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Blue Origin launch
A view from above shows Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship rising from its West Texas launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Saturday’s test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship marked lots of milestones, including the first time a drone captured video of its launch from above.

Those kinds of views have long been provided by SpaceX, one of Blue Origin’s rivals in the reusable rocket business, and they’re thrilling. The video that Blue Origin founder (and Amazon billionaire) Jeff Bezos shared today is in the same category – right down to the rockin’ soundtrack.

“We pushed the envelope on this flight, restarting the engine for the propulsive landing only 3,600 feet above the ground, requiring the BE-3 engine to start fast and ramp to high thrust fast,” Bezos said in a blog post accompanying the video.

For the third time in a row, New Shepard’s propulsion module sent a crew capsule (sans crew) beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary of outer space and came back down to make a smooth vertical landing.

The test at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility followed up on successful flights in November and January, marking another victory for full rocket reusability and bringing the company closer to sending people on suborbital trips to space. Bezos says test flights with passengers could come as soon as next year, with commercial flights coming in 2018.

This flight also marked the first time scientific payloads were sent into outer space aboard the New Shepard crew capsule. One of the experiments was designed and built at the Southwest Research Institute, also known as SwRI. It simulated the dynamics of loosely bound rocky soil on near-Earth asteroids. Another experiment, from the University of Central Florida, studied how dust behaves in zero-G.

Blue Origin selected the experiments for flight back in 2009.

“We have been waiting for this day for a long time,” UCF physicist Joshua Colwell said in a post-landing news release. “A lot of talented students have helped to make this happen.”

Colwell’s project is known as the Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics, or MEDEA. It’s part of a multi-experiment campaign called the Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE. The campaign is aimed at helping scientists understand the behavior of dust on small asteroids, and how space dust builds up to form planets and their rings.

Previous COLLIDE payloads flew on space shuttle missions in 1998 and 2001.

The experiments and data were recovered soon after New Shepard’s crew capsule made its parachute landing. In UCF’s news release, members of Blue Origin’s team indicated that more suborbital space experiments would be flown during the test flights to come.

“Our first step toward millions of people living and working in space was launching and landing New Shepard,” Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said. “Now, our payload pathfinder customers are helping us take the next step by putting this reusable spacecraft to use in the name of science.”

Back in 2009, SwRI planetary scientist Alan Stern predicted that space research would someday become a “killer app” for suborbital spaceflight and bring in more revenue for spaceship operators than space tourism. This weekend’s research payloads were flown at no charge, due to the conditions for Blue Origin’s experimental launch permit. Nevertheless, they mark two small steps toward realizing that vision.

“Suborbital spaceflight opens the door for an incredible range of scientific research and technology development, from biotech and materials science to fluid physics and engineering,” said Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s head of payload programs.

Last year, Blue Origin said it would charge as little as $5,300 to send student payloads on suborbital space trips – once the Federal Aviation Administration grants a commercial launch license for New Shepard. The company, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., is also working on a more ambitious orbital space program that will eventually launch payloads from a Florida facility.

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