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New Shepard landing
Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster lands itself at the end of a test flight in July 2018. (Blue Origin Photo)

Blue Origin, the private space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, says it’s sending up its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on its next test flight as early as Thursday morning with 38 payloads on board.

The launch and landing at Blue Origin’s spaceport in West Texas are due to be webcast via the company’s website and NASA TV, with liftoff set for 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT). There’s always a chance of delay, due to weather or technical issues. Blue Origin has clearance for launch from the Federal Aviation Administration through Sunday.

This will be the 11th uncrewed New Shepard test flight, principally aimed at checking the safety and reliability of the launch system for crewed suborbital spaceflights to come. The flight profile calls for Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled booster to send up the crew capsule, and then separate and touch down on a landing pad. The capsule would experience a few precious minutes of weightlessness at the top of the ride, and then descend on the end of a parachute to a semi-soft landing.

For more than a year, Blue Origin has been selling spots in the crew capsule for science experiments that take advantage of the zero-gravity trip. NASA says nine of the experiments due to fly this week are supported by the space agency’s Flight Opportunities program.

One of those experiments will test a standardized set of hardware for classroom-developed space experiments, including a fireproof payload cabinet and 3-D-printed frames. The hardware, developed by a nonprofit group called Teachers in Space, has flown previously on high-altitude balloons and a stratospheric glider. This will mark the first flight on an actual space vehicle.

“It’s such a huge milestone,” Elizabeth Kennick, president of Teachers in Space, said in a news release. “This opens the door to flying more experiments for more schools, and that means exposing more teachers and students to the promise of spaceflight.”

The eight other NASA-supported experiments include:

  • Characterization of 3-D Printing Processes Under Microgravity Conditions: This experiment is aimed at confirming that a 3-D printer can manufacture metal components in microgravity. Flown for the University of Kentucky.
  • A New Spin on Suborbital Microgravity Research: Developing a Centrifuge for New Shepard: Texas-based NanoRacks will test a centrifuge designed for use on suborbital space vehicles. Centrifuges are vital instruments for determining how biological and physical processes react to microgravity as well as Martian and lunar gravity.
  • Cryogenic Gauging Technology Geometry Development: This fluid experiment will provide benchmark data to feed into the development of a program for modeling low-gravity fluid configurations inside a cryogenic tank. Flown for Purdue University.
  • Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device: This medical device could assist in treating space-based emergencies, such as a collapsed lung. It would collect blood in microgravity, allow lungs to continuously inflate, and store blood for transfusion. Flown for Orbital Medicine, Richmond, Va.
  • Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2: This instrumentation package is designed to characterize the flight environment (for example, acceleration, acoustics, temperature, pressure, humidity) of suborbital vehicles that are candidates for testing new space technologies. Flown for NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
  • Flow Boiling in Microgap Coolers: This thermal management technique addresses the limitations of current cooling methods for miniaturized devices and electronics needed for technology payloads on space-bound missions. Flown for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
  • BioChip SubOrbitalLab: This experiment aims to enable researchers to observe cell function in real time during flight, in order to understand how microgravity and space exposure effects human physiology — critical insights for long-duration missions. Flown for HNu Photonics, Kahului, Hawaii.
  • Strata-S1: This payload addresses the need for detailed understanding of the behavior of space dust, regolith and other particles on the surfaces of small bodies in space, to inform both robotic and human space exploration. Flown for University of Central Florida.

Blue Origin provided a rundown on some of the other payloads that’ll be flying:

Blue Origin executives have said they expect to start putting people on board New Shepard later this year, and eventually researchers could well fly along with their payloads. New Shepard hardware is produced at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped down to West Texas for launch.

It’s possible that Bezos will touch upon plans for New Shepard’s suborbital spaceflights during an update he’s scheduled to provide on May 9 in Washington, D.C. In addition to the New Shepard program, Blue Origin is developing an orbital-class New Glenn rocket and the BE-4 rocket engines that it will require. It’s also working on a Blue Moon lander that could figure in NASA’s plans to send payloads and people to the lunar surface in coming years.

Update for 5:45 p.m. PT May 1: This story has been updated with additional payload details from Blue Origin.

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