Blue Origin launches rocket with NASA trash recycling technology on board

OSCAR project could turn trash into usable supplies for deep-space missions

Blue Origin launched its New Shepard rocket for the 12th time from Texas carrying a Kennedy Space Center-based trash recycling project and other experiments to the edge of space.

The reusable New Shepard rocket and its capsule were slated for a Tuesday morning liftoff, however, the weather in West Texas didn’t cooperate, according to Blue Origin officials, pushing the launch to Wednesday.

After a few more weather delays Wednesday, New Shepard and its space capsule blasted off into a foggy Texas sky at 12:55 p.m. ET. The rocket booster landed about 8 minutes after launch and the capsule touched down, aided by parachutes, less than 10 minutes after liftoff.

New Shepard reached a height of 343,061 feet after launch, about 65 miles, according to Ariane Cornell, astronaut and New Glenn sales director at Blue Origin. The edge of space, known as Kármán line, begins at 62 miles above the Earth.

The launch marked the 9th commercial mission for New Shepard and the company’s 100th customer payload inside the space capsule.

In case you missed it, you can re-watch the launch and landing below:

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took to social media to congratulate the company after its 12th successful launch and landing.

“Congratulations Blue Origin on another successful New Shepard launch! Thanks for flying NASA-supported tech on #NS12 like NASA Kennedy (Space Center’s) method for managing trash in space, (University of Florida’s) space plants experiment, and more," Bridenstine said in a tweet.

One of those payloads will be the Orbital Syngas/Commodity Augmentation Reactor, or OSCAR, project developed by Dr. Annie Meier and others at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The technology behind OSCAR could help deep space exploration, by transforming trash into necessary supplies including methane, according to Meier.

Astronauts will have to perform their own waste management during long-duration missions to the moon or Mars. A one-year mission with a crew of four will produce about 5,500 pounds of trash, according to Meier.

“On a long-duration space mission, astronauts will be producing trash that will fill up in their spacecraft the OSCAR project is a critical step to reusing and repurposing everything that we launch into space,” Meier said in a March NASA video. “We’re looking to convert that waste into useful products and commodities for long-duration missions.”

Kennedy Space Center OSCAR project team members Dr. Annie Meier, Malay Shah and Jamie Toto-Medina with the full-stack enclosure and OSCAR ahead of the launch of the payload. OSCAR will mark the largest payload for Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket yet.

The OSCAR project recently underwent a two-second drop-test at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio which allowed the researchers behind the project to see how OSCAR would fair in micro-gravity. The New Shepard flight provided a few minutes of microgravity time to test the technology further.

OSCAR also marks the largest payload to launch with New Shepard yet, according to Meier. For the launch, the NASA payload is enclosed in a Blue Origin full-stack enclosure. OSCAR is about the size of six single-stack payloads.

Another Florida-based experiment was also along for the ride: a University of Florida project to study how plants react to microgravity conditions of space.

UF co-principal investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul have been studying how plants behave in space for nearly 3 decades, sending plants to the International Space Station nine times, according to NASA.

Why plants? It turns out human genes have a lot in common with proteins found in plants.

“About half of the genes in our bodies encode the exact same proteins in plants,” Paul said in a NASA interview. “And that’s very exciting because it means that as we look at how plants behave in the absence of gravity, we can translate many of those basic biological processes to humans.”

New Shepard carried some student art experiments as part of a collaboration with the band OK Go, a Columbia University-led experiment studying the impacts of low-gravity on cell biology and thousands of postcards from children around the world, according to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin is preparing New Shepard to launch commercial astronauts in the near future, according to the company led by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. Each paying customer will have a large window next to their seat to enjoy the views of Earth during their spaceflight.

Cornell said had astronauts been on board they would have experienced about 3.5 Gs on launch and 5 Gs on re-entry.

Blue Origin's crew capsule cabin with large windows and large seats. (Blue Origin)

“As we move towards verifying New Shepard for human spaceflight we are continuing to mature the safety and reliability of the vehicle,” Blue Origin said in a news release ahead of the launch.

Meanwhile, in Florida, work continues at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where Blue Origin is preparing Launch Complex 36 for the launch of its mega-rocket New Glenn.

Blue Origin plans to begin launching its reusable New Glenn rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in early 2021.

Learn more about New Shepard and its launch capabilities in the graphic below: