One of the biggest challenges to prepare people and equipment to operate on the moon is gravity. Gravity on the lunar surface is one-sixth of what we experience on Earth. All personnel and equipment heading to the moon need to function in that significantly reduced gravity. While NASA can simulate the moon’s gravity using parabolic flights and centrifuges aboard suborbital vehicles, both methods only provide short periods of simulated lunar gravity.
NASA and Blue Origin are working on a better option that will provide longer-duration and larger-size missions simulating lunar gravity. The new lunar gravity testing capability is projected to be available in late 2022. The plan involves upgrading New Shepherd to allow the vehicle to use its reaction control system to impart rotation on the capsule.
As the capsule rotates, it acts as a large centrifuge creating an artificial gravity environment for payloads inside. During the first test flight for the capability, Blue Origin will target 11 rotations per minute, providing more than two minutes of continuous lunar gravity. Simulating lunar gravity allows NASA to test and de-risk innovations that are important to meeting Artemis program goals along with lunar surface exploration and moon-bound commercial applications.
NASA’s Christopher Baker points out that many systems designed for use on Earth don’t work the same elsewhere. With the new lunar gravity simulation capability, the range of tools needed for Moon and Mars missions can be tested in partial gravity. The New Shepherd spacecraft is among the commercial flight platforms available for technology flight testing under the contracted NASA Flight Opportunities program.
The NASA Flight Opportunities program is funded by the Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Blue Origin’s Erika Wagner says humanity has been dreaming of artificial gravity since the earliest days of spaceflight, and the company is excited to partner with NASA.