Blue Origin rocket malfunction triggers dramatic abort




  • In Science
  • 2022-09-12 15:46:00Z
  • By CBS News

The Blue Origin rocket powering an unpiloted New Shepard spacecraft loaded with 36 experiments to the edge of space suffered a major malfunction moments after liftoff Monday, triggering a dramatic but successful abort as the capsule shot away from its failing booster, deployed three parachutes and safely landed.

"It appears we've experienced an anomaly with today's fight," said Blue Origin's launch commentator. "This was unplanned, and we don't have any details yet. but our crew capsule was able to escape successfully."

The New Shepard 23 mission gets underway at Blue Origin
The New Shepard 23 mission gets underway at Blue Origin's west Texas launch site.  

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, built the New Shepard system to carry passengers and cargo to the edge of space about 65 miles up, allowing about three minutes of weightlessness before the capsule arcs over the top of the trajectory to descend for a parachute-assisted touchdown near the launch pad.

Monday's flight was Blue Origin's 23rd and its fourth so far this year. Six of the last eight missions dating back to July 2021 carried passengers, including Bezos. Two of the eight most recent flights, including Monday's, carried cargo only using a capsule specifically reserved for that purpose.

A sudden burst of flame erupting from the bottom of the single-stage rocket indicates a major malfunction (left).
A sudden burst of flame erupting from the bottom of the single-stage rocket indicates a major malfunction (left).  

While Blue Origin's "human-rated" capsule was not involved, finding out what went wrong Monday and fixing it likely will have a downstream impact on the company's flight schedule, but the full impact remains to be seen. There was no immediate comment from Bezos.

In the meantime, the New Shepard spacecraft will be grounded pending a formal accident investigation that will be overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Before the New Shepard vehicle can return to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap affected public safety," the agency said in a statement. "This is standard practice for all mishap investigations.The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations."

Monday's flight began at 10:27 a.m. EDT when the hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine powering the single-stage New Shepard booster roared to life, throttled up to full thrust and propelled the spacecraft skyward from Blue Origin's west Texas launch site.

An instant after detecting
An instant after detecting  

The early moments of the flight appeared normal as the rocket thundered away, but one minute and four seconds after liftoff, the BE-3 exhaust plume changed color slightly and an instant after that, a large burst of flame erupted from the base of the rocket.

Within a second, the New Shepard abort motor ignited, instantly pushing the capsule away from the malfunctioning booster.

The capsule continued upward to an altitude of more than 37,000 feet before motor burnout and a safe descent to Earth.
The capsule continued upward to an altitude of more than 37,000 feet before motor burnout and a safe descent to Earth.  

The capsule streaked away as expected - the abort system was tested during a 2018 test flight - but the spacecraft did not appear as steady atop the motor, wobbling back and forth before the engine exhausted its load of solid propellant and burned out.

From there, the descent to Earth appeared normal. Three small drogue parachutes deployed to stabilize and slow the capsule about one minute after the abort began, followed by three main parachutes that lowered the spacecraft to a relatively gentle touchdown, kicking up a cloud of dust in the west Texas desert.

"You can see how our backup safety systems kicked in today to keep our payloads safe during an off nominal situation," Blue Origin's commentator said. "Safety is our highest value at Blue Origin, it's why we built so much redundancy into the system."

It was the 23rd New Shepard flight, the ninth launch of a capsule dedicated to unpiloted cargo missions. Another New Shepard spacecraft has carried a total of 31 passengers into space, including Bezos, in six crewed missions.

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