Blue Origin attempted its first uncrewed New Shepard flight in a year, with the NS-23 mission launching at 9:27 AM CDT (14:27 UTC) Monday morning. As the company’s fourth flight this year, the suborbital launch took place from Launch Site One at Blue Origin’s Corn Ranch property near Van Horn, Texas.
Just over one minute into the flight, an apparent failure of the booster prompted an in-flight abort of the capsule. While the booster was not recovered, the capsule was pushed to safety by its abort motor and made a successful landing under parachutes.
The NS-23 flight was to carry 36 payloads into a suborbital trajectory. This specific flight profile would take the spacecraft above the Federation Aeronautique Internationale-recognized boundary of space at an altitude of 100 kilometers above Earth. This time in space and microgravity (also called “zero-g”) would have lasted for just a few minutes. The in-flight abort resulted in the capsule remaining within Earth’s atmosphere.
The New Shepard capsule for this flight, the RSS H.G. Wells, is dedicated to uncrewed flights for cargo and research, while the RSS First Step is dedicated to crewed flights. For NS-23, the booster known as Tail 3 lofted the capsule, making this launch its ninth. Tail 3 had been assigned to fly the RSS H.G. Wells exclusively before Monday’s failure.
The flight started with the single BE-3 engine igniting at T0, with a liftoff six seconds later after the engine is confirmed to be working properly. The New Shepard rocket, fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, reached maximum dynamic pressure (Max-Q) at the T+1 minute mark.
It was shortly after Max-Q that the booster failure and in-flight abort occurred. During a nominal flight, the BE-3 main engine cutoff would be at the T+2:25 mark, and spacecraft separation would occur at T+3 minutes. The RSS H.G. Wells would spend up to five minutes in space and microgravity conditions, depending on the exact trajectory and apogee.
The capsule would then reenter the atmosphere at a speed greater than Mach 3 and be slowed by the thickening air, followed by drogue and main parachute deployments. The Tail 3 booster would deploy its ring and wedge fins to help it slow down before it reignites the BE-3 engine for landing.
Tail 3 would then deploy its landing legs and touch down on a concrete landing pad sometime around the T+7:25 mark, and RSS H.G. Wells would touch down on the desert floor, under its parachutes, around the T+10 minute mark.
When H.G. Wells and Tail 3 last flew – on mission NS-17 on August 26, 2021 – they lifted eighteen commercial payloads and an art installation known as Suborbital Tryptych. The NS-23 mission carried thirty-six payloads, including two mounted on the Tail 3 booster itself.
The external payloads mounted on the booster include the JHU APL Integrated Universal Suborbital (JANUS) experiment conducted by the Johns Hopkins APL (Applied Physics Laboratory). JANUS, making its first flight on the New Shepard Propulsion Module, is a payload that can host experiments that need access to the vacuum of space. On this flight, it was to measure conditions of the vacuum of space.
The NASA Flight Opportunities-funded JANUS is booked for several follow-on New Shepard flights with plans to accommodate telescopes, cameras, and very small sensors. JANUS can also provide access to an important but difficult-to-access region of the atmosphere known as the lower ionosphere. JANUS has also previously flown on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
Eighteen payloads onboard are funded by NASA, compared to 11 on NS-17. One notable NASA payload is the Armstrong Flight Research Center’s CFOSS fiber-optic sensing system. CFOSS will use fiber-optic-based instrumentation for structural health monitoring. CFOSS is space-rated already and can be used to monitor strain and temperature data before flying an instrument to a low Earth orbit.
The AMPES experiment, developed by Infinity Fuel Cell, is a demonstrator to test how a hydrogen fuel cell operates in microgravity. The company is collaborating with the Johnson Space Center to develop new technology for lunar habitats, rovers, and surface equipment.
The Honeybee Robotics ASSET-1 is designed to study planetary soils (regolith) under different gravity conditions. On this flight, it was to collect data for measuring the soil strength of asteroids. Honeybee Robotics, known for its work with the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, was recently acquired by Blue Origin.
The University of Florida’s BISS (Biological Imaging in Support of Suborbital Science) will be testing the FLEX fluorescence imaging system. This instrument is intended to study biological responses to suborbital missions. BISS has already flown five times on New Shepard.
The MIT Media Lab’s WAX CASTING experiment was to test the fabrication of paraffin and beeswax in microgravity. These substances can be the basis of a non-toxic solid fuel to be used in hybrid propulsion systems alongside a gaseous oxidizer.
Like NS-17, NS-23 also flew a payload related to art. The ENGARTBOX experiment, developed by Greek students and teachers at Anatolia College in Thessaloniki – along with Dr. Takis Papadopoulos – was to experiment with creating a painting in a zero-g environment.
Other experiments include an AI (artificial intelligence) experiment to collect and utilize data from multiple sensors, a sensor to measure liquid in a flexible bladder in microgravity, and a high school experiment to test gravity’s effect on ultrasonic sound waves.
Besides K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, STEM organizations such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the American Society of Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), and SHAD Canada STEM Foundation are also involved in many of the experiments flying on NS-23.
Blue Origin’s Club for the Future charity once again flew tens of thousands of postcards, this time from nineteen grant recipients and their partners. Postcards flew to space from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, students participating in STEM NOLA and Kenner Planetarium events in New Orleans, schools across the state of Kentucky, and Guayaquil, Ecuador.
The NS-23 mission was the fourth of the year for Blue Origin.
(Lead image: The moment that the capsule’s in-flight abort motor ignited. Credit: Blue Origin)