Uncrewed Blue Origin suborbital research mission cut short by launch anomaly

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The New Shepard spaceship’s booster flares during its ascent. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

A booster misfire caused an early end today for an uncrewed suborbital space mission launched by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

It was the first Blue Origin mission to fall short of its goal since the first flight of the company’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship in 2015. Blue Origin didn’t immediately report what caused today’s anomaly. The Federal Aviation Administration said it would oversee an investigation into the mishap and would eventually have to sign off on Blue Origin’s return to flight.

No people were aboard the spacecraft. Instead, this mission was dedicated to scientific payloads and STEM education. The New Shepard spaceship carried 36 payloads, half of which were funded by NASA, plus tens of thousands of postcards that were sent in by students and flown courtesy of Blue Origin’s educational foundation. the Club for the Future.

This was the first dedicated payload launch since August 2021, coming amid a string of six crewed suborbital flights that saw 31 customers and special guests (including Bezos himself) go to space and back.

Today’s flight from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas started out following the same trajectory as the crewed missions. New Shepard’s hydrogen-fueled booster sent the capsule into a clear sky after a series of launch-pad holds.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship lifts off in West Texas. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

But at about the 27,000-foot level — just after the rocket experienced maximum dynamic pressure, or Max-Q — the booster flared with a bright flash. Then the capsule’s launch escape system kicked in, blasting the capsule further skyward while the burned-out booster fell away.

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“Our crew capsule was able to escape successfully,” launch commentator Erika Wagner said from Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash. In a follow-up tweet, Blue Origin said the capsule escape system “functioned as designed.”

The capsule reached a maximum altitude of just a little more than 37,000 feet — far short of the target altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). It deployed its parachutes and made a safe landing amid the Texas rangeland.

“Safety is our highest value at Blue Origin,” Wagner said. “It’s why we built so much redundancy into the system.”

Today’s payloads included a NASA-funded experiment aimed at testing hydrogen fuel cell technologies that could be used to power rovers and equipment on the moon’s surface. Another experimental payload called ASSET-1 — which was built by Honeybee Robotics, a Blue Origin subsidiary — was meant to blaze a trail for studying soils on asteroids and other celestial bodies.

Still other experiments were designed to study how zero-G affects phenomena ranging from ultrasonic sound waves to non-toxic propellant production. Because the capsule didn’t follow its planned trajectory, today’s experiments will probably have to be reflown on a future research mission.

Two-thirds of the payloads flown today were provided by K-12 schools, universities and other organizations focused on science, technology, engineering and math education. That’s a new high for Blue Origin’s STEM research program.

Blue Origin plans to give a further boost to STEM education through a program announced last week in connection with a meeting of the National Space Council. The Space Days program, organized by the Club for the Future, will organize community events and film screenings across the country.

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Bezos’ space company is also part of an industry coalition that will focus on meeting the rising demand for a skilled technical workforce in aerospace.

Other coalition members include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Amazon, Jacobs, L3 Harris, Planet Labs, PBC, Rocket Lab, Sierra Space, SpaceX and Virgin Orbit. Those commercial ventures will be joined by the Florida Space Coast Consortium Apprenticeship Program and its sponsors: SpaceTEC, Airbus OneWeb Satellites, Vaya Space and Morf3D.

Update for 9:35 a.m. PT Sept. 12: Here’s the full statement from the FAA about today’s anomaly:

“The FAA will oversee the investigation of Blue Origin’s NS-23 mishap that occurred at its Launch Site One location in West Texas.

“The anomaly that occurred triggered the capsule escape system. The capsule landed safely and the booster impacted within the designated hazard area. No injuries or public property damage have been reported.

“This was a payload only mission; there were no humans aboard.

“Before the New Shepard vehicle can return to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap affected public safety. This is standard practice for all mishap investigations.

“The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and re-entry operations.”

Update for 2:40 p.m. PT Sept. 12: Observers including Chris Boshuizen (who flew on a New Shepard mission last October) and former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman weighed in on the anomaly via Twitter. It’s worth noting that the booster and capsule involved in today’s mishap were dedicated to payload flights. Blue Origin’s crewed flights made use of a different booster and capsule, based on the same design.

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