Blue Origin is flying its New Shepard rocket from Texas with NASA testing out technology that will help it some day be able to make precision landings on the moon and Mars.
The flight was scheduled for Thursday, but was scrubbed because of a power supply issue. When it does fly, it will take place from Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, the 13th test flight for the rocket booster that once again plans to send an uncrewed capsule to higher than 100 km for a short suborbital flight, part of the Jeff Bezos’-owned company’s plans to begin space tourism flights in the future.
The test flights, though, give NASA an opportunity to partner with Blue Origin, so both can test out technology that will help landings on other planets.
“This public-private partnership is a great example of NASA and industry working together on common goals – to explore more of the Moon and eventually land humans on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in a press release.
On board are two of three systems dubbed SPLICE, which stands for Safe and Precise Landing, which feature sensors and software. The sensors were installed in the upper portion of the reusable rocket booster for New Shepard, which launches and returns to land in the same manner as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket boosters. Also in the booster are NASA’s descent and landing computer, integrating two of the three SPLCE systems for the first time.
NASA has said it could use one, two or all three systems for future missions.
“Testing SPLICE technologies on a suborbital rocket expands the envelope beyond previous lab tests, helicopter field tests, and lower-altitude suborbital rocket tests,” explained John Carson, technical integration manager for precision landing based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in a press release. “We will get more data about the system to anchor analyses and models and support follow-on adjustments, testing, and development.”
The first sensor system is for terrain-relative navigation using inertia measurement and a camera that feed into software developed by the company Draper to compare actual landing parameters to pre-loaded landing maps.
The second system is Doppler lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging. It uses lasers developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center to strike the surface below and measure velocity and altitude.
The third system. not being tested in the New Shepard flight, is another sensor system that also uses lidar to create a 3D map of the landing field to detect hazards.
Also on board the Blue Origin flight are eight of NASA’s Flight Opportunities payloads as well as thousands of postcards created by students being flown for free thanks to Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future, which looks to inspire youth into STEM careers and a vision of humanity’s future in space.
The payloads and postcards will be on board the capsule that will separate from the booster and fly past the target of 100 km, known as the Karman line, an internationally accepted threshold for space.
That includes a microgravity LilyPond, a hydroponic chamber for growing edible aquatic plants in space, that will be honing in on the use of duckweed, which features a lot of protein.
“In space, we need crops that produce a lot of nutritious material with minimal resources and volume – and those that can grow very fast, tolerate environmental extremes, and of course taste good are even better,” said LilyPond lead investigator Christine Escobar, who is also vice president of Space Lab Technologies, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Other experiments on board aim to monitor the suborbital environment, improve thermal management for spacecraft, look into remote sensing in space, automating radiation measurement, use magnets to collect regolith off planetary surfaces, improve cryogenic fluid transfer, and image biological changes amid shifts in gravity.
It will be the first launch since December 2019, and only the second since May 2019. The eventual goal of the company is to get the rocket and capsule up and running for space tourism. The company had originally indicated it wanted to begin tourist flights into space in 2019, but has not begun to sell tickets nor set prices for prospective flyers yet, and then the COVID-19 pandemic put many plans on hold.
When tourist flights do begin, the New Shepard capsule will take up to six humans into suborbital space on an 11-minute flight from launch to landing.
“Featuring windows that comprise 1/3 of the capsule’s surface structure – the largest windows ever in space – you’ll have a view of the curve of the planet and the vast darkness of the cosmos. Every detail of the capsule has been precision-engineered for your safety and comfort,” says the voiceover on a Blue Origin PR video.
The rides, which will launch from the West Texas facility, will allow passengers to unbuckle and experience weightlessness for a few minutes before strapping back into their reclining seats for the trip back to Earth.
With safety in mind, the capsule has an escape motor that is designed to propel the passengers away from the booster rocket, which like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters, will be reusable.
While cost has yet to be set, media reports have suggested it will be close to the $250,000 price tag per passenger that’s been set by competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s space tourism plans will let passengers see the curvature of the Earth on the short flights, and the companies then plan for quick turnaround to launch the next set of paying customers.
Blue Origin is also pursuing a larger rocket, the New Glenn, being built at its facility in Cape Canaveral and launched from the Space Coast.
Blue Origin, New Shepard, NASA, Jeff Bezos, Rocket, SpaceX
World news – US – NASA to test Mars-landing systems while hitching ride on Blue Origin flight