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Blue Origin blasts off

The hush-hush space effort funded by founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, executed a test launch from its West Texas spaceport today, air traffic controllers confirmed. Based on the Federal Aviation Administration documents governing the test, it was a relatively low-altitude blastoff - but it comes at the beginning of a launch schedule that could lead to tourist rides to the edge of outer space by 2010.

Blue Origin's launch window extended from Friday until today, and controllers in Albuquerque, N.M., told me that a launch indeed occurred this morning. However, for further comment they referred me to the venture's office in Kent, near Seattle. There was no response to voicemails left at the Kent office. Blue Origin's Houston-based spokesman, Bruce Hicks, declined comment but said a statement may be available at a later time.

Thus, it's hard to characterize how successful the test was. This test should have involved a prototype rocket vehicle designed to go up no higher than 2,000 feet (610 meters), on a flight lasting no more than a minute, according to the environmental assessment filed with the FAA (PDF file).

Such tests represent the first step toward a vertical-launch-and-landing rocket ship that could take up to three paying passengers on an autonomously controlled trip to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers), from which travelers could see the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

The FAA granted Blue Origin a one-year experimental permit in September, effectively setting up the first private-sector spaceport on private property - in this case, an 18,600-acre site set within hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland owned by Bezos near Van Horn, Texas. The permit lets Blue Origin "conduct experimental launches in order to be able to learn more and develop their vehicle," explained Herb Bachner, manager of the Space Systems Development Division at the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

"The FAA is working closely with Blue Origin to ensure public safety," and is kept aware of the venture's activities, Bachner told me. However, he pointed out that Blue Origin had proprietary information to protect, and as a result, the FAA really can't characterize Blue Origin's progress toward its goal.

"It's up to them to decide to release that information," Bachner said.

So unless there are announcements from Blue Origin, or follow-ups on aviation notices, or reports from the authorities in Van Horn, or eyewitness reports, it may be tough in the future to figure out exactly what's going on at the West Texas facility. But such secretiveness seems to be par for the course.