Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture resets New Shepard test launch after snag

New Shepard ready for launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship sits on its West Texas launch pad in preparation for a launch in July 2018. (Blue Origin Photo)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, says it plans to launch the 10th uncrewed test flight of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on Monday, more than a month after a ground infrastructure issue forced a postponement.

Liftoff is set for 9 a.m. CT (7 a.m. PT) at Blue Origin’s spaceport and test facility in West Texas. Video coverage will be streamed via the Kent, Wash.-based company’s website.

The flight’s main goal is to test the systems on New Shepard in preparation for flying passengers later this year. But even though the crew capsule won’t be carrying any crew this time around, it won’t be empty:

Blue Origin plans to fly eight NASA-funded science payloads, including a payload from the University of Central Florida that consists of two experiments. The payloads have received funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program and are good to go despite the partial government shutdown. “Blue supports NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and its role in perfecting technology for a future human presence in space,” Blue Origin said in a news release.

The flight profile for a typical New Shepard flight test involves firing up the craft’s booster to send the crew capsule to heights above 62 miles (100 kilometers), crossing the space frontier in the process. After separation, the reusable booster flies itself back to a landing, while the capsule deploys parachutes and floats back to Earth.

There are a few minutes of weightlessness at the top of the ride, and based on webcam views from previous tests, there are great views of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

This 10th flight test was initially planned for Dec. 18, but Blue Origin said it had to delay the launch due to a ground infrastructure issue and other concerns that cropped up.

The company hasn’t provided details, but outside sources who are familiar with launch procedures have speculated that the ground infrastructure issue had to do either with the system that provides liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the booster, or with the range tracking system.

Today Blue Origin said “we’ve fixed our ground infrastructure issue and both the vehicle and weather look good.”

Here’s the lineup of payloads, as described by Blue Origin:

  • Carthage College Space Sciences Program: The Modal Propellant Gauging experiment led by Kevin Crosby is a joint effort with the NASA Kennedy Space Center Cryogenics Laboratory. It demonstrates a way to measure fuel levels in microgravity by using sound waves.
  • Controlled Dynamics Inc.: The Vibration Isolation Platform (VIP) aims to separate payloads from the normally occurring vibrations experienced during spaceflight. The apparatus should give researchers a clear understanding of microgravity’s effects on their research results. The team is led by Scott Green. VIP also flew aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity.
  • Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab: On its second flight with Blue, the EM Field experiment will observe and collect data on the naturally occurring electromagnetic fields inside and outside New Shepard during the launch. Principal investigator Todd Smith will use this experiment to determine how global measurements of Earth’s electromagnetic field can be conducted in the future.
  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Cooling tightly-packed electronics onboard a spacecraft can be challenging, and many solutions have not been able to undergo robust testing. Principal investigator Franklin Robinson will test one of these solutions in his Flow Boiling in Microgap Coolers experiment.
  • NASA Johnson Space Center: On its third flight on New Shepard, the Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 (SFEM-2), led by Katy Hurlbert, will analyze various aspects of the flight environment during New Shepard’s mission profile, measuring cabin pressure, temperature, CO2, acoustic conditions, acceleration and more. The data collected will help future researchers on New Shepard design the most effective experiments for the vehicle.
  • Purdue University: Steven Collicott’s payload looks at Zero-Gravity Green Propellant Management Technology, which aims to help advance the use of a safer and more environmentally friendly rocket propellant by better understanding the fuel’s behavior in microgravity.
  • University of Central Florida: Two teams led by Josh Colwell and Addie Dove have planetary science payloads on New Shepard. The Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE) aims to understand how dust particles react after surface contact during exploration missions to places such as the moon, Mars and asteroids. The Collection of Regolith Experiment (CORE) addresses the unique challenge of collecting and analyzing material samples in microgravity. COLLIDE also flew aboard VSS Unity.
  • University of Florida: Rob Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul are adapting technology designed for the International Space Station to suborbital uses with their experiment, Validating Telemetric Imaging Hardware for Crew-Assisted and Crew-Autonomous Biological Imaging in Suborbital Applications. By recalibrating the way data is collected, the experiment will enable more biological research on suborbital missions. This experiment also flew aboard VSS Unity.

In addition to its suborbital New Shepard space program, Blue Origin is working on an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn. There’s also a lunar lander called Blue Moon in the works.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft and its hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine are built at the company’s headquarters in Kent.

New Glenn will use a more powerful engine known as the BE-4, which is fueled with liquefied natural gas. BE-4 engines are currently being manufactured in Kent and tested in Texas. However, engine production is expected to shift to Alabama, with the New Glenn rocket destined to be built and launched in Florida.

This week, Blue Origin released a video highlighting the latest design of the New Glenn rocket, which has a wider payload fairing and a whiter paint job:

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