Mannequin Skywalker takes high ground on Bezos-backed rocket

Blue Origin test flight reaches 107km apogee and lands safely

New Shepard Launch (pic: Blue Origin)
Pic: courtesy Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos-founded spaceflight firm Blue Origin set a company record yesterday by sending its capsule on a sub-orbital trajectory with an apogee of 351,000 feet (107km) before landing both booster and capsule safely in West Texas.

It was the company's eighth flight using the third version of the New Shepard booster – a single-stage, sub-orbital vehicle, which can land vertically in a way familiar to SpaceX fans.

The first booster met a somewhat fiery end on its first flight in 2015. The crew capsule was recovered by parachute after reaching 307,000 feet but the booster suffered a loss of hydraulic pressure and did not survive the landing. The second booster flew later in 2015 and made it back to the ground in one piece.

SpaceX performed a similar feat a month later with the orbital-class Falcon 9 touching down in Florida.

As well as an instrumented dummy dubbed "Mannequin Skywalker", the eighth flight was loaded with payloads from commercial customers including experiments from NASA to collect environmental data from within the crew cabin and test components planned for the agency's own Orion capsule.

Blue Origin is now looking at putting humans in the capsule, possibly this year, to enjoy a brief jaunt to space and back as well as a short spell of weightlessness while gazing out of the capsule's windows.

While the single-stage version of the New Shepard is only capable of a sub-orbital lob with its single BE-3 engine providing 110,000 pounds of thrust, its follow-up, the New Glenn, will be an altogether different beast.

Seven BE-4 engines will deliver a combined 3.85 million pounds of thrust, delivering payloads to orbit and beyond.

Elon Musk's rocketeers are likely to cough politely and point at their Falcon Heavy system, which delivers quite a bit more in terms of Tesla lifting ability.

While Bezos has taken to naming his rockets after NASA's early Mercury astronauts, The Register was pleased to note that one payload, designed to test the concept of commercial Wi-Fi access in space, was named the "Schmitt Space Communicator" after one of the last two astronauts to set foot on the Moon. ®

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