Much has been made of reusable rockets. The main perk? They can reduce the cost of getting to space dramatically. At last month’s American Geophysical Union Meeting, Elon Musk talked about how much it costs to launch a Falcon 9 rocket. Each rocket costs $60 million to make and another $200,000 to fuel it. Right now, SpaceX has to spend another $60 million for each mission. That’s why there is a big push by SpaceX, and also Blue Origin, to nail rocket landings.
Blue Origin managed to land their New Shepard booster during a flight in November. SpaceX followed it up by landing their Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral in December. Another attempt in January almost made it, but the rocket tipped over at the last second.
Is relaunching as easy as fueling the rocket back up?
Close. The Blue Origin’s team needed to replace the crew capsule parachutes and replace the pyro igniters. Then, engineers meticulously checked over the rocket and the avionic systems. A couple of new software improvements were made, and New Shepard was ready to soar back into the sky.
One of these software improvements focused on landing. Previous software told the rocket to land at the exact center of the pad. Sounds good on paper, right? But what if wind near the surface pushed it off center at the last second? The engineers don’t want the rocket to make any drastic last second changes. Vehicle attitude is now the priority, not where it exactly is in relation to the center of the landing pad.
According to Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO, founder of Blue Origin), “Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.”
With a new piece of software and all systems go, Blue Origin’s rocket was ready to fly again.
Awesome landing. Nicely done, Blue Origin.
The repeated landings of New Shepard is just the first step towards Blue Origin’s ambitious vision. “Our vision: Millions of people living and working in space. You can’t get there by throwing the hardware away.” Sign me up.
Here’s Bezos talking about why he’s a fan of vertical landing rockets and where New Shepard falls in fulfilling the company’s vision.
I’m a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because — to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space — we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you’re solving the classic inverted pendulum problem, and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger. Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance. We solved the inverted pendulum problem on New Shepard with an engine that dynamically gimbals to balance the vehicle as it descends. And since New Shepard is the smallest booster we will ever build, this carefully choreographed dance atop our plume will just get easier from here. We’re already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle. Though it will be the small vehicle in our orbital family, it’s still many times larger than New Shepard. I hope to share details about this first orbital vehicle this year.
What’s next for Blue Origin?
I hope you’re not tired of seeing New Shepard landings. Get ready to see more of them in 2016. But that’s not even the biggest news. Later this year, Blue Origin will begin full-engine testing of their BE-4 engine. This engine is being tapped by United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle.
According to Blue Origin, “the BE-4 uses oxygen-rich staged combustion of liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas to produce 550,000 lb. of thrust.”
Blue Origin’s touts the advantages of liquefied natural gas. The rocket fuel can be used to pressurize a rocket’s propellant tanks, and it leaves no residue, such as kerosene fuel. That will be handy for reusing the engine.
BE-4’s first flight is scheduled for 2019. Jeff Bezos ends his blog post with “Gradatim Ferociter!” It’s the company’s motto and means, ‘Step by Step, Courageously.’