Issue No. 27

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 27 | Aug 27, 2019

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Europa Clipper enters final design. NASA officially moved Europa Clipper, which was originally envisioned as a NASA/ESA mission with contributions from JAXA and Roscosmos, into the final design stage with launch scheduled to the gas giant around 2023, assuming the mission’s congressionally-mandated SLS launch vehicle is ready. The orbiter will perform 45 fly-bys of Europa, in a highly elliptical Jupiter orbit, with the goal of scanning the moon’s subsurface ocean for signs of life. The Europa fly-by approach was selected both due to most science craft being uplink limited and to the radiation levels around Europa's orbit from Jupiter’s magnetosphere; the highly elliptical orbit allows the craft to extend its lifespan from the several months an orbiter would survive the radiation to the 3 years that Clipper will conduct its science mission. Due to the 33-53 minute radio delay, the science team is developing a semi-autonomous machine learning approach to selecting interesting (and timely) instrument targets and prioritizing data for uplink, a challenge on the 200mhz radiation-hardened PowerPC RAD750 processor (paper). Potential targets include surface ice fissures, subsurface “warm” spots, and water vapor plumes. Clipper could be followed by a lander which may need to dodge spikes of ice up to 15 m long. ESA is also working on a mission to the Jovian system, JUICE, which will focus on Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto. Universe Today has an in-depth review of both Europe Clipper and JUICE.

NASA and ESA have outlined their Mars sample return plans. At the Ninth International Conference on Mars, officials from NASA and ESA provided concrete details about their upcoming joint Mars sample return mission. First, NASA's Mars 2020 rover (which just finished assembly) is going to cache samples in canisters as it wanders about. Then, in 2026, two spacecraft, the Earth-Return Orbiter (ERO), built by ESA, and the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL), built in partnership by NASA and ESA, will launch independently. The lander will take an unusually slow trip to Mars so that it arrives in August 2028 during Mars' northern spring equinox when solar-panel-blotting dust is expected to be at a minimum. It will land and spend the next 6 mo transferring Mars 2020’s samples, then launch them into orbit on a small rocket. Meanwhile, ESA's large solar electric Earth-return orbiter will have entered and circularized its Martian orbit using ion propulsion so that it can track down and capture the now orbiting samples in 2029, followed by a slow orbit-raising maneuver which will finally bring them home in 2032 (probably to the Utah Test Range where Genesis and Stardust also landed/lithobraked). However, all of this is a proposal—reality will depend on future NASA and ESA budgets. The Planetary Society has an excellent drill-down that goes into more detail, including covering concerns around a sample return mission absorbing budget from other Mars programs and the mission’s dependence on NASA's aging Mars observation and data relay craft.

An overview of the ESA-NASA Mars Sample Return mission architecture.

The Trump administration seems unable to decide on whether or not to prioritize the moon. VP Mike Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine have been firing people and publicly pushing an accelerated 2024 schedule to land humans (back) on the Moon, potentially without talking to Trump, who has repeatedly said that we should focus on Mars. At the same time, Republicans are infighting over both whether it’s prudent to further increase the administration’s record-setting debt spending and where to build the new lander—after Bridenstine announced that it would be built by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Ted Cruz and other Texas Republicans responded with a letter of complaint. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, some general, and Michael Jackson's publicist are all trying to convince Trump to drop the whole thing and just run a $2 billion commercial lunar human spaceflight contest instead. (We like the idea of private lunar spaceflight, but think that $2 billion would be laughably insufficient—the Apollo program alone cost $288 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.)

News in brief. On August 14, the LIGO gravitational wave observatory probably detected the merger of a black hole and a neutron star—LIGO continues to release a steady cadence of its practically daily detections; Chandrayaan-2 entered lunar orbit and snapped its first lunar picture; Starhopper’s much delayed 150m hover test was aborted and rescheduled for this evening (there should be a live stream, likely announced by Musk on Twitter) after an issue with engine ignition wiring was found; an autonomous crew-capable Soyuz-2.1a rocket launched for the ISS where it encountered docking challenges—it’s the first autonomous crew-capable launch in 33 years, intended to test the new Soyuz-2.1a booster after the last test failed; two NASA astronauts installed a second international docking adapter on the ISS for future commercial spacecraft; and, the (fairly mundane) first space crime investigation.

The last launch of the Delta IV Medium, which is being replaced by the Delta IV Heavy until ULA’s next-gen Vulcan is ready sometime in 2021.

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