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Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship rises from its West Texas launch pad in April for a test flight. (Blue Origin photo)

Blue Origin, the space venture backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is reportedly planning to start flying research payloads on its New Shepard suborbital space vehicle as early as the first half of 2016.

“We’re aiming for the second quarter of next year,” Space News quoted Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, as saying on Tuesday at a workshop in Washington, D.C. The workshop on microgravity research was organized by NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that’s partnering with Blue Origin to fly scientific experiments on New Shepard.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has been putting New Shepard through a series of uncrewed flight tests at the company’s West Texas launch facility. The most recent test took place in April. The rocket-powered vehicle rose to a height of 307,000 feet – and although the propulsion module couldn’t be recovered as hoped, due to a hydraulic problem, the crew capsule made a flawless parachute landing.

“Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” Bezos said at the time.

Blue Origin says the next test flight could take place by the end of the year.

Like the test flights, the research flights would be launched without a crew. Instead, standard-size payload lockers would be loaded aboard New Shepard, sent up on a flight rising above 100 kilometers (62 miles) that would involve about three minutes of weightlessness, and then be recovered after landing.

Blue Origin and NanoRacks are offering two locker sizes, roughly corresponding to the capacity of a 13-gallon kitchen wastebasket (49 liters) and a 30-gallon trash can (102 liters). The companies are offering a $5,300 package for student experiments that would fit in what’s known as a 2U CubeSat compartment, measuring 4 by 4 by 8 inches (10 by 10 by 20 centimeters).

The precise timing for the research flights depends on how much progress Blue Origin makes on its test program, and how quickly the company receives a launch license for commercial operations from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Eventually, Blue Origin plans to fly passengers as well as payloads on New Shepard – but that will take a while longer. In April, the company’s president, Rob Meyerson, told reporters that “we’re probably a few years away from selling tickets, at least from flying our first astronaut.”

Even though the time frame and the price for flying people has not yet been set, Blue Origin is already taking names.

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