CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Blue Origin on Saturday took another step toward making reusable rockets a reality by launching and landing the same rocket for a third time on an unmanned test flight that carried a University of Central Florida experiment into space.
News 6 partner Florida Today reports that Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin and Amazon.com, said the New Shepard rocket’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine fired properly to enable a soft booster touchdown in West Texas, followed by a crew capsule landing nearby under parachutes.
"Flawless BE-3 restart and perfect booster landing," Bezos said on Twitter. "CC chutes deployed."
UCF’s Collisions into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE, was one of two university experiments aboard the capsule to take advantage of the flight’s few minutes in microgravity.
The student-built experiment, selected by Blue Origin back in 2009, gently pushed a marble into a bed of dust and filmed the interaction between particles. The goal was to better understand collisions in the early solar system and between particles such as those in Saturn’s rings or on the surfaces of asteroids.
"We have been waiting for this day for a long time," said UCF physics professor Josh Colwell, who was at the launch site and exchanged high-fives with colleagues afterward. "A lot of talented students have helped make this happen. I’m just thrilled that we’re going to get data back immediately after flight and get a look at the strange behavior of dust in a microgravity space environment."
UCF is a partner in another experiment, called Strata-1, that launched last month to the International Space Station.
Bezos said Blue Origin would post video of the New Shepard flight when it was ready.
Before the launch, he had described the flight as "pushing the envelope" with a greater chance of a booster crash, since the BE-3 engine would relight to slow the rocket's descent at higher thrust and lower altitude than before — just 3,600 feet above the ground.
Blue Origin is testing New Shepard with plans to launch space tourists and more experiments on suborbital rides providing minutes of weightlessness. The company has not said when commercial flights from Texas might begin, or how much a ticket will cost.
The company at the same time is developing a larger orbital rocket that it plans to build at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park and launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 36, possibly late this decade.
That work is expected to bring roughly 300 jobs to the Space Coast.
The BE-4 engine Blue Origin is developing for that larger rocket could also power the first stage of the Vulcan rocket that United Launch Alliance is designing to replace its current fleet, with a possible first flight in 2019.
Blue Origin first launched and landed the New Shepard in November at the company’s private range in West Texas, in what was then considered an impressive and historic feat — the first landing under its own power by a vertically launched booster that delivered a payload in space.
SpaceX followed a month later with a successful landing by a larger booster from an orbital Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Then in January, Blue Origin flew and recovered the New Shepard a second time, with Bezos saying the vehicle required minimal refurbishment after the first flight.
“Launch. Land. Repeat,” he said then.
Bezos sees reusability as essential to achieving his ambitious vision to lower the cost of human spaceflight and make space accessible to millions of people.
SpaceX does not plan to fly the booster it recovered in December a second time, but expects to land more that can be reused.
The company’s next opportunity will come Friday, when SpaceX is scheduled to launch an International Space Station cargo mission from Cape Canaveral. The company will try to land the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.