CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (REUTERS) - Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' space transportation company, Blue Origin, successfully landed a suborbital rocket back at its launch site, a key step in its drive to make reusable rockets, the company said on Tuesday.
The New Shepard rocket, which is designed to carry six passengers, blasted off from a launch site in West Texas on Monday. The rocket reached an altitude of 100 km - breaching the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space - and landed back at the launch site eight minutes later, the company said.
"Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket," Bezos, who founded Amazon.com Inc and owns the Washington Post newspaper, wrote in a Blue Origin blog post.
In suborbital spaceflight, rockets are not travelling fast enough to reach the speed required to counter the pull of Earth's gravity, so they re-enter the atmosphere like a ballistic missile.
Fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder and chief executive officer of rival rocket company Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, used his Twitter feed to congratulate Bezos and the Blue Origin team on the landing, a technology that SpaceX is also pursuing.
SpaceX is working to reuse rockets that are returning from the higher altitudes and faster speeds of orbital missions. "It is ... important to clear up the difference between'space' and 'orbit'," Musk posted on Twitter.
A rocket needs to be travelling about three times the speed of sound, or Mach 3, to reach space, but orbital missions require speeds about Mach 30, Musk said.
Nevertheless, it is the conditions in those last few seconds before touchdown, when both orbital and suborbital rockets are positioning themselves for landing, that so far has eluded SpaceX, and which the Blue Origin team nailed. "I'm just ecstatic they were able to hit it," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Blue Origin is among a handful of companies developing vehicles to carry cargo and paying passengers into space.
Blue Origin also is developing a rocket engine in partnership with United Launch Alliance