Blue Origin sends New Shepard space capsule to its highest altitude yet

Rocket company Blue Origin completed its eighth successful test mission on Sunday, April 29, taking the New Shepard capsule to its highest altitude to date.

Owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin launched its reusable sub-orbital rocket from its spaceport in the west Texas desert, with the ascent taking the capsule to 351,000 feet (66 miles, 107 kilometers) above the surface of Earth — some four miles higher than previous launches.

Following the pattern of previous tests, the capsule separated from the top of the rocket at an altitude of just under 50 miles, with the capsule continuing on to its record altitude. Both returned safely to terra firma a short while later — the capsule using parachutes, the rocket using its boosters for a perfect touchdown. The entire event, from launch to landing, took just over 10 minutes.

In a livestream of Sunday’s event (above), Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell described the launch and landings as “another spectacular test mission.”

This was the second outing for Blue Origin’s latest crew capsule 2.0, following a flawless debut mission in December last year.

The company’s short-term goal is to offer high-paying tourists once-in-a-lifetime trips to the edge of space, where they’ll be able to view the curvature of Earth while floating around in a weightless environment for up to five minutes.

Sunday’s mission carried a number of payloads from a range of users, among them NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which sent instruments to collect capsule environmental data linked to CO2, pressure, acceleration, and acoustics. Another comprised technology to test the concept of providing Wi-Fi access for crewed missions, though if the capsule’s occupants are keen to check their Instagram rather than marvel at the view below, then there’s something seriously wrong.

Bezos said at the 2016 Space Symposium event in Colorado Springs that those inside the capsule will be able to “get out, float around, do somersaults, enjoy the microgravity, [and] look out of those beautiful windows,” adding that training for the experience would be “relatively simple.”

Blue Origin’s “Mannequin Skywalker” was also on board. The dummy made its debut flight last December to highlight the new capsule, as well as to show future space tourists how they’ll be positioned during the start and finish of a flight. This time, Mannequin Skywalker was performing “astronaut telemetry and science studies,” the company noted.

On Sunday, Blue Origin said its latest successful mission takes it another step toward its first human spaceflight tests, which it hopes can take place later this year.