Blue Origin gets ready to test its suborbital spaceship with COVID-19 safety in mind

New Shepard landing
Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard booster makes its landing in December 2019. (Blue Origin Photo)

After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back on Thursday, to test a precision landing system for NASA.

And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th 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.”

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas is scheduled for 10 a.m. CT (8 a.m. PT) Thursday. “Current weather conditions are favorable,” Blue Origin said in today’s status report.

The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.

Concerns about COVID-19 are among the reasons why it’s been nine months 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, sparking worries among employees.

Getting ready for the landing system test also requires 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 InstituteSwRI 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 John 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.

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