Monday, April 30, 2018

New Sheppard's Latest Test Flight

          By Brian Orlotti

On April 29th, Blue Origin, the Kent, WA based space firm started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, successfully completed the latest test flight of its New Sheppard launch system. The flight marks another success for the company, which plans to take private citizens into suborbital space in 2019.

The fully reusable New Sheppard vehicle launched from the company’s West Texas launch site at 1:06 p.m. EDT, reaching an altitude of nearly 107 km (New Shepard’s highest flight to date), then made a successful landing.

This altitude was slightly higher than New Shepard’s usual target of 100 kilometers, also known as the Kármán line, the internationally accepted boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

The New Sheppard carried a passenger capsule containing a test dummy dubbed ‘Mannequin Skywalker,’ along with research payloads from NASA, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and other commercial customers. These included investigating the effects of microgravity on gene expression and testing the feasibility of providing commercial wi-fi access to users in space, among other experiments.

The capsule detached from the top of the rocket, deployed its parachutes and landed successfully. The rocket landed separately, rapidly descending, then firing its onboard engines just before touchdown.

It was the eighth flight of the New Shepard system since its debut in 2015 and the second test of the newly redesigned rocket and capsule.

A partial listing of the payloads carried on the mission are listed in the April 27th, 2018 Blue Origin press release "Payload Customers Customers on New Sheppard's 8th Test Flight."

As discussed in the April 30th, 2018 Quartz post, "Jeff Bezos explains how his space company will save civilization," both Bezos and rival rocket-maker Elon Musk "have long been clear that their investments in space are mission-driven. Bezos has talked about his lifelong enthusiasm for a future where millions of people live and work in space. Many have noticed the inspiration of space colony theorist Gerard O’Neill, who was finishing his career at Princeton when a young Bezos led the university’s chapter of Students for Exploration and Development of Space." Photo c/o Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Bezos with the goal of developing reusable rockets to enable private human access to space while driving down costs. The company is also working on a heavy-lift orbital rocket known as New Glenn, which is slated for launch in 2020.

The company has made public a rough outline of a typical passenger flight aboard New Sheppard beginning in 2019.

After about two minutes of vertical ascent, the capsule, carrying up to six people, will detach from the rocket as it reaches the edge of space, at which point passengers will experience weightlessness. They will also be able to see the curvature of the Earth through large windows, which Blue Origin claims are the biggest of any spacecraft to date.

About four minutes later, the capsule will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, descend towards its surface and then land in a fully automated process.

In addition to ferrying space tourists to and from the Kármán line, New Shepard will be for hire to carry experiments.

Beyond suborbital flights, Blue Origin has more ambitious plans.

In September 2017,  Blue Origin and other commercial space firms, including Cape Canaveral, FL based Moon Express, owned by Canadian born Robert Richards, laid out plans for commercial missions to the Moon during a meeting of the US House Subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology.

Blue Origin revealed that, in addition to New Sheppard, it is developing an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, to be used as part of a lunar mission architecture called ‘Blue Moon.’

The Blue Moon lunar lander could deliver more than 5 tons of cargo to the lunar surface. Blue Origin has pitched an Amazon type delivery service serving the Moon.

With the success of New Shepard, this vision has come one step closer to reality.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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