Blue Origin's spinning New Shepard capsule to simulate lunar gravity
For NASA and anyone else developing technologies for use on the Moon, opportunities to test them out beforehand in lunar-like conditions are rather limited. A newly announced upgrade to Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket system will serve as a new type of testbed for these efforts, offering minutes of simulated lunar gravity by spinning through suborbital space.
New Shepard is Blue Origin's commercial rocket system designed to carry cargo and tourists into suborbital space, and in January this year completed its 14th test flight. This included the first flight of an upgraded crew capsule complete with a dummy astronaut onboard, and successful landings for both the booster and capsule.
As part of the company's dealings with NASA, it will improve the capabilities of its New Shepard rocket system to further the agency's ambitions relating to lunar exploration. As it stands, NASA has the capacity to simulate lunar gravity on suborbital vehicles, but only for seconds at a time and with limited payload size.
The upgrades to New Shepard will significantly expand these testing windows, enabling the rocket to engage its reaction control system to cause the capsule to rotate in suborbital space, turning it into a large centrifuge. To start out, Blue Origin will attempt to make 11 rotations per minute and provide more than two minutes of continuous lunar gravity conditions.
“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.”
These new capabilities are expected to be available in late 2022.