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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)

Update for 5:47 a.m. PT Dec. 20: After working through a ground infrastructure issue, Blue Origin has decided to put off the next launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship until early 2019. “Through fixing the ground infrastructure issue, we have determined additional systems need to be addressed,” the company explained in a tweet. No further details about the issues were provided.

Previously: Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it plans to send nine NASA-sponsored payloads to space and back on the 10th uncrewed test flight of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

Liftoff was originally set for 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT) Dec. 18 from Blue Origin’s suborbital launch complex in West Texas, with video coverage to be live-streamed via Blue Origin’s website.

If Blue Origin sticks to its schedule, the flight will come five months after New Shepard’s most recent test, and a week after billionaire Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic venture sent their SpaceShipTwo rocket plane beyond the 50-mile altitude mark for the first time.

Four research experiments accompanied the two pilots aboard Virgin Galactic’s space plane, dubbed VSS Unity. Blue Origin will be flying its nine payloads under the auspices of the same program, known as the NASA Flight Opportunities Program. Three experiments will have flown aboard both spacecraft.

“Blue supports NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and its role in perfecting technology for a future human presence in space,” the company said in a news release. Earlier this year, NASA said Blue Origin and three other companies would be eligible to draw upon a $45 million pool of funding for payload flights over a span of five years.

“NASA is thrilled to have established flight providers and partners supporting new technology development with wide applications,” Ryan Dibley, launch campaign manager at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, said in a news release.

Having experiments fly on multiple vehicles may reveal refinements that would lower risk or accelerate technology development, Dibley said.

No people have yet flown to space on New Shepard, but versions of the booster and crew capsule have been tested nine times in autonomous mode.

The flight profile typically calls for the booster to send the capsule up to heights beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark. The booster then flies itself back down to a landing, while the capsule drifts to the ground on the end of a parachute.

A year ago, Blue Origin started putting a sensor-laden flight-test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker in one of the crew capsule’s six seats. If test flights continue to go well and the dummy holds up as well as it has, Blue Origin could start putting its employees onboard a human-rated New Shepard spaceship next year, with commercial passenger flights to follow.

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, Wash.

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.

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