Washington — With an eye to launching the first tourists to space by year’s end, Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, blasted off a test flight of its New Shepard rocket.

The rocket, carrying no people on board but eight science experiments for Nasa, soared skywards from a launchpad in west Texas at 3.08pm GMT against a clear blue sky.

A few minutes into the flight, the capsule separated as planned from the booster and reached its peak height of 106km.

“That is exactly what we were targeting,” said Ariane Cornell, an astronaut for Blue Origin and commentator on the company’s live webcast of the launch. The frontier of space is internationally agreed to be 100km above Earth, known as the Karman Line.

Eight minutes after blast-off, the rocket booster fired its engines and made a controlled, upright landing back on Earth, marking the fourth flight for this particular rocket, and the 10th flight test for New Shepard overall.

“That, everybody, is a re-usable rocket,” said Cornell.

Moments later, the capsule floated to Earth, aided by a trio of parachutes, and touched down in a cloud of dust. The entire mission lasted 10 minutes, 15 seconds.

The first flights with passengers on board could start by late 2019, said Cornell. “We are aiming for the end of this year. We are not in a rush. We want to take our time and do this right.”

The passenger capsule is “roomy”, Cornell said, with six seats and six “big gorgeous windows”. The price per ticket has not yet been announced.

The New Shepard rocket first reached space last year, achieving height of 106km in April 2018.

Virgin Galactic, headed by British billionaire Richard Branson, is also working on a vessel of its own to carry tourists to space.

On December 13 2018, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, flew higher than it ever had before, surpassing what the US Air Force considers the boundary of space (80km), and marking the first manned flight to space from US soil since 2011. The spaceship made it to a peak height of 82.7km.

The brief flight — with two pilots on board — was a key milestone for the Virgin Galactic, which is striving to send tourists to space at a cost of $250,000 per seat.