The Blue Origin suborbital transportation company has accomplished a second controlled landing of its New Shepard rocket, using the exact same launcher that performed the feat in November.
A major step towards rocket reusability, which is expected to considerably slash the cost of space travel, the rocket reached an altitude of almost 102km above the Earth’s surface before descending slowly onto a launch pad in West Texas.
“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,” Blue Origin said in a video published shortly after the successful attempt on Friday evening.
Rockets are currently disposed of after use, making them the most expensive single-use machines ever created. The holy grail of the new age space transportation is to develop technology that would allow rockets to be used countless times, similar to aeroplanes.
“To achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space, we will need to build very large rocket boosters,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns Blue Origin, said in a statement published on Blue Origin’s website.
“The vertical-landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you’re solving the classic inverted pendulum problem and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger.”
Blue Origin solved the inverted pendulum problem with an engine that "dynamically gimbals to balance the vehicle as it descends", Bezos said, adding that this "carefully choreographed dance will get easier" on every larger launcher Blue Origin builds in the future.
During the test flight, the rocket was carrying a capsule designed to carry six paying tourists to the edge of space.
The company plans to carry out further landings with the New Shepard later this year and said it will start full-engine testing of its more powerful BE-4 rocket engine. BE-4, which uses liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants, is set to become the main engine of a new rocket by United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is one of the largest US space launch providers.
Other companies are also developing reusable rockets. SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket in December 2015 after a commercial launch. An attempt to repeat the feat on a sea barge last week ended in disaster, when one of the booster's landing legs failed to deploy properly and the rocket tipped over and caught fire.