The 11th mission for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Thursday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time.
New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending New Glenn, and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them.
Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen payloads, some of which have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight:
- Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device: As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood and other situations that call for negative air pressure.
- 3D printing with metal in microgravity: Simply everyone knows we can 3D-print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space, as well.
- Suborbital centrifuge: It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already, but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on.
- BioChip SubOrbitalLab: The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which, like most things, is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment.
It’s all made possible through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are listed here.
The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.”
At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well, and made a soft landing on its deployable struts.
The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live at the company’s site.