On Tuesday, a rocket system meant to take tourists to space successfully completed its seventh test launch after it took off from a test facility in Texas. Called New Shephard, the system is built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s space company called Blue Origin and will eventually allow space tourists to experience microgravity by taking them over 100 km above the Earth.
In 2018, Blue Origin was one of the ten companies selected by NASA to conduct studies and advance technologies to collect, process and use space-based resources for missions to the Moon and Mars. In 2019, both signed an agreement that gives Blue Origin permission to use NASA’s historic test stand, as a part of a growing number of partnerships between the space agency and the commercial space industry.
So, what is New Shephard?
New Shephard has been named after astronaut Alan Shephard, the first American to go to space, and offers flights to space over 100 km above the Earth and accommodation for payloads. Essentially, it is a rocket system that has been designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Karman line – the internationally recognised boundary of space. The idea is to provide easier and more cost-effective access to space meant for purposes such as academic research, corporate technology development and entrepreneurial ventures among others.
How does it work?
The rocket system consists of two parts, the cabin or capsule and the rocket or the booster.
The cabin can accommodate experiments from small mini payloads up to 100 kg. As per Blue Origin, the mini payloads provide easier space access to students, who are part of educational institutions that are developing their own space programs, “for less than the price of new football uniforms”.
Further, the cabin is designed for six people and sits atop a 60-feet tall rocket and separates from it before crossing the Karman line, after which both vehicles fall back to the Earth. The system is a fully reusable, vertical takeoff and vertical landing space vehicle that accelerates for about 2.5 minutes before the engine cuts off.
After separating from the booster, the capsule free falls in space, while the booster performs an autonomously controlled vertical landing back to Earth. The capsule, on the other hand, lands back with the help of parachutes.
What was the test launch about?
During the seventh launch on Tuesday referred to as NS-13, there were 12 payloads onboard including the Deorbit, Descent and the Landing Sensor Demonstration under the NASA Tipping Point partnership.
The lunar landing sensor demo, for instance, was the first payload to be mounted onto the exterior of the space vehicle and was meant to test the technology that helps to achieve high accuracy landings such as those done on the lunar surface. Technologies such as these are supposed to aid long-term lunar explorations and future missions to Mars.
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There were no passengers on board this test launch.
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