Remember when Blue Origin made history by vertically landing a rocket after launching it into space? Remember when they reused that same rocket and then landed it again? Well, today Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, once again, launched that very same New Shepard rocket and successfully landed it for a third time.
At 11:28 AM EST, Bezos announced the successful landing of the New Shepard suborbital rocket as well as the crew capsule that it was carrying into space. While the rocket will eventually be used for crewed missions, there were no humans on this flight.
Unlike previous launches where the public was mostly unaware of the event until after the fact, Bezos gave the world a heads up the night before the launch.
With a few tweets, Bezos revealed that a couple of things were different about this particular New Shepard launch.
For one, upon the return of their rocket, New Shepard’s BE-3 liquid hydrogen liquid oxygen engine would be restarted closer to the landing pad at 3,600 feet from the ground. If there were any issues in restarting the engine, the rocket would impact the ground within 6 seconds.
Blue Origin also tested a new, more efficient radar cross section (RCS) algorithm on the crew capsule.
Another unique aspect of today’s launch was that this mission had a payload on board. New Shepard carried two microgravity science experiments into space: one from the Southwest Research Institute and another from the University of Central Florida.
The University of Central Florida is testing how a layer of dust reacts when a marble impacts it under microgravity conditions. The Southwest Research Institute is flying a “Box of Rocks Experiment” to explore the jostling and settling of rocky soil in microgravity.
When Blue Origin first successfully landed their suborbital rocket in November, some were quick to compare Blue Origin’s success to SpaceX’s rocket landing failures at the time (although they successfully landed their Falcon 9 rocket later in December).
However, the key difference between the two company’s current rocket reusability pursuits is Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is suborbital (reaches the line of space and comes back down to the Earth) while SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is orbital (powerful enough to send payloads into a full orbit around the Earth).
Because of this difference, experts believe SpaceX’s orbital rocket is much more technically difficult to land successfully.
Landing a rocket is only the first important step toward rocket reusability. In order to save money for customers who buy rides into space, a launch provider must be able to safely and reliably relaunch recovered rockets. With today’s launch, Blue Origin has now successfully reused a rocket twice.