Jeff Bezos recently announced he would step down as Amazon’s CEO, allowing him to devote more time to building rockets. That’s what billionaires do these days — just ask Elon Musk. Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets are still taking shape, but the company has announced a partnership with NASA to improve artificial gravity testing. Basically, they’re going to make rockets spin.
In the course of planning space missions, NASA sometimes has to test something under non-Earth gravity. That could mean weightlessness or perhaps lunar gravity, which is one-sixth of Earth’s. NASA’s Limited Gravity Program currently uses a Navy C-9 aircraft, which executes steep dives to simulate lower gravity environments. The drawback is a plane can only remain in a dive for a few seconds before it has to level out. The maximum payload on the aircraft is also very limited.
These shortcomings encouraged NASA to look into more robust methods of simulating low gravity, and it’s starting with the Blue Origin partnership. So far, Blue Origin has demonstrated that its New Shepard rocket can take off and land reliably, but it hasn’t entered orbit. It has, however, crossed the Kármán line (100 kilometers) where it is generally agreed that space begins. That means it can fall through the atmosphere for much longer than your average airplane.
To make New Shepard into a gravity testing chamber, Blue Origin and NASA will have to make some changes to the hardware and software. Usually, a rocket’s reaction control system (RCS) just controls attitude and stabilizes rotation. NASA’s plan is to leverage the RCS thrusters to make the rocket spin like a giant centrifuge. Thus, anything inside can experience artificial gravity as a consequence of the centrifugal force.
NASA is looking to target 11 rotations per minute to create something akin to lunar gravity. It should be possible to maintain that for a full two minutes as New Shepard plummets toward the ground. The rocket has already shown impressive landing performance — of the 14 New Shepard launches, only the first one resulted in a crash. So, NASA should be able to refuel and launch additional rounds of low-gravity testing on the cheap.
It’ll be a while before NASA is ready to test this centrifugal rocket tech. The first hardware should be ready for launch in late 2022, based on current projections. In the meantime, Blue Origin plans to launch its first crewed New Shepard this spring.
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