New Shepard conducts science mission ahead of upcoming passenger flights

by Chris Gebhardt

For the 11th time, Blue Origin launched their suborbital New Shepard rocket and crew capsule on an uncrewed test flight from the company’s West Texas launch and landing facility.  The mission will carry 38 scientific experiments, including nine procured through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, for a few minutes of microgravity free flight.

With Blue Origin’s plans to begin passenger suborbital tourism flights later this year, this will likely be one of the final flight tests before the rocket system begins carrying humans.

While Blue Origin has not released a specific schedule for when passenger service will begin on their New Shepard system, the company has stated that they plan to begin selling tickets to customers sometime this year ahead of an anticipated first passenger flight by the end of the year.

Thursday’s particular science mission, as all New Shepard flights have, launched from the company’s West Texas facility, which is located approximately 30 miles north of the city of Van Horn, Texas.

The single-engine BE-3 New Shepard booster propelled the uncrewed New Shepard Crew Capsule and its host a scientific experiments to a suborbital altitude above the Karman Line – the 100 km marker of the internationally accepted boundary to space.

After propelling the capsule spaceward, the New Shepard booster will separate from the capsule and begin its journey back to Earth, flying itself to its landing pad 2 miles north of its launch location where it will land on deployable legs under retropropulsion.

This particular booster, NS-3 (New Shepard-3), flew for the first time on 12 December 2017, marking the system’s first flight under FAA launch license regulations.

The NS-3 booster’s inaugural flight marked the beginning of revenue producing missions for the system, as all previous flights were flown under an experimental permit that did not allow commercially procured cargo to be carried.

New Shepard flight #11 payloads:

New Shepard payloads were secured inside the Crew Capsule, where they are exposed to both the forces of launch and a couple minutes of microgravity before the capsule is pulled back to Earth.

In all, the 11th flight of the New Shepard system carried 38 scientific experiments, 29 of which were procured commercially with the remaining nine coming through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

One of the commercially procured payloads comes from New Century Technology High School in Huntsville, Alabama.  This experiment will examine temperature differentials in microgravity and provided students an opportunity to work on experiment design with NASA engineers.

Keeping with the education theme, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative will also fly several payloads on this mission.  According to Blue Origin, “The Space Exploration Initiative is built on the spirit of the MIT Media Lab, uniting artists, engineers, scientists, and designers.”

This is the first MIT flight aboard New Shepard, for which two experiments will examine the use of microgravity as a platform for artistic expression.

The “Telepresent Drawings in Space [experiment] uses graphite to create a drawing that could only have been made in space [while the] Living Distance: A Spider-Inspired Robotic Dance in Weightlessness [will demonstrate] a crystalline robotic device that navigates zero gravity, similar to a performance,” noted Blue Origin.

Of the nine payloads coming through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, five of them include: Orbital Medicine’s Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device, Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2, Flow Boiling in Microgap Coolers, BioChip SubOrbitalLab, and Strata-S1.

The Orbital Medicine’s Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device experiment will test Dr. Marsh Cuttino’s groundbreaking technology of a device capable of treating a collapsed lung in zero gravity.

Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device. (Credit: NASA)

Ground-based treatment of such a condition involves a heavy reliance on gravity, but Dr. Cuttino’s work seeks to eliminate that reliance and develop a technology that will be capable of treating a collapsed lung – technology that could later be flown aboard the International Space Station and on deep space missions, including flights of human settlement on the Moon and Mars.

Additionally, the device will demonstrate its ability to collect blood in microgravity and store that blood prior to its eventual transfusion – both potentially life-saving procedures as humanity expands beyond Earth.

Joining the Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device on New Shepard flight will be BioChip SubOrbitalLab.  This biomedical experiment seeks to allow scientist’s the ability to observe cell responses to microgravity and spaceflight exposure in real-time, something that is not presently able to occur aboard the International Space Station.

According to the experiment’s Objective listed on NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program’s page, “In order to fully understand the effects of microgravity on cell function, researchers need the ability to monitor subcellular processes in real-time to identify, characterize and quantify the transient, yet significant cellular responses to microgravity.”

Joining these two biomedical experiments is NASA’s Johnson Space Center-led Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2, a package that will help evaluate variable G-force conditions on various life support system components.

Meanwhile, the Flow Boiling in Microgap Coolers experiment will, according to NASA, gather data on the “limitations of current cooling methods for miniaturized devices and electronics needed for technology payloads on space-bound missions.”

The Strata-S1 experiment. (Credit: NASA)

Specifically, this experiment seeks to design two-flow microgap coolers that can be safely employed as part of a spacecraft’s thermal management system.

Lastly, the Strata-S1 experiment from the University of Central Florida will compliment an ongoing experiment aboard the International Space Station that will help scientists better understand how space dust, regolith, and other small particles on the surfaces of small stellar bodies react to various stimuli in microgravity.

This will aid mission planner’s ability to understand how robotic and human space exploration initiatives might be affected during missions to the Moon, Mars, and Near Earth Asteroids.

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