Blue Origin rocket malfunction causes dramatic abort

The Blue Origin rocket powering an unmanned New Shepard spacecraft loaded with 36 experiments to the edge of space suffered a severe malfunction moments after liftoff on Monday, causing a dramatic but successful abort as the capsule blasted away from its failed booster, deployed three parachutes and landed safely. .

“It looks like we experienced an anomaly with today’s race,” said Blue Origin’s launch commentator. “This was unplanned and we don’t have the details yet. but our crew capsule managed to escape successfully.”

The New Shepard 23 mission takes off at Blue Origin’s launch site in west Texas. / Credit: Blue Origin webcast

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 reaches the arc at the top of orbit to come down for a while. parachute landing near the launch pad.

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

A sudden burst of flame erupting from the bottom of the single-stage rocket indicates a major malfunction (left).  A camera on the rocket shows Earth falling away.  / Credit: Blue Origin webcast

A sudden burst of flame erupting from the bottom of the single-stage rocket indicates a major malfunction (left). A camera on the rocket shows Earth falling away. / Credit: Blue Origin webcast

Although Blue Origin’s “human evaluation” capsule was not involved, finding out what went wrong on Monday and fixing it will likely have an 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 overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Before the New Shepard vehicle returns to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process or procedure related to the accident affected public safety,” the agency said in a statement. “This is standard practice for all accident investigations. The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during launch and re-entry of commercial space shuttles.”

Monday’s flight departed at 10:27 am. EDT, when the BE-3 hydrogen engine powering the New Shepard single-stage booster ignited, throttled to full thrust and propelled the spacecraft skyward from Blue Origin’s launch site in west Texas.

A moment after detection

A moment after detection

The first few 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 soon after, a large burst of flame erupted from the base of the rocket.

Within a second, the New Shepard’s abort engine ignited, instantly pushing the pod away from the malfunctioning booster.

The capsule continued upward to an altitude of more than 37,000 feet before engine burnout and a safe descent to Earth.  / Credit: Blue Origin webcast

The capsule continued upward to an altitude of more than 37,000 feet before engine burnout and a safe descent to Earth. / Credit: Blue Origin webcast

The capsule jettisoned as expected — the abort system was tested during a test flight in 2018 — but the spacecraft didn’t seem as stable atop the engine, rocking back and forth before the engine exhausted its solid propellant load and burned up.

From there, the descent to Earth seemed normal. Three small drogue parachutes deployed to stabilize and slow the capsule about a minute after the abort was initiated, followed by three main parachutes that brought the spacecraft down in a relatively gentle descent, sending a cloud of dust into the west Texas desert.

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

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

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