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NASA and Blue Origin upgrading New Shepard spacecraft for artificial gravity

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Mar 11, 2021, 5:11 PM EST (Updated)

In a dizzying new endeavor meant to provide a more permanent means of artificial gravity to try out tools and equipment for use on upcoming missions to the Moon and Mars, a joint venture between Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and NASA will reconfigure the New Shepard spacecraft with the ability to spin up the effects of lunar gravity.

Representing one-sixth the gravitational tug of Earth, the conditions experienced with lunar surface gravity are just some of the issues machines and materials will be required to operate efficiently in. 

As a greater testing ground for these emerging technologies, NASA will soon have more options for observing those innovations in lunar gravity thanks to a collaboration with Blue Origin to bring fresh capabilities to their New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket system.

Right now, NASA can replicate the Moon’s limited gravity on parabolic flights in converted aircraft like the retired KC-135 "Vomit Comet" that helped train astronauts from 1994 to 2004, and in special centrifuges aboard suborbital vehicles. NASA currently employs a Navy C-9 aircraft for their Limited Gravity Program, using a test plane put into operation in 2005 as a twin-jet variant of a McDonnell Douglas DC-9.

However, these outlets deliver a scant few seconds of lunar gravity exposure at a time and are severely limited in ultimate payload size, which drove NASA to investigate future systems for longer duration and bigger cargo allowances. 

Credit: Getty Images

According to a NASA press release, Blue Origin’s new lunar gravity testing innovation should be ready to roll starting in late 2022. To achieve the desired results, the New Shepard rocket and capsule will be subjected to a number of upgrades which will allow the spacecraft to harness its reaction control system and thus provide actual rotation with the craft. 

This process will let the whole capsule act as a sort of giant centrifuge to produce long-term artificial gravity environments for the payloads carried inside. Blue Origin’s initial flight experiments for the program will target 11 rotations per minute to give over two minutes of consistent lunar gravity.

“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. “One of the constant challenges with living and working in space is reduced gravity. Many systems designed for use on Earth simply do not work the same elsewhere. 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.”

Credit: Getty Images

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft is one of the prominent commercial flight platforms offered for technology flight testing contracted by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

This program has assisted in advancing hundreds of encouraging space-based technologies from not only NASA, but also private industry and academia, by putting them to work aboard commercial suborbital flights prior to escalating them to risky orbital missions such as CubeSats, the International Space Station, the Moon, and potentially Mars.

“Humanity has been dreaming about artificial gravity since the earliest days of spaceflight,” said Erika Wagner, PhD, New Shepard director of payloads at Blue Origin. “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.”