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Suborbital science goes public

Blue Origin
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New Shepard flies in Blue

Origin video from 2006,

used with permission. billionaire Jeff Bezos' usually secretive Blue Origin rocket venture raised the curtain today on three research experiments that are slated to take suborbital journeys on its prototype spaceship in two years' time.

For years, Blue Origin has been working on a vertical-launched rocket that could someday take passengers on an automated trip beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude. That's beyond the boundary of outer space - at a height where passengers could see the blue, curving Earth beneath the blackness of space, and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.

Blue Origin's engineers have flown their New Shepard prototype craft through several low-altitude tests at Bezos' hush-hush launch facility near Van Horn, Texas. But details about any of the tests beyond the first one have been hard to come by.

For the past year, the venture has been working with planetary scientist (and former NASA science official) Alan Stern on a plan to put experimental packages on New Shepard, even before people fly on it. Stern has touted suborbital research as a "killer app" for private-sector spacecraft, and he is organizing a seminar in February to help get the ball rolling.

Today's announcement is notable not just because it represents a rare update from Blue Origin, but also because it marks a step forward for suborbital science. "This is the first time that a next-gen suborbital company has selected payloads to fly in space," Stern told me.

The three experiments are:

  • "Three-Dimensional Critical Wetting Experiment in Microgravity." Principal investigator:  Stephen Collicott of Purdue University. Collicott's research focuses on how fluids behave in zero-gravity environments. Such studies are crucial for propulsion system design.
  • "Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics" (MEDEA). Principal investigator: Joshua Colwell, of the University of Central Florida. As described in this UCF news release, Colwell's experiment is aimed at shedding light on the process by which space dust builds up to form planets, or the rings around those planets.
  • "Effective lnterfacial Tension lnduced Convection" (EITIC). Principal investigator: John Pojman, of Louisiana State University. Pojman concentrates on the interaction of fluids in zero-G. In August, he chatted with me about his research and how tough it can be to get experiments into space.

Blue Origin has said that the first experiments could fly during New Shepard's unmanned testing phase in 2011, and that experiments requiring human tending could be taken up starting in 2012. That schedule is still operative, but it's too early to be more specific about the launch timing, Stern told me.

No money would be exchanged for flying these experiments. Stern said the researchers would provide the apparatus in containers ranging up to the size of a small chest of drawers (technically speaking, the equivalent of one to three shuttle middeck lockers). Blue Origin would provide the ride as a demonstration of its vehicle's research capability.

Blue Origin isn't alone in the suborbital research market. For example, Collicott is working with Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace to fly a shoebox-sized fluid-mechanics experiment. Virgin Galactic, Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace say they're also planning to send research packages into space.

Researchers hope that private-sector spaceships will provide more opportunities for sending experiments into zero-G. Space entrepreneurs, meanwhile, hope the research market will provide more of a market for their shiny new rocket ships. But will it work out that way? Blue Origin's announcement demonstrates once again that the two-year rule of commercial spaceflight is still in effect. When will the rule be broken? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

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