Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture will send science to space on 10th suborbital flight

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:

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.