The Orbital Index is a curated newsletter about space and the space industry.

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 113 | Apr 21, 2021


🚀 🌍 🛰

Ingenuity has un-landed! On Monday, humans achieved powered flight on another planet. The Ingenuity helicopter successfully performed its first autonomous test flight to a modest 3 m above the Martian surface with a 30-second hover and a 90-degree rotation—here’s the video from Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z camera. It may not sound like much, but in showing that powered flight is possible in Mars’s low gravity and atmospheric pressure (6.5 millibars, about 6/1,000ths of Earth’s), Ingenuity has completed its primary technology demonstrator mission. Poignantly, Ingenuity carries a small scrap of fabric from the wing of Flyer 1, the Wright brother’s plane. We’re looking forward to seeing the epic drone videos from up to 4 more flights of increasing bravery (albeit with a max altitude of 3-5 m and range of 300 m) over the next few weeks—the first could be as soon as Thursday—and presumably from an even more ambitious flying robot in the future. Related: We wrote about Ingenuity’s COTS hardware, open-source software, and radiation mitigation techniques back in Issue No. 105.

This time it’s focused on Satellite Applications. Their analysts have spent months curating a clickable list of 365 space companies that utilize satellites for Earth-focused business. The visual industry roundup includes 238 companies in the business of collecting, aggregating, or analyzing Earth-centric data, 107 companies providing connectivity services, and 20 companies focused solely on global positioning and tracking. Check out the full Market Map here.

Lunar Starship will return astronauts to the Moon. In an unexpected move, NASA announced SpaceX as the sole winner of their marquee Human Landing System contract, awarding funds for an autonomous demo flight and the crewed Artemis 3 Moon landing to the industry-upstart-become-industry-heavyweight (source selection PDF). SpaceX, originally one of three finalists alongside Dynetics and the National Team (Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman & Draper), was the smallest award recipient in the initial contracting round and bid just $2.9 billion for their final proposed landing system. This bid was roughly half of Dynetics’ and a third of the National Team’s (whose untenable ~$10 billion bid was revised by an unknown amount). This huge discrepancy appears to have made SpaceX the only option remotely within the Congressionally-provided budget—this year’s budget included just $850M for Artemis, a quarter of what NASA requested. NASA would have preferred two contracts to promote competition and redundancy, as they did with Commercial Cargo and Crew. (With Commercial Crew, there was political pressure to select only Boeing, but by selecting two companies, they managed to attain crewed launches cheaper and at least two years earlier than whenever Boeing finally delivers.) SpaceX’s detractors will point to the company shouldering a large part of Starship’s development cost, which can be viewed as an externalized risk for the HLS program. On the other hand, if SpaceX weren’t already building Starship, we might not have any budget-viable options for HLS; to make an award possible, even SpaceX had to adjust its payment schedule to fit within NASA’s current-year budget. However, for their (oddly specific) $2,941,394,557, NASA will get about 10x their requested cargo capacity and plenty of extra mass margin for expansion and innovation. Starship will launch on Super Heavy, be equipped with two airlocks, and have the capability to dock with either Orion or Gateway. It will get refueled on-orbit by multiple Starship tankers, rendezvous with its crew in Lunar orbit, descend to the surface, and return the crew to Lunar orbit after about a week. This mission plan begs the question of what value SLS and Orion now add—Lunar Starship could be crewed in LEO by Crew Dragon or Starliner and still make the round trip with roughly twice the payload of NASA’s preferred 12-ton requirement—all for a significantly lower cost than a single disposable SLS launch. (Starship also compares well to the Dynetics option, which had a negative mass margin, e.g. they would have had to figure out ways to optimize the mission to meet minimum requirements.) NASA hopes to resume a multi-supplier pattern after Artemis 3 with a sustainable human lunar delivery program, which would likely include the National Team and/or Dynetics landing systems—if they can get Congress’ budgetary blessing. Next up: Starship SN15, with a multitude of improvements and fervent hope of not becoming a very visible fireball, is due to complete its static fire this week and fly as soon as Friday. (Related: NASA’s SpaceX Gateway cargo contract has been in limbo, possibly also for budgetary reasons.)

Scott Manley put the three bidders to scale. One of these things is very much not like the others.

(Quick) Papers.

Hubble imaged comet 2I/Borisov in 2020. 2I/Borisov is only the second interstellar object found in our solar system (after 'Oumuamua), but many more are likely to be found.

News in brief. Blue Origin’s New Shepard flew to the edge of (non-orbital) space and back again for the 15th time, demonstrating procedures and making the next flight likely to be crewed; China launched their third experimental Shiyan satellite on a Long March 4B—these satellites are probably used for military space situational awareness; Astranis raised $250 million, Hawkeye 360 raised $55 million, Orbital Sidekick raised $16 million, and SpaceX increased its latest raise from $850 million to $1.16 billion (filings)—Starlinks and Starships are expensive; two cosmonauts and an astronaut returned from the ISS via Soyuz, while Crew-2 is scheduled for launch on Thursday with four astronauts heading up—this will finish a record complete replacement of the station’s seven crew members in less than a month; Amazon secured nine Atlas V launches for Project Kuiper; and, New Horizons, far beyond Pluto and Arrokoth, is now over 50 AU from the Sun, whose light now takes almost 7 hours to reach it—in celebration, it took an image looking back in the direction of Voyager 1, the farthest human-made object, at 152 AU and counting.

Etc.

— 📸 @considercosmos