Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship today conducted a robotic rehearsal for a future touchdown on the moon — and by all appearances, it stuck the landing.
Testing most of the elements of NASA’s precision lunar landing system was the top item on the agenda for today’s mission, which represented the 13th uncrewed test flight of a New Shepard spacecraft for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.
New Shepard’s flight had initially been scheduled for Sept. 24, but the launch was scrubbed due to a potential issue with the power supply for one of the 12 commercial payloads on board. It took more than two weeks for Blue Origin to resolve all the technical issues.
New Shepard’s reusable booster blasted off from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 8:37 a.m. CT (6:37 a.m. PT), sending a capsule stuffed with scientific experiments at a maximum speed of 2,232 mph to an altitude in excess of 65 miles (346,964 feet, or 105 kilometers). That’s beyond the 100-kilometer level that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.
Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated and floated back down to the Texas desert at the end of a parachute. Meanwhile, the booster made a supersonic descent. Just before landing, the booster relit its hydrogen-fueled engine in retro-rocket mode to fly itself autonomously to its landing pad for a record seventh time.
“That never gets old to watch that rocket,” launch commentator Caitlin Dietrich said from Blue Origin’s home base in Kent, Wash. “It almost looks fake, every single time.”
The flight took just over 10 minutes, from liftoff to the capsule’s touchdown.
New Shepard’s rocket boosters have routinely made autonomous landings since 2015, but this time around, the booster was equipped with a Doppler lidar sensor, a terrain relative navigation system and NASA’s descent and landing computer.
NASA plans to use such components for lunar landings, crewed and uncrewed, as part of a guidance system called SPLICE. The system is meant to monitor the descent of a spacecraft, identify a target landing site and execute a touchdown within an accuracy of 100 yards (meters).
During today’s flight, NASA’s system operated in parallel with Blue Origin’s guidance system. In the months ahead, NASA will analyze SPLICE’s performance and make plans with Blue Origin for a follow-up test. The guidance system may well be used on the lunar lander that Blue Origin and its commercial partners are offering for NASA’s use.
Blue Origin conducted the practice run under the terms of a $3 million Tipping Point grant from NASA. In a pre-launch interview, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said suborbital flight tests like the one flown today play a “critically important” role in preparations for future Artemis moon missions.
“Today’s flight was inspiring,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a statement issued after the landing. “Using New Shepard to simulate landing on the moon is an exciting precursor to what the Artemis program will bring to America. Thanks to NASA for partnering with us, and congrats to the Blue Origin team on taking another step toward returning to the moon to stay.”
Bezos weighed in as well, with an Instagram post that gave “huge kudos” to the teams at Blue Origin and NASA.
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Huge kudos to the @BlueOrigin and @NASA teams for today’s successful mission. Seven consecutive trips to space and back for this particular vehicle. We’re testing precision lunar landing technologies for future missions in support of the Artemis program. Another step toward returning to the Moon — this time to stay. #GradatimFerociter
Testing the landing system wasn’t the only to-do item for today. Blue Origin has been putting New Shepard through its paces for five years in preparation for flying paying passengers to the edge of space and back, and this mission marked one more not-so-small step toward those crewed flights.
When 2020 began, Blue Origin’s executives had hoped that people would start taking suborbital space trips on New Shepard by the end of the year. But the coronavirus outbreak contributed to months of delay in the development program. Today marked Blue Origin’s first test flight since last December.
Although there were no people on board, there were plenty of science payloads. Here’s a sampling:
- Space Lab Technologies’ autonomous plant growth system, known as Microgravity LilyPond, is meant to blaze a trail for zero-gravity aquatic gardening.
- Southwest Research Institute flew a prototype system for asteroid sampling, plus an experiment looking at the interaction of liquid and gas in zero gravity.
- NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland provided a payload that demonstrates an embedded cooling technology for power-dense electronics.
- Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory tested its environmental monitoring suite for suborbital launch vehicles.
- The University of Florida flew an imaging system that it’s developing to take high-resolution pictures of biological payloads during transitions in gravity levels.
- Mu Space Corp. sent up an artistic experiment that’s designed to demonstrate an algorithm for converting musical notes into DNA-encoded data.
New Shepard’s aft portion was equipped with a beefed-up heat shield that’s undergoing tests for Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket, creative director Joel Eby said during today’s webcast. New Glenn’s first flight is due next year.
Today Blue Origin also flew tens of thousands of postcards to space and back for its nonprofit educational venture, the Club for the Future. The organizations participating in the postcard project included Seattle’s Museum of Flight and Cedarhurst Elementary School in Burien, Wash.
Nearly 1.2 million tomato seeds were sent into space and back for Tomatosphere, a STEM outreach project run by Let’s Talk Science and First the Seed Foundation. Blue Origin said the seeds will be distributed to more than 15,000 classrooms around the U.S. and Canada to help kids study the effects of the space environment on plant growth and food production.
Update for 8:45 a.m. PT: This report was updated to provide official stats for New Shepard’s flight and add details about the educational projects on board.