Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos overseeing test launch of New Shepard suborbital rocket
Blue Origin, the privately held and secretive aerospace company just announced on its website that it has tested the New Shepard vehicle to the altitude in excess of 100km, the internationally recognized boundary of space, before returning it to a landing pad. According to the press release, it is another success, making Blue Origin the first organization to have flown the same VTVL(vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle twice into space.
SpaceX vs Blue Origin
Blue Origin is one among many "new space" companies founded by Silicon Valley tycoons developing technologies that hold the promise of revolutionizing access to space through reusing the rocket instead of disposing it after each launch. Its main competitor is SpaceX, which is also developing VTVL technologies used on Falcon 9 first stage booster. The comparison between SpaceX and Blue Origin has always been troublesome since they are flying different type of rockets: SpaceX is testing VTVL on the first stage of an orbital vehicle, while Blue Origin is testing it on a suborbital vehicle lacking a second stage. SpaceX has successfully recovered a Falcon 9 first stage in December, 2015 and successfully test fired its 9 Merlin 1D+ engines but has yet to demonstrate the airworthiness of the recovered stage. However, SpaceX's fly-back booster is considered technically more difficult because of its complex trajectory, higher reentry speed and greater cross range(see illustration above). Also, Blue Origin is not the first company to reuse the same rocket flying twice to 100km+ suborbital space since scaled composite Space Ship One is the first to achieve this goal using air-launched horizontal landing.
Orbital Vehicle development on-track
BE-4 subscale test firing
Apart from cerebrating the success, Bezos also revealed the larger vehicle which goes to orbit has been under development for 3 years, and the larger engine BE-4, a reusable stage combustion cycle methane/LOx rocket engine generating 5 times the thrust of BE-3 currently used on New Shepard, is on-track for complete engine test fire this year. BE-4 is scheduled to power Blue Origin's indigenously developed orbital launch vehicle as well as ULA's next generation Vulcan rocket. Development of BE-4 has been going on in secrecy for 3 years when it was announced in 2014. Once completed and certified for flight, it is expected to be a game changer which enables larger payload to be launched into space and ends US reliance on Russian engines. Methane engine is also expected to be useful for manned mission to Mars since methane can be produced In-situ, significantly reducing fuel weight required for return trip. SpaceX is also developing its own Methane engine called Raptor, but its status of development remains shrouded in secrecy. It is believed that BE-4 will be qualified for flight before SpaceX rolls out its own comparable engine for its mammoth BFR rocket used to launch people to Mars. If development goes on smoothly, Blue Origin might be able to compete with SpaceX directly by offering economical launch service to satellite operators.