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Thursday, April 22, 2021 | 02:34 am
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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Will Give NASA a Spin in Lunar Gravity on Suborbital Flight

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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Will Give NASA a Spin in Lunar Gravity on Suborbital Flight

With backing from NASA, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture will upgrade its New Shepard suborbital spaceship to provide lunar levels of gravity for future experiments.

“Humanity has been dreaming about artificial gravity since the earliest days of spaceflight,” Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s director of payloads for New Shepard, said today in a news release. “It’s exciting to be partnering with NASA to create this one-of-a-kind capability to explore the science and technology we will need for future human space exploration.”

Parabolic-flight aircraft are able to provide a spectrum of reduced-gravity environments — such as the 17 percent of Earth gravity that people and payloads would experience on the moon. Similar gravity levels can be produced using centrifuges on suborbital spacecraft. But those methods have their limits. For example, the dose of lunar gravity amounts to just seconds at a time during a parabolic flight, and the centrifuges can accommodate only small payloads.

In contrast, Blue Origin’s method would turn the entire New Shepard capsule into a centrifuge for up to two minutes or more. The capsule’s reaction control thrusters would generate a spin amounting to 11 rotations per minute during the free-fall portion of the flight. The resulting centripetal force would be equivalent to the moon’s gravity.

Blue Origin expects to provide the rotational capability starting in late 2022.

Testing payloads under lunar conditions should help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program, which is due to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s.

“NASA is pleased to be among the first customers to take advantage of this new capability,” said Christopher Baker, program executive for the Flight Opportunities program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Baker noted that accommodating reduced-gravity conditions on the moon — and on Mars, where gravity’s pull is about 38 percent of what it is on Earth — will be a constant challenge for future explorers.

“Many systems designed for use on Earth simply do not work the same elsewhere,” Baker said. “A wide range of tools we need for the moon and Mars could benefit from testing in partial gravity, including technologies for in-situ resource utilization, regolith mining, and environmental control and life support systems.”

NASA is providing support for the simulations through the Flight Opportunities program, which takes advantage of commercial suborbital flights.

“NASA’s Flight Opportunities program purchased approximately half of the available payload space on this flight and contributed to the development of the capability as part of a task on a larger contract,” the space agency said in an emailed statement. “The total value of the task is $2.69 million. Pricing of individual items on tasks is competition sensitive and therefore are not made public.”

Blue Origin is currently conducting uncrewed tests of its New Shepard spaceship at the company’s facility in West Texas, and could start flying people later this year.

New Shepard typically carries experimental payloads for researchers at NASA and elsewhere. During a flight that took place last October, New Shepard tested a precision landing system that NASA plans to use for moon missions.

Separately, Blue Origin is leading an industry consortium that’s developing a crew-worthy lunar landing system for NASA’s use. NASA could announce as early as next month whether it will continue support for that system, or whether it will go instead with alternate systems proposed by SpaceX and Dynetics.

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