West Texas is not quite like the moon. But it can serve as a handy stand-in.
On Tuesday, Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, launched — and landed — its small New Shepard rocket and capsule for the 13th time as part of tests to verify safety before any passengers climb aboard.
One day, this will be New Shepard’s main business: flying well-to-do people above the 62-mile altitude generally considered the beginning of outer space where they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness as the capsule arcs.
Blue Origin is not a new company — Mr. Bezos founded it in 2000 — but for most of its existence, it operated in secret without generating much revenue. Three years ago, Mr. Bezos said he was selling a billion dollars a year in Amazon stock to finance Blue Origin’s research and development. And he has declared broad ambitions for its business, such as competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and others in the orbital launch business, building a moon lander for NASA astronauts and eventually making it possible for millions of people to live and work in space.
But the cargo of Tuesday’s launch from a test site near Van Horn, Texas, shows that the company is finding a more modest business in the short term: turning the reusable New Shepard rocket and capsule into an effective, and profitable, platform for testing new technologies and performing scientific experiments.
Tucked under the collar at the top of the booster on Tuesday’s launch were prototypes of sensors that could help NASA astronauts safely reach the lunar surface in a few years. It is part of NASA’s Tipping Point program, which seeks to push innovative technologies.
“Although not identical to a lunar lander, it is representative in that full-flight profile of approaching at a high rate of speed, and then throttling up an engine and doing a propulsive landing,” said Stefan Bieniawski, who leads the Blue Origin side of the partnership with NASA. “In fact, I think we’re actually at slightly higher speeds than you would be approaching the moon. So it gives a little bit of a stress test for some of these sensors.”
Unlike NASA’s Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, which visited different parts of the moon, the space agency’s current Artemis program aims to make repeated visits near the lunar South Pole, where eternally shadowed craters contain large amounts of water ice. That will require the ability to land close to the same spot again and again.
To that end, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., has spent years developing a system that bounces light off the surface to measure altitude and velocity of a descending spacecraft. This technology, lidar, short for light detection and ranging, is similar to radar, but it should be able to provide more precise readings.
A second NASA system aboard Tuesday’s launch was a test of what is known as terrain relative navigation. Because there are no global positioning system satellites orbiting the moon, a spacecraft has to rely on its own smarts to determine its exact location. With this navigation system, a computer compares images taken by a camera with those stored onboard to determine its location.
The navigation system was turned on close to where the New Shepard booster reached its highest point.
“The terrain navigation does not sit there and say, ‘Hey, I see a crater,’” Mr. Bieniawski said. “It’s really looking for contrasts in the scene. And in that way, it really doesn’t care whether it’s on the moon or whether it’s here on Earth.”
NASA paid Blue Origin $1.5 million to mount its systems on two flights of New Shepard. The second flight will add another lidar instrument that will create a three-dimensional map of the landscape below in order to identify and avoid obstacles.
“Our goal is to ready a plug-and-play precision landing system that NASA and industry can use based on a mission’s specific need,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said in a statement. “This integrated New Shepard test will put us on that path, giving us unmatched intel about how the sensors, algorithms, and computer work together.”
While there were no people in the New Shepard capsule on Tuesday, it was not empty. It carried NASA-financed science 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 on every flight,” said Bob Smith, the chief executive of Blue Origin.
The experiments on Tuesday’s flight included the second iteration of a project from Daniel Durda, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. He called it BORE II, where BORE is a simple acronym for Box of Rocks Experiment.
“It’s literally a box of rocks,” Dr. Durda said.
He is trying to develop a system that can scoop up samples of dirt from an asteroid. BORE II contains crushed-up material that is similar in composition to certain carbon-rich asteroids.
During the weightless portion of the flight, a tetrahedron-shaped collection device, which Dr. Durda called a starfish, will unfold. Magnets mounted on the outer triangles — the arms of the starfish — should attract and hold onto some of the crushed rocks. The device will then fold up again, trapping the material.
“It’s kind of a biomimicry thing if you think about it,” Dr. Durda said. “The way starfish feed is they kind of extrude their stomach out and they pull them back in and collect what they’re doing. That’s kind of what we’re doing here.”
By testing the design on a suborbital flight, Dr. Durda can find out how much material can be collected and whether the apparatus operates without jamming.
“It’s the very first step in understanding how you might incorporate a sampler mechanism like this into a spacecraft rendezvous mission where you dump maybe dozens, many dozens of these little things across the surface of an asteroid,” he said.
In the past, scientists wanting to study something in a weightless environment had other methods, but they all had drawbacks. They could drop an object off a tower, offering a few seconds of zero gravity or put an experiment on an airplane flying a path of an object in free fall, which provided about 20 seconds of floating.
The luckiest experimenters could endeavor to be selected among the few projects sent to orbit, first on the space shuttle and now to the International Space Station.
Vehicles known as sounding rockets also headed to about the same altitude as New Shepard goes, but because they flew only once, they were much more expensive. Tuesday’s New Shepard vehicle has launched and landed seven times.
With the new suborbital vehicles that fly repeatedly, the price of getting to space is much lower for NASA as well as for academic and private scientists.
The most popular option, Mr. Smith said, is what Blue Origin calls a single storage locker. “That starts around $100,000 for about 25 pounds and something the size of, let’s say, a microwave,” he said. “But we also have many payloads that we use with students that go as low as $8,000.”
The suborbital research is a also sign that Blue Origin is making a turn to becoming a profitable business as it prepares to sell tickets to space tourists. It has yet to announce a date or price for those flights.
“It’s been a lot of growth in facilities personnel actually trying to understand how do we run this much more like a business as opposed to a research organization,” Mr. Smith said. “We’ve also gone from virtually zero revenue to now making hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue annually.”
The company has competition for the market of sending experiments to space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which also plans to send space tourists on suborbital jaunts, has been flying experiments during its test flights. One from University of Florida scientists, for example, tested imaging technologies that capture the reaction of plants — what genes are turned on and off — to the stresses of spaceflight. (Virgin Galactic’s space plane is flown by two pilots, so it has carried people to space, but it will not fly paying passengers until next year.)
“The whole view of using these vehicles for research purposes has moved into the mainstream, and NASA has now been funding a lot of that kind of work.” said S. Alan Stern, associate vice president of the space science and engineering division at Southwest Research Institute.
When Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic start flying people, that will open an opportunity for scientists to accompany their experiments. That could greatly simplify some research, because scientists are much more flexible than machines.
“There are many things you can do with humans in the loop just because automation is expensive,” Dr. Stern said. “And automation is failure prone.”
Southwest Research Institute has purchased seats for its scientists on future Virgin Galactic flights.
“We have to resort to automation in spaceflight, because it’s been expensive and difficult to send the experimenter,” Dr. Stern said, “but in every other field, from volcanology to oceanography to polar studies, we send the experimenters into the field to do the experiment.”
One of those seats is to be filled by Dr. Durda, who will accompany a future Box of Rocks experiment.
By operating the experiment himself, he says he would gain direct experience with how these materials behave on an asteroid.
“I think it’s very important for us to understand the conditions on their surfaces at a ‘gut instinct’ level the same way a field geologist walking a Western desert landscape here on Earth does,” Dr. Durda said.
“We’ve attained that level of familiarity in just about every other aspect of field and laboratory science,” he said. “It’s long past time for space scientists to be able to work with that same enabling benefit.”