Launch. Land. Repeat. Those are the words Blue Origin decisively used to describe their latest rocket success last Friday, January 22. For the first time in history, they have sent the same rocket into space twice, and also landed it safely on both occasions.
As is the norm with Jeff Bezos’ secretive company, the launch of the New Shepard vehicle was kept under wraps until the day itself, with only a few minor hints as to what would be taking place. In a stylish video after the launch, the company then showed off its latest impressive feat.
The launch of the relatively small rocket in West Texas saw it climb to a height of 101.7 kilometers (63.2 miles), just beyond the official boundary to space, the Karman Line (100 kilometers/62 miles). The rocket then descended; its capsule detached and landed separately with the help of parachutes, while the rocket performed a powered landing using its booster, touching down on a landing pad at the same site.
This was the exact same rocket that traveled to space back in November 2015. No rocket had ever landed on the ground from space before then, much less been used in a second launch.
A video of the latest Blue Origin success is above. YouTube
“The first rocket to fly above the Karman Line and then land vertically upon the Earth… Is now the first to have done it twice,” the company proudly claimed in the video. Of course, this is more than a slight dig at their rival, Elon Musk's SpaceX. The latter has also been testing reusable rockets, and successfully landed the first stage of its orbital Falcon 9 vehicle in December 2015, with a few failed barge landings either side.
“Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!” Bezos cheekily tweeted after SpaceX’s success in December.
Of course, New Shepard is not capable of reaching orbit yet, so many see the comparison between the two as unjust. But in an interesting blog post, Bezos revealed that Blue Origin is actually working on an orbital vehicle, and New Shepard is the first step to testing the landing technology they will use.
“We’re already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle,” he revealed. “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.”
The launch took place on Friday, January 22 from Blue Origin's testing facility in West Texas. Blue Origin
This latest launch also wasn’t completely the same as the one in November. It actually tested a few more capabilities of the landing system, namely with the rocket landing slightly off-center from the landing pad, to prove that it can stabilize itself above different landing points.
And Blue Origin seemingly has some ambitious goals. “Our vision: Millions of people living and working in space,” the company stated at the end of the video. “You can’t get there by throwing the hardware away.”
Quite what they have up their sleeve remains to be seen. We’ll have to wait and see later this year.