U.S. Markets closed

Blue Origin scores big in NASA’s latest batch of flight opportunities for space tech

Alan Boyle
Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster heads for a touchdown after a test flight in December. (Blue Origin Photo)

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has selected 15 promising space technologies for testing on suborbital flights, and almost half of them are set to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship.

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture, headquartered in Kent, Wash., started flying science payloads to the edge of space and back more than two years ago. This week’s NASA announcement solidifies Blue Origin’s status as a leader in suborbital space science missions.

New Shepard’s uncrewed test flights provide a few minutes of zero gravity, more scientifically known as microgravity. That’s long enough to see how a technology that’s designed for orbital use might fare during much longer stints of zero-G.

During this week’s visit to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, which is responsible for managing the Flight Opportunities program, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency wants to increase funding for suborbital science payloads.

“Flight Opportunities gives researchers and universities the opportunity to get involved with NASA,” Bridenstine said. “By increasing funding for payload integration and flights, we will continue to support and advance the commercial suborbital flight market.”

Funding for the program has amounted to $15 million annually, but Congress has signaled that it wants to raise that figure to $20 million for the next fiscal year. “If Congress is ready to pull that trigger, we’re ready to support it,” Bridenstine said.

The seven missions planned for New Shepard flights illustrate the range of science and engineering projects supported by the program:

  • Microgravity Investigation for Thin Film Hydroponics: This technology could enable zero-gravity growth of nutritious aquatic plants such as duckweed for long-duration space missions by using a reusable growth bed with passive nutrient and water transport as well as an automated harvesting system. Principal investigator: Christine Escobar, Space Lab Technologies.
  • Transport Properties of Fluids for Exploration: This payload will test a methodology to measure how heat is dissipated in microgravity by heating a disk-shaped fluid and recording its temperature over time. The data collected will allow for better thermal modeling when designing future hardware for space exploration. PI: Richard Banish, University of Alabama at Huntsville.
  • Automated Radiation Measurements for Aerospace Safety: This payload will measure real-time ionizing radiation from 22 to 62 miles altitude and transfer the data to a Bluetooth device such as a phone or tablet. Such devices could be used by air crews, high-altitude pilots, frequent fliers and space travelers who experience radiation hazards. PI: W. Kent Tobiska, Space Environment Technologies.
  • Zero-G Slosh Model Technology: Knowledge Payload: This payload will study the impact of sloshing on green propellant systems during flight. PI: Steven Collicott, Purdue University.
  • Spaceflight Testing of Film Evaporation MEMS Tunable Array Micropropulsion System for Interplanetary SmallSat: Demonstration of a propellant management system for a thruster that uses heated water through micro-nozzles to create propulsion. The propulsion unit could be used to extend the lifetime of small satellites in orbit, to provide precise attitude control of groups of satellites and deployable structures, or to send small satellites on interplanetary missions. PI: Alina Alexeenko, Purdue University.
  • Dust In-situ Manipulation System: This experimental platform provides a reduced pressure environment for creating, manipulating and studying dust clouds in microgravity, all of which are key to topics in planetary science. PI: Julie Brisset, University of Central Florida.
  • Integrated Remote Imaging System External Environment Remote Sensing from Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicles: This payload is composed of a visible-shortwave infrared spectrometer mounted on a gimbal to record images of the sky. It will study the feasibility of using a telescope during the day at high altitudes, which could open new possibilities for remote sensing aboard suborbital vehicles. PI: Charles Hibbitts, Johns Hopkins University.

Eight other payloads will be flown on balloon-borne platforms provided by Arizona-based World View Enterprises or Oregon-based Near Space Corp., or go on parabolic airplane flights provided by Virginia-based Zero Gravity Corp.:

  • Adapting the Ring-Sheared Drop Technology as a Bioreactor: This technology suspends droplets of liquids between two rings in zero-G, and could serve as the basis for studying 3-D growth of stem cells, bacteria and other biological cultures. (Zero Gravity Corp.)
  • Electrowetting Enhanced Dropwise Condensation in the Zero-G Environment: Demonstration of a material that can control the amount of liquid condensation on the surface of a heat exchanger in zero-G by applying an electrical charge. (Zero Gravity Corp.)
  • Flight Test of a Balloon-borne Aeroseismometer: Demonstration of balloon-borne microphones coupled with accelerometers which can capture the infrasound waves generated by earthquakes from the air. The technology could be used to study seismic activity on planets with dense atmospheres such as Venus. (World View Enterprises)
  • Magneto-Active Slosh Control System for Spacecraft and Launch Vehicle: Demonstration of a “smart membrane” that stiffens when exposed to a magnetic field and applies a restorative force to suppress sloshing inside a propellant tank. (Zero Gravity Corp.)
  • 3D Printing of Hierarchical Foams in Microgravity: Demonstration of a 3-D printer for titanium dioxide foam in zero-G, which could be used for future habitat radiation shielding on the moon or Mars, for solar cells or filters for air or water treatment. (Zero Gravity Corp.)
  • Evaluation of Preserved Blood for Transfusion Therapy in Reduced Gravity: A series of parabolic flights will be used to demonstrate the ability to reactivate dehydrated red blood cells and perform a transfusion to a mannequin arm in microgravity. (Zero Gravity Corp.)
  • Technology Demonstration of the Kentucky Re-entry Universal Payload System Capsule for Heatshield Validation:  Demonstration of a small atmospheric re-entry capsule that can be used as a test bed for flight-qualifying future thermal protection systems and instruments, or as a means to return payloads from space to a planetary body. A series of drop tests from balloons will help validate the onboard communication systems and parachute deployment. (Near Space Corp.)
  • Using Single Event Effects to Generate Truly Random Numbers for Encryption Keys: Demonstration of an electronic circuit that could generate true random numbers using radiation hits on unprotected sections of computer memory, while coupled to a system that is radiation-tolerant. True random number generation could be used for space applications, such as secure satellite communications. (World View Enterprises)

The selected demonstrations will receive awards for payload integration and flight costs, as well as limited payload development costs.

Blue Origin’s flight test program is continuing, and the company could start flying people to the edge of space on New Shepard by late this year or early next year. The spaceship’s crew capsule is designed to carry spacefliers as well as payloads, so future space tourists may find themselves sharing a ride with science.

More from GeekWire: