Blue Origin has taken some serious steps lately to stay in the commercial space game! Ever since founder Jeff Bezos decided to step down as CEO of Amazon to focus on his idea, the company has turned things upside down and moved things forward in hopes of becoming one of the most competitive and lucrative private startup services in the world. They make themselves felt from the launch pad to the courtroom.
Today the company completed its 17th mission (NS-17) with the New Shepard launcher, a reusable VTOL launcher designed to bring small payloads and crews to suborbital altitudes and back again safely. This was also the 8th consecutive time that this particular vehicle successfully started and returned to Earth while carrying some interesting scientific experiments.
As Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a press release at 9:45 a.m. CDT (10:45 a.m. EDT; 7:45 a.m. PDT) shortly after the mission was successfully completed:
“After flying more than 100 payloads into space on New Shepard, today’s 8th flight of this vehicle conducted NASA sponsored and commercial experiments, including NASA’s second flight of NASA lunar landing technology that will one day allow us to To further explore lunar surface. We are grateful to NASA for working with us again on this experiment, and we are proud of the Blue Origin team for making a great flight in support of all of our customers. “
Payloads on this mission included the Deorbit, Descent, and Landing (DDL) sensor demonstration, flown with Blue Origin as part of a NASA Tipping Point partnership supported by the NASA flight opportunities program. This marked the second time the DDL technology demonstrator flew on the outside of the New Shepard booster and tested a technology designed for precise, pilotless moon landings.
The purpose of this experiment is to validate technologies that enable replenishment missions to the lunar surface using fast automated vehicles. Another important payload was the Modal Propellant Gauging (MPG) experiment, which was carried out by lead researcher Dr. Kevin Crosby – who is also the director of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium – and his team from Carthage College.
By further developing PSM technology, which measures the liquid mass under different pressure conditions (caused by weightlessness and microgravity), the researchers want to increase the accuracy of fuel measurements in space. This is critical to mission performance, especially during engine burns and in the late stages. There was also the Orbital Syngas / Commodity Augmentation Reactor (OSCAR) trash-to-gas payload, which processes waste samples into usable gases.
These include carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane, which can create water, oxygen gas, or even propellants. The technology has the potential to reduce the launch mass, volume and mass of garbage on long-term missions and to encourage human exploration of space. Other experiments include the University of Florida’s Biological Imaging in Support of Suborbital Science (BISSS), which further tested the calibration of data collection for biological experiments.
The Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo holds the plaque that carries his art into space. Photo credit: Blue Origin
There was also the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) Liquid Acquisition Device (LAD-3), which shows how liquid-vapor interfaces behave in microgravity – which has potential applications for cryogenic fuel storage. Normally, evaluating these technologies would mean sending them aboard a parabolic flight (also known as a “vomit comet”), but the New Shepard can do the same thanks to its flight profile.
As always, this consists in the booster flying in the direction of the Kármán line, the official limit of space – which corresponds to an altitude of over 100 km. The capsule is then released and the crew and / or cargo spend the next few minutes in weightlessness before the descent begins, whereupon the capsule extends its landing slide and makes a soft landing.
On this flight, the NS-17 mission also carried the suborbital triptych, a work of art by the Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, which was painted on an outer panel of the occupation capsule (see above). The triptych is the first in a series of commissioned works to fly aboard the New Shepard as part of an initiative called Uplift For Good.
This initiative, launched by Uplift Aerospace in partnership with Blue Origin, will launch three works of art on three removable composite panels from Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. The mission also provided thousands of postcards from Club for the Future, the Blue Origin foundation dedicated to inspiring future generations for careers in the STEM fields.
The NS-17 booster landing on the company’s launch pad. Photo credit: Blue Origin
Another major achievement of this flight was further validation of the reusability of Blue Origin, an integral part of Bezos’ vision to reduce costs and improve accessibility to space. By operating multiple flights on previously flown boosters, the company is also demonstrating the ability to operate regular “space tourism” flights, which is an integral part of Bezos’ long-term business plan.
Christopher Baker, a program director for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters, said:
“Flight Opportunities is exactly the right thing for this type of iterative flight testing. The use of different vehicles for the rapid advancement of technology is not only important in order to achieve the mission goals of NASA, but also in order to maximize the impact of these innovations in space and here on earth. “
Further reading: NASA, Blue Origin