Blue Origin’s Spacecraft, UCF Experiment Make History
Yes! Followed by a high five.
That was University of Central Florida Physics Professor Joshua Colwell’s reaction as he watched the successful launch into suborbital space of his experiment aboard Blue Origin’s (https://www.blueorigin.com/) New Shepard space vehicle.
“We have been waiting for this day for a long time,” Colwell said. “A lot of talented students have helped make this happen. I’m just thrilled that we’re going to get data back immediately after flight and get a look at the strange behavior of dust in a microgravity space environment.”
After six years of planning, building and fine-tuning, Colwell celebrated with fellow scientists at Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site after they watched the launch and return of the spacecraft eleven minutes later.
“Our first step toward millions of people living and working in space was launching and landing New Shepard,” said Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin president. “Now, our payload pathfinder customers are helping us take the next step by putting this reusable spacecraft to use in the name of science.”
Colwell was competitively selected in 2009 to be among the first researchers worldwide to build experiments for flight aboard the commercial space company’s new spacecraft.
Since then, Colwell and a team of undergraduate students have been working on the Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics, or MEDEA, project. Colwell was joined at the launch by Assistant Professor Addie Dove and Post Doctoral Associate Julie Brisset from UCF, who helped bring the project to completion.
MEDEA is aimed at shedding light on the process by which space dust builds up to form planets, or the rings around those planets. Results from the experiment will also help scientists understand the behavior of dust on the surfaces of small asteroids planned for visits by upcoming NASA robotic missions and eventual visits by asteroids.
The experiment also gave students hands-on experience that was priceless, Colwell said. Several of them have graduated and gone onto work in the commercial space industry. While the students worked with Colwell to get the experiment ready for launch, Blue Origin spent several years building, testing and proving that their new spacecraft could safely take payloads to space, return to earth and be reused. A second successful launch and return in January 2016 cleared the way for March’s launch.
“Suborbital spaceflight opens the door for an incredible range of scientific research and technology development, from biotech and materials science to fluid physics and engineering,” said Dr. Erika Wagner, Blue Origin head of payload programs. “The UCF team is tackling deep questions about the early solar system and asteroids, questions that simply can’t be answered back on Earth.”
The New Shepard vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle is capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of payloads per flight and will ultimately carry six astronauts to altitudes beyond 100 kilometers, the internationally-recognized boundary of space.
Blue Origin was established by Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos with a bold vision to seed an enduring human presence in space. In November 2015, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket became the first to fly to space and return to Earth via vertical landing. Less than two months later, the very same rocket launched and landed again, demonstrating reuse – a key enabler to a future in which millions of people are living and working in space.
This payload was part of Blue Origin’s Pathfinder Payloads program, demonstrating the integration and operation of scientific experiments during untended test flights of the New Shepard system to high altitudes.
Colwell is no stranger to space missions. He is a co-investigator on the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph of the Cassini mission to Saturn and principal investigator of the Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE) that flew on the space shuttle in 1998 and 2001. That’s in addition to flying payloads on multiple parabolic airplane flights. He has authored or co-authored more than 80 technical papers, given numerous public talks and lectures, and won three NASA Group Achievement Awards and a UCF Research Incentive Award. That’s all in addition to his teaching duties as well as serving as interim chair of the UCF department of physics and assistant director of the Florida Space Institute. He’s also been a scientific advisor for a few Hollywood space themed movies.
“What can I say,” Colwell said. “I love what I do.”