Issue No. 17

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 17 | Jun 18, 2019

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Interplanetary CubeSats. Last year, NASA’s MarCO cubesat duo (nicknamed WALL-E and EVE) successfully relayed telemetry of InSight’s Mars landing as they sped past the planet. While contact was lost in January, it’s plausible (but unlikely) that we’ll reestablish contact when they come close to Earth again later this summer. Bolstered by MarCO’s success and continued cubesat innovation in LEO, NASA and ESA are working on a number of upcoming interplanetary cubesat missions. Thirteen cubesats are planned to launch on Artemis 1 (SLS’s first lunar flight), some of which will continue past the moon into heliocentric orbits. These include BioSentinel (previously discussed in Issue #14) and NEA Scout, a 6U cubesat which will use its solar sail to reach and explore a Near Earth Asteroid. Meanwhile, ESA is also working on a pair of 6U cubesats to tag along with their Hera planetary defense mission (cf. Issue #9): APEX, a spectral imaging and ion sensing craft for asteroid mineral prospecting, and Juventas, which will perform the first subsurface radar survey of an asteroid. Another ESA mission being studied is M-ARGO, a stand-alone 12U cubesat with electric propulsion. They found that the standalone cubesat model exemplified by M-ARGO “would have a high potential of cutting the entry-level cost of deep-space exploration by about a factor of ten.”

All the things launching on Falcon Heavy’s third flight next week. 24 satellites are scheduled for a night launch no earlier than (NET) next Monday, June 24th, as part of the US DoD STP-2 mission, including satellites from NOAA, NASA, and various universities. NASA described their payloads in a Tumblr post. [Really… Tumblr?] Examples of the hodgepodge of satellites being launched include ones for space and ground weather prediction, space environment characterization, testing safer alternatives to hydrazine, a pair of cubesats that will test inter-cubesat WiFi, and TEPCE, two cubesats attached together by a 1km electrically conductive tether to test electrodynamic propulsion. Also launching as part of the mission are the Planetary Society’s donor-funded LightSail 2 solar sail cubesat testbed and JPL’s Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a validation mission for future navigational mercury-ion trap atomic clocks. DSAC is 50 times more stable than the atomic clocks used on GPS satellites, losing only 1 second per 9 million years. If validated, future deep space missions will be able to use similar atomic clocks to precisely time transmissions from Earth and other satellites, thereby navigating through triangulation.

Kerbal Space Program has some new DLC. So this isn’t, you know, about actual space in the actual universe, but real scientists & engineers have gotten their start with it, NASA’s likes it, Elon Musk plays it, EJ on Twitch tirelessly builds complex rockets in it for an audience of hundreds of viewers, and Scott Manley became popular through his many YouTube videos about it (including the epic 106-part Interstellar Quest), and now produces excellent content that makes frequent appearances in The Orbital Index. And of course, we’ve spent boatloads of time in KSP ourselves. Kerbal Space Program is a “game” where you build and launch rockets. It uses simplified single-body orbital mechanics (so no Lagrange points or halo orbits unless you use a full n-body mod), but still supports the Oberth effect, aerobraking, and gravity assists. KSP’s new expansion, Breaking Ground, adds motorized and actuated spacecraft parts and a keyframe editor for sequencing them. Unsurprisingly, Reddit is full of creative builds. If you haven’t played KSP yet (and feel like your life could use a second job running a space program for small green creatures), now is a great time to start.

Papers. Three new exocomets have been discovered orbiting a star 63 light-years away (paper) — exocomets were first detected in 1987. Superflares, which are 2-3 orders of magnitude more powerful than our typical solar flares, are predominantly seen on young stars, but new research (paper) suggests that our Sun is also capable of producing superflares every 1000 years or so, posing a distinct risk to our electromagnetically fragile tech-based society. The yellowish patches on Europa's surface are probably sodium chloride from the interior ocean, which therefore might be salt-dominated like those of Earth (paper). And, based on gravity data from GRAIL, the Moon’s huge 2,500km diameter South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin may contain an enormous 95-km-diameter iron-nickel asteroid embedded in the Moon’s mantle (paper).

But on the other hand...

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