in West Texas, USA. The liquid-fueled, single-stage launch vehicle blasted off from the site at 09:31 CDT (local time) / 14:31 UTC, carrying 18 commercial payloads, NASA’s Deorbit, Descent, and Landing (DDL) Sensor Demonstration, as well as an art installation to the edge of space and back down to Earth.

The mission, designated “NS-17”, was the 17th flight of a New Shepard and the company’s fourth flight in 2021. It was originally scheduled to occur on Wednesday, but was then postponed to Thursday.

The whole flight, which was the eighth launch of this particular vehicle, only took 10 min 15 s and New Shepard reached a maximum altitude of 105.9 km (capsule) and a maximum ascent velocity of 3,592 km/h.

New Shepard blasts off from West Texas. Image Credit: Blue Origin.
New Shepard blasts off from West Texas. Image Credit: Blue Origin.

The New Shepard launch vehicle

The New Shepard, named after Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, is a single-stage, liquid-fueled, fully-reusable suborbital rocket, developed and operated by Blue Origin. The launch vehicle is designed to carry science experiments, as well as space tourists, to the edge of space and safely return them back to the planet.

The rocket is launched from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas and has first flown on April 29, 2015. So far, New Shepard has conducted 15 flights over the Kármán line, an imaginary line used to define the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, as well as two successful inflight abort tests.

New Shepard, in contrast to satellite-carrying orbital-class rockets, only consits of a single stage, which carries the capsule toward space. The booster is equipped with a single BE-3 rocket engine, burning liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) as propellants. Because New Shepard is a fully-reusable launch system, the rocket stage is capable of performing a propulsive landing back on Earth for later reuse.

The crew capsule, which gets separated from the booster stage once the rocket’s engine shuts down, is environmentally controlled and offers space for up to six passengers and multiple micro gravity experiments. To safely land back on Earth, the capsule deploys three drogue chutes and three main parachutes to slow down and fires retro rockets just moments before touchdown, to softly hit the ground.

Earlier this year on July 20, 2021, Blue Origin conducted a crewed test flight of the vehicle, by launching the company’s founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, the 18 years old Oliver Daemen and the 82 years old Wally Funk to the edge of space. The four safely landed back in West Texas just a few minutes after the launch, making Oliver Daemen the world’s youngest person to fly to space and Wally Funk the oldest.

Mission profile

At T 0, the liquid oxygen / liquid hydrogen fueled BE-3 rocket engine ignited, lifting New Shepard of the pad and toward space.

After about a minute of flight, the vehicle experienced Max-Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure and broke the sound barrier.

Almost 2 ½ minutes into the flight, the BE-3 was shut down and the capsule separated from the booster stage. From that point on, the payloads were exposed to micro gravity.

Upon reaching their apogees, both the capsule and the booster started descending back down to Earth.

Around 5 1/2 minutes after launch, the first stage deployed ring and wedge fins to stabilize its descent ahead of its landing. About a minute later, New Shepard deployed several drag brakes to slow down. During the descent, the rocket utilized its four aft fins to guide itself to the landing pad a few kilometers away from the launch pad.

Just 15 seconds later at an altitude of about one kilometer, the BE-3 engine reignited, slowing down the booster even further. About 7 ½ minutes after liftoff, New Shepard’s first stage landed back on Earth at its dedicated landing pad, to be reused on the vehicle’s upcoming missions.

Landing of New Shepard's booster stage. Image Credit: Blue Origin.
Landing of New Shepard’s booster stage. Image Credit: Blue Origin.

Around eight minutes and 20 second into the flight, the crew capsule deployed three drogue chutes to stabilize itself and then three main parachutes to slow down. 10 minutes 15 seconds after the fiery launch, the capsule fired multiple retro rockets at its bottom and softly touched down back on the planet for future reuse.

The uncrewed capsule descending under its three main parachutes. Image Credit: Blue Origin.
The uncrewed capsule descending under its three main parachutes. Image Credit: Blue Origin.


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