Reusable rockets are an important part to aerospace’s future. At least, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin believe it is. But both companies are working on another system that is even more important. It’s often called a ‘launch escape system.’ It’s designed for manned flights and protects passengers in case of a problem during a rocket’s launch.
This system has been in place since the early days of space travel, but SpaceX and Blue Origin are modernizing it. Traditional launch abort systems are mounted above the capsule in the ‘stack.’ That’s how NASA is doing it with the Orion capsule. Take a look:
You can see the Launch Abort System in the foreground followed by the aerodynamic shell that will cover the capsule. The Orion capsule is seen in the background.
SpaceX and Blue Origin are opting to integrate the launch escape system within the capsule (just below it). That way, the escape system isn’t lost during each successful flight.
Last May, SpaceX conducted a pad abort test. A series of SuperDraco engines ignite to lift the space capsule away up and away from the launch pad. The system is designed to lift the crew of a manned flight away from a rocket in case of malfunction.
Here’s a similar test Blue Origin conducted back in 2013.
Today, Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos talked about the company’s next launch in an email. Blue Origin is putting the final touches on a test of New Shepard’s (the rocket) emergency escape system. But this next one will be different. It will be in mid-flight.
Bezos writes in his email that Blue Origin will use the same New Shepard booster they have flown four times. This fifth flight will be its last. It’ll probably breakup on impact. If it doesn’t by some chance, Blue Origin plans to retire it anyway.
The test will start like the previous four. New Shepard will roar into the sky. At T+45 seconds, the true test begins. An escape command will be initiated. At this point, New Shepard will be 16,000 feet in the air. The crew capsule will separate from the booster at the same time as the escape motor fires. The motor will burn for just two seconds. During that two seconds, the capsule will be steered to the side out of the booster’s path.
Bezos says the crew capsule “will be hundreds of feet away and diverging quickly,” after the short escape motor burn.
Once the two-second burn is done, the capsule enters a typical descent profile. If everything goes according to plan, drogue and main parachutes will deploy and bring the capsule to a soft landing.
What about the rocket? “It will still have most of its propellant on board at the time escape is triggered,” writes Bezos. “And its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”
A rocket launch where an explosion is expected? Sweet!
Blue Origin is setting aside “early October” for the test. A webcast will cover the launch and test live. I’ll update this post with the exact date and time once we get it.
A successful test of the escape system is vital. If Blue Origin wants to start ferrying folks to space, every possible safe-guard needs to be implemented (and tested).