West Texas isn't quite like the moon. But it can serve as a practical substitute.
On Tuesday, Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon's chief executive officer, launched and landed its 13th time New Shepard small rocket and capsule to check safety before passengers board.
Someday this will be New Shepard's main business: flying wealthy people above the 62 mile altitude is widely viewed as the beginning of space where they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness as capsule arcs.
Blue Origin is not a new company – Mr Bezos founded it in 2000 – but for most of its existence it has operated in secret without generating much revenue. Three years ago, Mr Bezos said he was selling $ 1 billion a year to Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin's research and development. And he has declared far-reaching ambitions for his business, such as competing with Elon Musk's SpaceX and others in the orbital launch business, building a lunar lander for NASA astronauts, and ultimately enabling millions of people to live and work in space.
However, the charge of the launch Tuesday from a test site near Van Horn, Texas, shows the company is finding a more modest deal in the short term: the New Shepard reusable missile and capsule is becoming an effective and profitable platform for testing new ones Technologies and conducting scientific experiments.
“It was fantastic,” said Erika Wagner, Blue Origin payload sales director, who was based in West Texas. "We looked over the valley and saw the rocket rise."
On Tuesday, under the collar on top of the booster, there were prototypes of sensors with which NASA astronauts could safely reach the surface of the moon in a few years. It is part of NASA's Tipping Point program, which aims to advance innovative technologies.
"While not the same as a lunar lander, it is representative of the full flight profile of approaching at high speed, then throttling an engine and making a propulsion landing," said Stefan Bieniawski, who leads Blue Origin's side of the partnership with NASA. "In fact, I think we're actually traveling at slightly faster speeds than you would approach the moon. So there is a little stress test for some of these sensors."
In contrast to NASA's Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, which visited different parts of the moon, the space agency's current Artemis program aims at repeat visits near the lunar south pole, where eternally shadowed craters are in large numbers Water ice included. This requires the ability to land near the same spot over and over again.
To this end, NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, spent years developing a system that reflects light from the surface to measure the altitude and speed of a descending spacecraft. This technology, Lidar, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is similar to radar, but should be able to provide more precise measurements.
A second NASA system on board Tuesday's launch was a test of so-called terrain-based navigation. Since there are no satellites in the global positioning system orbiting the moon, a spaceship must rely on its own intelligence to determine its exact location. With this navigation system, a computer compares the images recorded by a camera with those stored on board in order to determine their location.
The navigation system was turned on near the point where the New Shepard Booster reached its highest point.
"The off-road shipping industry doesn't sit there and say, 'Hey, I see a crater," said Mr Bieniawski. "It's really looking for contrasts in the scene. And that way, it really doesn't matter if it's on the moon or if it's here on earth. "
NASA paid Blue Origin $ 1.5 million to assemble their systems on two flights from New Shepard. The second flight will add another lidar instrument that will create a three-dimensional map of the landscape below to identify and avoid obstacles.
"Our goal is to prepare a plug-and-play precision landing system that NASA and industry can use depending on the specific needs of a mission," said Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, in a statement. "This built-in New Shepard test will get us on this path and give us unmatched information on how sensors, algorithms and computers work together."
Although there were no people inside the New Shepard capsule on Tuesday, it was not empty. It carried NASA-funded scientific experiments as well as experimental cargo from private companies. New Shepard flights have already carried more than 100 payloads to the edge of space.
"We make money with every flight," said Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin.
Dr. Blue Origin's Wagner said the scientists had come to West Texas and looked forward to seeing the launch and starting results that same day. "They just bounce up and down on their toes," she said.
Tuesday's experiments included the second iteration of a project by Daniel Durda, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He named it BORE II, where BORE is a simple acronym for Box of Rocks Experiment.
"It's literally a box of stones," said Dr. Durda.
He is trying to develop a system that can collect dirt samples from an asteroid. BORE II contains crushed material, the composition of which is similar to certain carbon-rich asteroids.
During the weightless part of the flight, a tetrahedral collecting device will unfold, which Dr. Durda referred to as a starfish. Magnets attached to the outer triangles – the arms of the starfish – should attract and hold some of the crushed stones. The device then folds up again and traps the material.
"It's kind of a biomimicry thing if you think about it," said Dr. Durda. "The way starfish feed is that they push their stomachs out and pull them back in and collect what they do. That's how we do it here."
By testing the design on a suborbital flight, Dr. Durda find out how much material can be collected and whether the device works without interference.
"This is the very first step in understanding how you can incorporate such a sampling mechanism into a spacecraft rendezvous mission where you throw maybe dozens, many dozen of these little things over the surface of an asteroid," he said.
In the past, scientists who wanted to study something in a weightless environment had different methods, but all of them had disadvantages. You could drop an object from a tower and provide a few seconds of weightlessness, or you could conduct an experiment on an airplane that freefall flies a path of an object, allowing for about 20 seconds of hovering.
The happiest experimenters could endeavor to be selected from among the few projects that have been sent into orbit, first on the space shuttle and now on the International Space Station.
Vehicles known as missiles also moved at roughly the same altitude as New Shepard, but because they only flew once they were much more expensive. Tuesday's New Shepard vehicle took off and landed seven times.
With the new suborbital vehicles flying repeatedly, the price of access to space is much lower for both NASA and academic and private scientists.
The most popular option, Mr Smith said, is what Blue Origin calls a single locker. "That starts at about $ 100,000 for about 25 pounds and something the size of a microwave," he said. "But we also have a lot of payloads that we use for students that cost only $ 8,000."
The suborbital research is also a sign that Blue Origin is emerging as a profitable company preparing to sell tickets to space tourists. No date or price has been announced for these flights.
"The staff at the facilities has grown dramatically, trying to understand how we run this more like a business than a research organization," said Smith. "We've also gone from practically zero revenue to now hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue."
The company has competition for the market to send experiments into space. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which also wants to send space tourists on suborbital excursions, carried out experiments during its test flights. For example, one of the University of Florida scientists tested imaging technologies that measure the response of plants – which genes are turned on and off – to the stress of space travel. (The same scientists had another iteration of the experiment aboard the Blue Origin flight on Tuesday.)
Virgin Galactic's spaceplane is flown by two pilots, so it has carried people into space but will not fly paying passengers until next year.
"The whole view of using these vehicles for research has become mainstream, and NASA has now funded much of that type of work." said S. Alan Stern, vice president of space science and technology at the Southwest Research Institute.
When Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic begin to fly humans, it will open up the possibility for scientists to accompany their experiments. This could make some research much easier, as scientists are much more flexible than machines.
"There are a lot of things you can keep up to date with people just because automation is expensive," said Dr. Star. "And automation is error-prone."
The Southwest Research Institute has purchased seats for its scientists on future Virgin Galactic flights.
"We have to resort to space automation because it was expensive and difficult to send the experimenter," said Dr. Stern, "but in every other area, from volcanology to oceanography to polar studies, we send the experimenters into the field." do the experiment. "
One of these places should be designed by Dr. Durda, who will accompany a future Box of Rocks experiment.
By conducting the experiment himself, he would gain direct experience of how these materials behave on an asteroid.
"I think it is very important for us to understand the conditions on their surfaces on a gut level, like a field geologist who wanders through a western desert landscape here on earth," said Dr. Durda.
"We have achieved this level of familiarity in nearly every other area of field and laboratory science," he said. "It's been a long time since space scientists were able to work with the same advantage."