Issue No. 52

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 52 | Feb 20, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

It’s a bit hard to believe, but this issue marks one full year of The Orbital Index. We’ve immensely enjoyed diving down Internet rabbit holes and writing about space each week. And, we’ve even gotten to meet some of you! As we look forward to more weeks of writing and meeting more of you, we thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on the ongoing development of the newsletter and its community. It’d be swell if you could take 3 minutes to complete a quick survey about how you read The Orbital Index and what you think should come next. (We’ll also put it at the bottom so you can read the important space stuff first.)

 To another 942,000,000 km trip around our star with weekly doses of rockets and space exploration (and not too much radiation),

— Andrew and Ben

🎈🎂 🎉

Starlink-4 and a dark sky. This week’s Starlink-4 mission launched 60 more Starlink satellites. (If you're counting along from home, you’ll notice this is the 5th dedicated Starlink launch… but, the first launch isn’t counted due to its v0.9 hardware.) This launch was booster B1056's 4th flight and the fastest re-flight of a Falcon 9 to date at 62 days. Unfortunately, the booster, which could have been SpaceX’s 50th recovery, missed the drone ship and “soft-landed” in the ocean nearby—boosters are guided on a ballistic trajectory to the side of the landing area and adjusted onto the landing site at the last second for safety. Starlink promises global low-latency internet service via (initially) pizza box-sized receivers (here’s a super-good latency simulation video), with North America scheduled to receive initial coverage later this year. However, Starlink has turned into a major controversy for SpaceX due to the VLEO orbit of the satellites (550 km for the initial shell—340 & 1,200 km later), their unexpectedly high apparent magnitude, and the longer-term question of whether mega-constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb, Project Kuiper, and others may eventually lead towards Kessler syndrome due to space debris. Some in the astronomy community are vocally against the continued rollout of Starlink due to its impact on both visible- and radio- astronomy (to the point of a potential lawsuit). Others advocate for the socio-economic benefit of internet service availability that isn’t tied to living in proximity to a metropolitan area (illustrative map)—economic success is disproportionately available to those that have high-quality access to the Internet. Comparing these costs and benefits, when those they affect are so different, is a difficult task. What has been lacking so far from the overwrought discourse are clear solutions. One first goal proposed by some American Astronomical Society astronomers is decreasing the brightness of mega-constellations below naked-eye visibility. In response, SpaceX has begun painting satellites to decrease their albedo (and has indicated future reductions as well). Others have suggested increasing orbital height, but that comes with increased latency and difficulty in de-orbiting defunct satellites. Ethan Siegel wrote a piece in Nov. that, while overly dramatic, plots clear steps that could be taken to allay astronomers’ objections. Meanwhile, Dr. Pamela Gay has a well-written critique of astronomers’ single-minded approach to the issue. We feel that regulation of mega-constellations is lacking and that with decreasing launch costs, this problem will only grow. Legal and technical solutions are needed, and until they are cohesively proposed and mandated, little is likely to change.

NASA announced funded concept development of four interplanetary missions. One or two of these Discovery-class missions will be selected next year for continued funding. The missions under consideration include the Io Volcano Observer (pdf), a mission to study volcanic Io through a series of close flybys and learn how tidal forces shape planets; Trident, a flyby mission to study the frost geysers and (possible) icy subsurface oceans of Neptune’s moon Triton; and, two missions to Venus, including a spherical lander probe called DAVINCI+ (pdf) which will look for lost oceans, and VERITAS, an orbital synthetic aperture radar and infrared imager to determine whether Venus has active plate tectonics and volcanism, seeking to answer how a planet so similar to Earth could end up so different. NASA’s Discovery Program typically funds missions that cost less than $300 million, including such past successes as the Kepler space telescope, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Pathfinder and Mars InSight landers, and Dawn, with the upcoming Lucy and Psyche missions to asteroids launching in 2021 and 2022.


News in brief. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s ex-chief of the human spaceflight division, has joined SpaceX; the Mars 2020 rover has arrived in Florida; Spaceway-1 reached its high graveyard orbit without blowing up (and will now drift in its slow orbit for millions of years); a Cygnus spacecraft launched 3,400 kg of supplies and experiments to the ISS; an Ariane 5 launched a Japanese communications sat and a Korean environmental monitoring sat; SpaceX and Space Adventures announced plans to fly tourists aboard Crew Dragon in 2021-2022; Rocket Lab won a contract to use their launch vehicle and new Photon bus to send NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat to test out a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon—the orbit that the partially crewed Lunar Gateway will use if it ever gets built; and, India proudly showcased its anti-satellite weapon at an arms bazaar. 😠


Last week’s 30th anniversary of the iconic "Pale Blue Dot" image saw JPL release this re-processed version. The original was taken by Voyager 1 on Feb. 14, 1990, while looking back from beyond Neptune before powering down its cameras forever. It captured Earth in the void as a single blue pixel caught in a sunbeam lens flare. "Look again at that dot." Carl Sagan wrote, "That's here. That's home. That's us.” Voyager 1 is now 22.2 billion km away in interstellar space.

(Psst. Remember that survey? It’d be great if you could take it now and help us figure out the future of The Orbital Index.)

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