Blue Origin launches NS-17 suborbital science mission

by Justin Davenport

A month after New Shepard’s first flight carrying people into space, a science flight without crew onboard has launched from Blue Origin’s facility near Van Horn, Texas. The flight, the fourth of the year for the New Shepard program, was originally scheduled for August 25, 2021, but was delayed due to a payload integration issue.

New Shepard flight NS-17 lifted off on Thursday, August 26, at 09:31 CDT local time (14:31 UTC) — after two unplanned holds — on a suborbital trajectory with an apogee over 100 kilometers, the boundary to space as recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

The launch trajectory, therefore, also passed the 80-kilometer mark, which is the altitude recognized by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), NASA, and the United States Air Force as a boundary beyond which astronaut wings are granted and space begins.

While the previous New Shepard flight, NS-16, on July 20, 2021, carried passengers, there were no people on this flight.

The New Shepard booster, Tail 3, and its associated capsule, RSS H.G. Wells, flew the mission. Tail 3 is dedicated to uncrewed science missions like NS-17, and this was Tail 3’s 8th flight.

Tail 3 was fueled starting at T-3 hours with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and the BE-3 engine, capable of up to 489.3 kN (110,000 lbs force) of thrust, was fired at the T0 mark — which came after 56 minutes of unplanned cumulative hold time.

After six seconds to allow thrust build-up and health checks, the booster was released and climbed out from the launch pad. Max Q (maximum dynamic pressure) was reached around the T+1 minute mark at 8.5 kilometers altitude.

The main engine shut down at T+2 minutes 25 seconds at approximately 54.2 kilometers in altitude, traveling three times the speed of sound.

The RSS H.G. Wells capsule separated from the booster at T+3 minutes and spent roughly 4-5 minutes in space and microgravity before starting to descend. 

The booster, meanwhile, deployed its ring and wedge fins as it descended before it fired its BE-3 engine again to come to a near-hover before landing on a concrete pad at T+7 minutes 27 seconds into the flight. 

Wally Funk looks at the New Shepard booster that took her to space on July 20, 2021. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

The capsule then deployed its drogue chute around 1.5 kilometers, with the main chutes following at 760 meters altitude before touching down T+10 minutes 15 seconds after launch. 

With a safe landing, the experiments onboard will now be retrieved and analyzed.

NS-17 flew 18 commercial payloads, including 11 NASA-supported experiments as well as an art installation on the exterior of the capsule created by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo. 

Boafo’s work for NS-17, known as Suborbital Tryptych, was on the top of the capsule on the main chute covers. The project was sponsored by Uplift Aerospace’s Uplift Art Program and depicts the artist, his mother, and a friend’s mother. 

Of the 11 NASA-sponsored payloads aboard NS-17, six were supported by the NASA Flight Opportunities program run by the Space Technology Mission Directorate office.

One of these experiments will support future crewed and robotic lunar landings.

On the moon again. (Credit: NASA)

The SPLICE (Safe and Precise Landing Integrated Capabilities Evolution) system features a navigation suite of instruments with a high-performance computer, along with a camera and a Doppler LIDAR, which will be tested on this flight. 

The LIDAR uses laser pulses to determine how far the craft is from the ground. Under a Tipping Point contract, New Shepard flew the first integrated test of this experiment on the NS-13 flight in October 2020.

The OSCAR (Orbital Syngas/Community Augmentation Reactor) experiment could lead to the recycling of garbage on future spaceflights to produce gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor. This could reduce the number of consumables needed at the start of a mission and enable more sustainable, long-duration flights to Mars or other deep-space destinations.

Meanwhile, the Modal Propellant Gauging Experiment is designed to help future spacecraft more accurately measure propellant levels in fuel tanks in microgravity. This could prove particularly helpful for spacecraft in the latter stages of their missions to help them determine how long they can keep operating.

Additionally, the Southwest Research Institute’s experiment, LAD-3 or Liquid Acquisition Device, will use surface tension to enable more efficient cryogenic transfer operations, which would help with in-flight refueling and fuel storage depots.

The University of Florida’s Biological Imaging in Support of Suborbital Science experiment will use a fluorescence imaging system to enable dynamic, autonomous, high-resolution imaging for biological experiments at different levels of gravity experienced during suborbital flights.

The original three contenders for the HLS award. NASA formally selected SpaceX as the sole provider. (Credit: NASA)

To date, the New Shepard program has flown over 100 payloads on 11 flights.

The Blue Origin charity, Club for the Future, is flying thousands of postcards as well, as it has on other New Shepard flights. 

After NS-17, Blue Origin expects to fly one more New Shepard mission this year with sister ship Tail 4 and the crew-capable capsule RSS First Step, even as the company deals with issues regarding other programs like New Glenn and the BE-4 engine along with attempting to reverse the result of the HLS competition.

Lead image: New Shepard lifts off on NS-16 on July 20, 2021. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF.

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