Blue Origin achieve reusable rocket breakthrough
Last month, Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company founded by Amazon entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, carried out the first successful test of a reusable suborbital rocket. The technology promises to propel six passengers in a capsule to over 329,000 feet above the ground, just above the threshold between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
The company’s New Shepard rocket, named after the first American to reach space in 1961, was able to successfully turn itself around and conduct a controlled flight through 119 mph high-altitude crosswinds to the surface, reigniting its engines and setting down just four and a half feet from the centre of its landing pad at 4.4 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the crew capsule descended safely to the ground by parachute.
So what does this mean for the burgeoning commercial spaceflight sector? Private companies have been lofting satellites, and in the case of SpaceX, cargo for the international space station, into space for a while. The first private human spaceflight took place back in 2004, but we are still waiting for a vehicle ready to take paying customers into space. Several companies are vying to be the first to send tourists into sub-orbital flight, where they will enjoy several minutes of zero-gravity and thrilling views of the Earth below.
Blue Origin’s successful test of their New Shepard rocket is not only a promising breakthrough for those itching to catch a ride into space. Other designs, like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, focus on reusable space planes which can land back on earth like a regular airplane. However, in the near future at least, we will still need rockets to send satellites, astronauts, cargo, and deep-space exploration vehicles into Earth’s orbit. Currently space rockets, extremely expensive to manufacture, can only be used once and are then destroyed as they fall back to Earth. This is one factor that makes spaceflight so prohibitively expensive. Each launch of the Saturn V rocket which carried the Apollo missions into space cost the equivalent of $3 billion in today’s money!
The development and successful test of a reusable launch system, therefore, is a significant breakthrough which will significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight. While SpaceX have also conducted several tests of similar technology, they have so far failed to land their reusable booster safely in the right place. Reusable launch technology promises to make space far more accessible to both private enterprises, the paying public, and many more of the world’s nations. Lowering the cost of flying people and materials into space will also allow far more exploration of the solar system, making construction of space stations and space-craft in orbit a far more economically viable prospect. While landing humans on Mars still seems a distant prospect, there are already private ventures aiming to mine asteroids and even the moon for valuable resources which are rare back on Earth.
Almost sixty years since the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, we are on the cusp of a new era of space exploration and development. It is believed that paying tourists will be able to experience a flight at the edge of space within a few years. While this will cost a few hundred thousand dollars each, this is peanuts compared to the $20-40 million paid by the first space tourists to travel on Russia’s Soyuz launch vehicles.
You can watch footage of Blue Origin’s incredible achievement on their website. If you’re passionate about cutting edge technology, check out our jobs page; we have engineering roles around the world in a variety of industries and disciplines.