Prepare for liftoff?
On Friday, in a surprise announcement, the Federal Aviation Administration published an official "notice to airmen" (NOTAM) warning pilots to avoid the vicinity of Van Horn, Texas from December 11 (Monday) to December 14 (Wednesday) between the hours of 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. EST. The reason:
"To provide a safe environment for rocket launch and recovery pursuant to 14 CFR Section 91.143." Specifically, Blue Origin's rocket launch.
The origin of a rumor
Blue Origin, for those not in the know, is Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos' pet project to build a rocket company from scratch a la Elon Musk and SpaceX. From April 2015 through October 2016, Blue Origin launched and relanded a single New Shephard experimental suborbital rocketship five times, without suffering a single mishap in flight. Since then, however, Blue Origin has been pretty quiet (at least on the launch front).
Blue Origin's long quiet may end this week. In the past, the first clue space watchers were likely to get that Blue Origin was planning a launch came when the company would file a NOTAM with the FAA. The fact that Blue Origin filed a NOTAM last week seems to suggest the company will at least attempt to launch something this week -- perhaps as early as this morning.
What will it launch? Blue Origin isn't telling. When SpaceNews.com asked over the weekend, all Blue Origin would say was that it will "take down" its NOTAM "when our activity is complete." That at least confirms that some kind of activity is planned -- and something at high enough altitude that airplanes are best advised to stay out of the way.
We do know that it won't be the original New Shephard rocketship -- Blue Origin retired that one after its fifth and final flight. But the company has said it's building new units of the craft with new "tail numbers," with the intention of flying one or more of them before the year is out. Chances are good that this is what Blue Origin will be sending up this week, possibly with a new crew module atop it.
Such a flight -- if this is what's planned -- would advance Blue Origin toward its goal of creating a "space tourism" business, in which New Shephard rockets would be remotely piloted to blast passengers to the edge of space, there to float weightless and look around a bit before being (just as remotely) landed back on Earth. No date has yet been set for beginning such flights, nor tickets sold, nor ticket prices even advertised. As Jeff Bezos told inquirers at a Sept. 26 panel discussion at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, "We'll probably start taking down payments and selling tickets when we're closer to commercial operations ... We have a whole test program ahead of us."
This week's launch could be the start of the next step in that program.
Or a glimpse of New Glenn?
Alternatively, there's a remote possibility that Bezos will attempt something more ambitious in the West Texas desert. Even before concluding the first run of testing on New Shephard, Bezos had begun talking about his next rocket venture -- an orbital class rocket (the difference between suborbital and orbital is that an orbital rocket goes faster) that Blue Origin plans to call New Glenn. Significantly larger, and faster, than New Shephard, New Glenn is being designed to take on SpaceX (and incumbent rocket-launchers Boeing and Lockheed Martin besides) in the market for satellite launches.
Since mid-last year, Blue Origin has been working on construction of a massive, 750,000 square foot rocket factory in Florida in which it will mass manufacture these new rockets. Construction isn't expected to be complete before Dec. 20, which argues against this week's test being of a full-scale New Glenn rocket. Still, it's possible Blue Origin is far enough along in the development process that it's ready to test some part of the new rocket -- a first stage, for example.
Either way, whether Blue Origin lights up the Texan skies with a remake of New Shephard or something a bit bigger, it appears Bezos is back in the saddle again. By this time next week, the race to new space will have become just that much more crowded.