A New Shepard capsule, built and flown by Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin, returned from a fifth foray beyond the atmosphere on Sunday, this time sans one parachute to test how well the spacecraft would fly if a similar situation occurred during an operational mission.
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The capsule's booster rocket, making its fourth flight, lifted off from Blue's West Texas desert launch site at 10:36 a.m. EDT, a live webcast showed. The first New Shepard rocket was lost during the debut test flight in April 2015, though the capsule landed safely.
Less than three minutes after launch, the rocket, powered by a BE-3 engine burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, separated from the capsule at an altitude of about 200,000 feet. Both the booster and the capsule continued soaring toward space, flying in tandem and reaching a peak altitude of 331,501 feet about four minutes after blastoff.
At 10:44 a.m. EDT, the rocket landed itself back in West Texas, with the capsule making a parachute landing a minute later.
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With just two of its three initial parachutes deployed, the capsule oscillated as it descended. The motion was dampened out when the capsule's two main parachutes deployed.
"That was as good as we could have hoped for," said mission commentator Geoff Huntington, a Blue Origin engineer.
Over the next several months, Blue Origin plans more aggressive test to assess how the system handles potential equipment failures and emergency scenarios.
Blue Origin expects to begin flying New Shepard with test pilots aboard in another year or two, with passenger commercial service to follow.
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Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which is testing an air-launched suborbital spaceship called SpaceShipTwo, sent a message of support to Bezos and Blue Origin before Sunday's flight.
"We'll be cheering for you," Virgin Galactic wrote on Twitter. "Space needs all of us!"
Blue Origin's suborbital New Shepard program is a steppingstone toward orbital space flight which Blue Origin hopes to begin before 2020.
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