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Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin on Tuesday conducted the latest test flight of its rocket New Shepard at its facility in the West Texas desert.
The mission did not have passengers on board, although New Shepard launches with a capsule on top that is designed to carry as many as six people for a mission. Known as NS-13, this mission was the 13th test flight of the system – as well as a record seventh consecutive launch for the rocket booster carrying the capsule, as it has landed six times after prior missions.
NS-13 was originally scheduled to launch on Sept. 24, but an issue with the rocket's power supply delayed the mission.
New Shepard is designed to carrying people on a ride past the edge of space, with the capsules on previous test flights reaching an altitude of more than 340,000 feet (or more than 100 kilometers). The capsule spends as much as 10 minutes in zero gravity before returning to Earth, with massive windows to give passengers a view.
While it isn't carrying a crew, the NS-13 mission featured a number of payloads, such as microgravity experiments and research. Blue Origin said there are 12 payloads on board from paying customers, most notably NASA's SPLICE ("Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution") technology demonstration.
SPICE is designed to give spacecraft like lunar landers "artificial eyes," to help more accurately find areas safe to land. The NASA tech is mounted on the New Shepard booster, and will use a combination of terrain navigation, Doppler lidar, and a descent computer to target the booster's landing zone. The goal of the SPICE technology is to allow a spacecraft to land autonomously on the Moon's surface within about 300 feet of its intended target, which NASA describes as a "high accuracy landing." Blue Origin said that NS-13 is the first of two planned flights with the SPLICE demonstrator on board.
Blue Origin last conducted a test flight of New Shepard in December 2019. As the company flew three New Shepard flights last year, the nine month hiatus is unusual – but Blue Origin received internal push back from employees when it planned to conduct a mission shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., The Verge reported in April. At the time, Blue Origin told The Verge that it was monitoring the coronavirus issue and holds "safety as our highest value."
The company has yet to fly passengers on its rockets, with CEO Bob Smith earlier this year saying the company's New Shepard rocket will need to fly three or four more test flights before it puts people on board.
Bezos personally funds Blue Origin's development by selling part of his stock in Amazon. While he has previously said that he sells about $1 billion of Amazon shares annually to fund the space company, Bezos has recently increased his stock sales, selling more than $7.2 billion worth this year and $2.8 billion in 2019 – suggesting he has increased his annual investment in Blue Origin.