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After weeks of delay, Blue Origin sets up suborbital space mission to test NASA landing technology

Alan Boyle
·5-min read
New Shepard landing
Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard booster makes its landing in December 2019. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is now targeting Tuesday for the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed mission to the edge of space and back, to try out a precision landing system for NASA.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas is scheduled for no earlier than 8:35 a.m. CT (6:35 a.m. PT).

A webcast is due to go live at Blue Origin’s website 30 minutes before launch, but there’s always a chance of delays due to weather or technical issues. That was the case more than two weeks ago when Blue Origin postponed the launch. At first, the launch team had to wait for cloudy weather to clear up, and then Blue Origin detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. A day later, Blue Origin tweeted that engineers would be taking extra time to make sure that all the technical issues were fully resolved.

The time frame for launch now extends to Nov. 1, according to an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

It’s been 10 months since Blue Origin last launched its New Shepard spaceship, which is designed to carry scientific payloads — and eventually, passengers as well. This 13th uncrewed test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”

Concerns about COVID-19 are among the reasons why it’s been so long since the reusable New Shepard craft’s most recent outing. A number of coronavirus cases came to light in April, during the early days of the outbreak. As a result, Blue Origin instituted additional safety measures.

Getting ready for the landing system test also required extra time and care: This will be the first of two New Shepard flights to test technologies that are designed for use on lunar landers like the one that Blue Origin and its corporate partners hope to build for NASA’s Artemis moon program.

For this NS-13 test flight, the exterior of New Shepard’s hydrogen-fueled rocket booster has been outfitted with a Doppler lidar sensor, a terrain relative navigation system and a descent and landing computer. Those are three of the elements in NASA’s precision landing system for missions to the moon, known as SPLICE.

Blue Origin has been testing a different system for making autonomous landings, but SPLICE is designed to process much more data. The system should be capable of guiding spacecraft to within 330 feet (100 meters) of a designated point, widening the options for safe lunar landings.

The landing technology tests are being funded through a $3 million NASA Tipping Point grant to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin says other payload partners for this flight will include:

  • Space Lab Technologies: Space Lab will fly µG-LilyPond, an autonomous plant growth system for use in microgravity. The ultimate goal is to produce nutritious aquatic plants to supplement a crew’s diet. During this flight, the µG-LilyPond payload will demonstrate the growth of plants without soil, using passive capillary flow. The payload was developed by Space Lab in collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder. NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer program provided funding for payload development and flight.

  • Southwest Research Institute: SwRI will fly two payloads, BORE II and LAD-2. BORE II will test a novel system for sampling soil and anchoring to asteroids and other low-gravity destinations. The goal of this system is to advance exploration and support in-situ resource utilization. The LAD-2 payload will demonstrate interactions of liquid and gas in zero-gravity. Applications include cryogenic propellant storage and management for in-space propulsion systems. Both payload flights were funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

  • NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center: In collaboration with the University of Maryland, Goddard researchers will re-fly the Flow Boiling in Microgap Coolers experiment, or FBMC. This payload demonstrates an embedded cooling technology for power-dense spacecraft electronics operating in a range of gravity environments. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program is funding the payload test.

Still more experiments will be flown for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the University of Florida, Space Environment Technologies and mu Space Corp., amounting to a total of 12 commercial payloads.

Blue Origin will also send tens of thousands of postcards to space and back for the company’s nonprofit educational campaign, the Club for the Future. Some of the postcards will bear a special NASA Artemis stamp.

New Shepard is designed to send people as well as experiments to the edge of space — beyond the 100-kilometer (62-miles) mark — and bring them down safely after a few minutes of zero-G weightlessness.

Going into 2020, Blue Origin executives had talked about beginning passenger flights as early as this year. But with the slowdown in the flight test schedule, it seems unlikely that people will start flying on New Shepard until 2021.

Blue Origin is also working on an orbital space program, using its yet-to-be-launched New Glenn rocket, as well as the NASA-funded lunar lander program. The latest schedule calls for the first New Glenn launch to take place in Florida next year.

This is an updated version of a report first published on Sept. 22.

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