A month after Bezos’s flight, Blue Origin launches NASA moon tech demo

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Blue Origin is set to launch its reusable New Shepard booster from West Texas on a suborbital flight to the edge of space Thursday on the company’s first launch since founder Jeff Bezos and three crewmates rocketed to an altitude of 66 miles last month.

But this mission won’t carry people. Instead, Blue Origin says the single stage New Shepard booster set for launch Thursday is dedicated to flying research payloads.

Blue Origin’s launch team plans to load super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the rocket early Thursday. Liftoff from Blue Origin’s test site north of Van Horn, Texas, is scheduled for 9:35 a.m. EDT (8:35 a.m. CDT; 1335 GMT).

The company delayed the New Shepard launch from Wednesday for unspecified reasons.

The rocket’s BE-3 engine will throttle up to generate 110,000 pounds of thrust to power the New Shepard booster off the ground. A crew capsule — without any passengers — will be mounted on top of the rocket for the flight to space.

After firing more than two minutes, the main engine will cut off and the crew capsule will separate from the New Shepard booster. Both vehicles will coast to an altitude of more than 62 miles (100 kilometers), the internationally-recognized boundary of space, before falling back to Earth.

The booster will deploy air brakes and reignite its BE-3 engine to slow down for landing on a concrete pad just north of its launch site. Moments later, the crew capsule is expected to deploy three main parachutes and fire its own small retrorockets for touchdown on the desert floor at Blue Origin’s sprawling 80,000-acre test facility.

The mission will be the 17th flight of a New Shepard booster, and the eighth launch of this particular reusable rocket, which is dedicated to flying research payloads, according to Blue Origin.

The company has a second rocket in its inventory for human launches. That vehicle was used to launch Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation pioneer Wally Funk, and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen on a suborbital flight to space July 20.

At that time, Blue Origin officials said the company planned two more New Shepard missions this year, beginning with the research flight Thursday. Another launch with passengers is scheduled before the end of 2021.

Blue Origin has opened ticket sales for paying space tourists and scientists to fly to space in future New Shepard flights. But the company hasn’t publicly disclosed a price per seat.

The mission set for launch Thursday — designated New Shepard-17, or NS-17 — will fly 18 commercial payloads inside the crew capsule, 11 of which are supported by NASA, according to Blue Origin.

On the exterior of the New Shepard booster, teams have mounted a package of NASA-provided sensors to test precision landing technologies that could guide future robotic and crewed missions to landings on the moon.

The technology experiment is part of NASA’s Deorbit, Descent, and Landing Sensor Demonstration, made possible through a “Tipping Point” partnership between Blue Origin and NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Blue Origin flew the lunar landing sensors on the NS-13 mission last October. The company said the NS-17 mission will “further test” the technology to “reduce risk and increase confidence for successful missions to the moon.”

The experiment is designed to test key components of NASA’s Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution, or SPLICE, technology suite. NASA says the SPLICE sensors “will enable safer and more accurate lunar landings than ever before.” The system’s algorithms and sensors could allow lunar landers to touch down in rugged regions with boulders and craters, places that were unreachable during the Apollo program.

The sensors will identify hazards such as steep slopes and boulders, allowing lunar landers to steer to the safest touchdown zone with a circular area around 330 feet, or 100 meters, in diameter. It’s part of NASA’s technology development initiatives for the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the lunar surface later this decade.

NASA signed a $3 million agreement with Blue Origin in 2018 to fly terrain relative navigation, navigation doppler lidar, and other altimetry sensors on New Shepard missions.

The New Shepard flight will help validate the performance of a navigation doppler lidar and a terrain relative navigation camera mounted on the upper portion of the New Shepard booster. On a lunar landing mission, the sensors would feed data about the spacecraft’s position and speed to the lander’s guidance computer.

This infographic illustrates the goals of the precision landing experiment on Blue Origin’s new Shepard booster. Credit: Blue Origin

On Thursday’s test flight, a descent and landing computer housed inside the New Shepard rocket is expected to receive and process the sensor data.

NASA says flying the sensors on a suborbital rocket allows engineers to gather more data on the system, beyond what is possible in laboratory, helicopter, and lower-altitude tests.

The SPLICE suite will fly to the moon on a pair of commercial robotic landers from Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines as soon as next year.

Blue Origin said the NS-13 launch last year “informed a series of critical improvements’ to the navigation doppler lidar and descent landing computer.

The raw data from the lunar landing tech experiment will be published for use by U.S. companies developing moon missions.

Blue Origin is designing its own cargo and crew lander for moon missions, but NASA earlier this year selected SpaceX to develop the human-rated lunar lander for the agency’s first Artemis landing mission. Blue Origin protested the selection to the Government Accountability Office, but the GAO upheld NASA’s decision.

Earlier this month, Blue Origin filed a lawsuit over NASA’s selection of SpaceX for the human-rated landing system.

Science payloads flying in the New Shepard crew capsule Thursday include an experiment to evaluate methods of measuring propellant levels in spacecraft tanks, and an investigation looking how to transform trash into resources, such as water and propellant, that could be used on crews traveling in deep space.

Other experiments include an investigation from Southwest Research Institute to look at liquid and vapor interfaces in microgravity. Data from this experiment could help inform the design of rockets using long-term cryogenic propellant storage in space.

An investigation from the University of Florida will use a fluorescence imaging system that enables biological research on suborbital missions.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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