Issue No. 53

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 53 | Feb 27, 2020

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Does the US Government believe the Moon is a Stepping Stone or a Cornerstone for human exploration? The Planetary Society has analyzed the NASA Authorization Act currently under consideration in the US House of Representatives (HR 5666). The bill prioritizes Mars over the Moon, pushes a lunar landing back to 2028, and prevents NASA from using public-private partnerships for lunar landing services. While not directly part of funding the agency (NASA’s budget is defined in an annual appropriations bill), this bill’s mandate of using SLS and “cost-plus” contracts with mega-contractors like Boeing could potentially lead to a lunar lander with an unsustainable price tag of ~$35 billion. What seems clear is that the current presidential mandate of a 2024 lunar landing is supported neither by the Democrat-led House nor the Republican Senate and will almost assuredly not be supported by a Democrat presidential candidate. The larger question of whether lunar missions are a smart step towards Mars, a goal that stands on its own, or a distraction, often centers around the finite funding for NASA, questions regarding the usefulness of the current Lunar Gateway plans over a direct-to-surface outpost approach, the private business case for the moon, and whether tech developed for lunar missions will actually be useful for martian exploration missions. (Related: NASA's 2021 budget proposal, which has drawn some mixed reactions, requests a 12% increase in funding but cuts education and science missions including SOFIA, NASA's 747-based telescope.)

NASA released high fidelity visualizations based on LRO data that recreates what the crew of Apollo 13 saw as they flew around the far side of the Moon.

MMX. Continuing their history of ambitious missions, JAXA has authorized continued development of their Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) sample return mission to the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, to be launched on the under-development Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-3 vehicle in 2024. The mission will include instruments provided by NASA along with ESA & CNES and consists of an orbiter to study both moons and a lander (and maybe rover) to drill into Phobos. The sample return vehicle will leave Phobos in 2028, returning samples to Earth in 2029. It’s likely that ejecta from Mars can be found on Phobos, which could let us get our hands on Martian material ahead of the possible Mars sample return mission. Studying Phobos will help us better understand the formation of moons around terrestrial planets and the Martian system (pdf paper). It’s also possible that the first human missions to the Martian system may target Phobos as a base of operation due to easier landing and reduced fuel needs for a return (pdf paper). Having a diameter of 22.5 km, surface gravity on Phobos is only 0.0057 m/s². At this size, the escape velocity is only about 11 m/s—you could throw a baseball into orbit, just be careful that it doesn’t subsequently hit you on the back of the head.

News in brief. Katherine Johnson, NACA mathematician featured in “Hidden Figures”, who wrote the first Flight Research Division research report credited to a woman and did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7, John Glenn’s orbital mission, the Apollo program, and later Shuttle and Landsat missions, has died at 101; Blue Origin officially opened its new engine factory in Alabama which will eventually produce up to 42 BE-4 & BE-3U engines annually (related: a recently-released Blue Origin fact sheet); a Soyuz 2-1a vehicle delivered a Russian Meridian communications satellite into a Molniya orbit (a very eccentric orbit which provides long dwell times over high latitude regions); SpaceX rolled Starship SN 1 out for final assembly—expect static fire sometime in March and a 20 km hop later this spring; a rapid unscheduled disassembly occurred in Florida when Rocket Crafters was conducting an engine test (luckily no one was hurt); as expected, but much to everyone’s disappointment, Betelgeuse is returning to normal brightness; also as expected, SLS’s first launch is now delayed until 2021; a Chinese Long March-2D rocket launched four satellites to test inter-satellite links and Earth observation technologies; InSight is finally preparing to just push down real hard on its mole; first data from Solar Orbiter indicates good health; and the fifth-largest dwarf planet in the solar system is now named Gonggong after a Chinese water god—this is the first major solar system body with a Chinese name.

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