The commercial space company Blue Origin completed another rocket launch Friday morning from its test site in rural West Texas.
There were hints in recent days that some kind of test was imminent at the secretive facility north of Van Horn: temporary flight restrictions were put in place over that area “due to space flight operations.”
Blue Origin confirmed the launch late Friday night, saying it took place at 11:22 AM CST.
— Travis Bubenik (@traviswesttx) January 20, 2016
Rancher Justin Kibbe was working near Marfa when he saw something in the distant sky around 11:30 Friday morning that he said didn’t quite look like a plane.
“I just kinda glanced up and saw a long, squiggly line going straight up, and I shut the pickup off and you could just kinda hear a dull road,” Kibbe said while still looking at what he described as a thick smoke trail in the sky.
“Usually you see it from airplanes, but this one’s going straight up.”
The launch marks the second time the company has reached space with its “New Shepard” craft, and the second time it’s landed the craft’s booster safely back on Earth.
Blue Origin made headiness in November after performing its first successful test of this reusable rocket technology, an accomplishment the company’s owner and billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said at the time was a “game changer” in the commercial space industry.
In this test, the company said it reached an altitude 333,582 feet, a few feet higher than its November test.
In a statement, Bezos said the Blue Origin team put lessons learned from that launch into action for this one.
“Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward,” Bezos said.
He also described how the team continues to perfect its strategy for landing and reusing its rocket booster.
“Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning,” he said.
“It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline.
“Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.”
Bezos also said the company is currently three years into developing a new space craft that would carry its passengers into orbit, rather than the “sub-orbital” travel New Shepard is aimed at. This craft, according to Bezos, would be “many times larger” than New Shepard, the he noted the current craft is the smallest the company ever plans to build.
Friday’s launch comes just a few days after a rocket flown by the company’s competitor SpaceX exploded while attempting a similar landing.
Bezos and fellow billionaire Elon Musk – CEO of SpaceX – have engaged in friendly competitive snark on social media in recent months, as the two companies work to carve out their own terrain in the commercial space race.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
A notable difference between the companies – apart from their technologies or ambitions – is how they present themselves to the public and the media. In short, SpaceX does publicize its activities. Blue Origin doesn’t, at least not until its PR crews have had time to publish the kind of slick film productions that have accompanied its press releases.
When initially asked for comment on Friday morning about the apparent launch from Van Horn, Blue Origin’s PR firm replied with what’s become a regular refrain to most media requests: “Blue Origin has nothing to contribute at this time.”
Reached by phone earlier this week, company regulatory attorney Audrey Powers said Blue Origin doesn’t reveal any details about its tests prior to those tests being carried out.
“You’re not gonna get it from Blue,” she said.
Bezos said his company plans to perform similar tests “again and again” in 2016.