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Blue Origin's New Shepard prototype spaceship blasts off from its Texas launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)
Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship lifts off for a test in January. (Credit: Blue Origin)

For his next trick, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos plans to have his Blue Origin space venture send its New Shepard rocket ship into outer space and back with one bum parachute on Friday – and live-stream the whole thing.

Allowing live video of a rocket launch and landing is old hat for the likes of rival billionaire Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX, but Blue Origin has never done it before. Bezos’ announcement indicates that the once-secretive company is becoming more comfortable sharing its accomplishments with the public as they happen.

Friday will mark the fourth go-around for this particular New Shepard suborbital vehicle at Blue Origin’s West Texas testing ground. The first suborbital flight test was done last November, followed by similarly successful outings in January and April. Each time, a booster powered by Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine sent an uncrewed space capsule to a height beyond 62 miles, the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

After each ascent, the booster relit its engine and flew autonomously to a horizontal landing, while the capsule floated down to a parachute landing. This time, one of the capsule’s three parachutes is designed to fail. To cushion the landing, the capsule will have to rely on the other two chutes as well as a retro-rocket blast just before touchdown.

In today’s pair of tweets, Bezos said the test would also “push [the] envelope on booster maneuvers”:

Bezos has said that if the test program proceeds as planned, Blue Origin should be ready next year to start flying test pilots. But those pilots would more properly be called “test passengers,” since New Shepard puts itself through up-and-down flights autonomously. Paying passengers would start flying in 2018. The ticket price has not yet been set.

In addition to zero-gravity space tourists, Blue Origin expects to fly scientific experiments and researchers. April’s test flight marked the first time that unaccompanied research payloads were flown on New Shepard, and three more are due to fly on Friday.

One experiment, from Purdue University, will study the shapes that fluids take in zero-G. Another payload jointly developed by Louisiana State University and William Jewell College will focus on how differences in temperature and composition affect the flow of fluids in weightlessness.

The third experiment, from Germany’s Braunschweig Technical University, is designed to shed light on the dynamics of dust collisions in the early solar system. Check out the videos from each research team:

Although Blue Origin’s test range is on property owned by Bezos in West Texas, most of the flight hardware is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, south of Seattle. Bezos has acknowledged spending more than $500 million on the effort, which follows up on his long-held vision of having millions of people living and working in space.

During a fireside chat with me in April, Bezos half-jokingly said he could “neither confirm nor deny” that Amazon exists solely to earn the money for Blue Origin. But he also has said he’s willing to support the venture with his personal fortune (which currently is estimated at more than $62 billion) “for as long as is necessary.”

Blue Origin’s test flights typically take place in the morning: April’s liftoff, for example, occurred just after 8 a.m. PT. Friday’s activities will be webcast, weather permitting, via Blue Origin’s website.

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