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Blue Origin readies for first New Shepard flight in months to test moon landing tech

Sub-orbital launch will mark 7th for this particular New Shepard rocket

New Shepard booster undergoing integration and testing of the sensor experiment at Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site. (Image: Blue Origin)
New Shepard booster undergoing integration and testing of the sensor experiment at Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site. (Image: Blue Origin) (WKMG 2020)

Blue Origin is preparing to launch its New Shepard rocket to the edge of space from the company’s West Texas launch site, marking the seventh consecutive flight for this launch vehicle.

Eventually, the private company led by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, plans to fly humans onboard the capsule mounted to the top of the rocket but not just yet.

Blue Origin last launched New Shepard in December. The first launch in nine months comes amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as more testing and growth at Blue Origin.

“Safety is our highest priority. We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers, and surrounding communities," a Blue Origin spokesperson said in an email.

On this flight, Blue Origin’s rocket will carry technology for NASA designed to enable future moon landings. NASA plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 under the Artemis program, a deadline goal that is rapidly approaching.

Liftoff was set for 12:40 a.m. ET Thursday but after a short weather delay, Blue Origin scrubbed the launch attempt due to a power supply issue for the experiments on board.

“We’ve detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. Launch is scrubbed for today,” the company said in a tweet.

Friday’s launch attempt was also scrubbed and a new date has not been announced.

“We are working to verify a fix on a technical issue and taking an extra look before we fly. New launch target forthcoming,” the company tweeted.

When it does happen the launch will air on NASA TV and NASA.gov. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will partake in the company’s launch livestream providing an update on the Artemis program before liftoff.

Mounted to the outside of the rocket is hardware to conduct a deorbit, descent and landing sensor demonstration with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. It’s the first payload to fly mounted on the exterior of the rocket booster rather than inside the capsule, according to Blue Origin.

The demo will test precision landing technologies for missions to the moon. The test hardware will verify that the sensors, computers and algorithms work together to determine a spacecraft’s location and speed as it nears the lunar surface. The idea is that these technologies will allow for landings on the moon that weren’t possible during the Apollo program, on rough terrain or near craters.

“This public-private partnership is a great example of NASA and industry working together on common goals – to explore more of the Moon and eventually land humans on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).

New Shepard will also fly several experiments inside the capsule for research laboratories from around the counties, including the University of Florida’s Space Plants Lab.

The lab at UF has been studying how to grow plants in space environments, including through current research on board the International Space Station.

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