Issue No. 43

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 43 | Dec 17, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰

The Many Maps of Mars. This week saw two new maps released of the red planet. We present them along with a few other interesting entries:

(Also related: A great infographic we’ve linked before that shows most of the missions to the planet and an animation of Deimos recently created from stills taken by Mars Express.)

China, the new space superpower. With the most launches this year of any country (and possibly next year too, if Starlink doesn’t ramp up too fast), a space station under active development, and plans to send people to the moon and even Mars, China has become a space superpower. The 2019 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (full pdf / executive summary pdf) says, “China's goal to establish a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space, or what Beijing calls its "space dream," is a core component of its aim to realize the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’…China views space as critical to its future security and economic interests due to its vast strategic and economic potential.” If the ISS is retired in 2030, the China Space Station may become the default testing ground for international human spaceflight. China is also researching beamed solar power from orbit (as are the US and Japan). While we’re excited about Chinese upcoming deep space missions (particularly their Mars lander and their Interstellar Heliosphere Probe, a proposed mission to the outer solar system, a Kuiper Belt Object, and then interstellar space), we’re the opposite of excited about China’s lack of transparency, development of counterspace weapons (pdf), vision of an all-encompassing digital police state, and massive detention camps. Related: Scott Manley has a breakdown of every Chinese rocket, including the delayed Long March 5, critical to China’s space ambitions.

Data from the Parker Solar Probe. Four papers (1, 2, 3, 4) analyze new data from the blisteringly fast Parker Solar Probe, starting to explain some of the Sun’s mysteries from distances as close as 24 million km (so far)—Mercury’s average orbital distance is 58 million km. These findings include why the solar corona has temperatures of over one million kelvin while its visible surface is only 6,000 K and precisely how the solar wind is formed. The PSP observed periodic explosive “jet-lets” of solar wind stretching the Sun’s magnetic field into unexpected S-shaped bends. The dynamics of these “jet-lets” may explain the speed of the solar wind and the corona’s high temperatures. It also detected the solar wind rotating with the Sun’s rotation, an effect that dies out by the time the wind reaches Earth. Related: the PSP also spotted the dust trail behind 3200 Phaethon for the first time—3200 Phaethon is the named asteroid with the closest approach to the Sun and its trail creates the annual Geminid meteor shower.

ESA will clean up LEO if they have to do it one small defunct object at a time. Last week, ESA announced funding for the first space debris removal mission that will target an actual piece of space junk and not a test target (this was done after considering many capture techniques, some of which may still be attempted). The €120 million mission, dubbed CleanSpace-1, will remove a single 100 kg VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) second stage left in orbit from one of ESA’s own Vega launches in 2013. This is marvelous modeling of cleaning up one's own mess. CleanSpace-1 is targeting a 2025 launch, so the opportunity exists for other entities to beat ESA to the prize of deorbiting the first piece of honest-to-goodness space junk. Related: A tool for visualizing the close encounters of objects in orbit; the U.S. government (somewhat underwhelmingly) updated its orbital debris mitigation guidelines; and, Space Fence, the USAF’s new ground-based radar system for tracking sub-10 cm objects in low to medium Earth orbits, came online for its trial period.

News in brief. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, aboard its ULA Atlas 5, is a go for a Dec 20th launch; a 5x reused Blue Origin New Shepard uncrewed suborbital rocket reached the edge of space and returned for a vertical landing with jellyfish—one or more test flights are still required before crewed flights begin; Rocket Lab’s new US launch site is ready to go for its first launch in Q2 2020; ISRO’s PSLV-C48 launched with a military SAR surveillance satellite and 9 commercial payloads; SpaceX launched JCSat-18 on a 3x reused Falcon 9 booster (narrowly missing a first double fairing catch); private Chinese company Landspace just raised $71 million for an upcoming medium-lift launch vehicle; and, the sampling site on Bennu for OSIRIS-REx has been selected.


Another storm has joined the others in a striking pentagonal pattern on Jupiter’s south pole. The new one is small—only about the size of Texas.

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