Issue No. 63

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 63 | May 5, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

NASA funds initial development on three crewed lunar landers. The three teams, led by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX, were selected by NASA to start building landers for use as early as 2024. Using this funding, the companies will spend 10 months working with NASA, then the agency may down-select one or more designs for further funding. All three options would rely on NASA’s Orion vehicle launched on SLS for crew transport to lunar orbit— anything else isn’t currently politically viable— where the crew would meet up with their commercially-launched and built lander.

Award amounts were apparently based on the amount requested and don’t represent an explicit ranking. Boeing did not win an award… fail enough times and maybe even your lobbyists can’t overcome it?
Renderings of the three selected human landing system proposals.

FCC updates its orbital debris mitigation rule. The Agency voted to adopt a clarified set of requirements around satellite debris mitigation strategies. (It may be a surprise to some readers that an agency charged with communications oversight acts as the gatekeeper for satellites in the US, however, there is currently no other agency that has a comprehensive mandate for oversight—the FAA and NOAA oversee launch and imagery respectively, but as almost all satellites have radios, the FCC usually ends up with final jurisdiction.) The new rule is generally a positive step with more aggressive requirements than the Trump administration's somewhat-lackluster Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, which was released last year. The rule requires that satellites in orbits above 400 km (the typical maximum altitude for space stations, including the ISS) include maneuverability for collision avoidance and that operators assign numeric values to the risk of collision, the ability to de-orbit, and other debris-related factors for all spacecraft. After the draft rule incited strong opposition to its required indemnification of the US government by satellite operators— Boeing objected to every single change—and garnered feedback from NASA suggesting that constellations should not have to report risk as a whole, the agency moved several items to a "Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" and invited additional comments.

A Long March 5B launched a prototype next-generation crew capsule. China’s second variant of its heavy-lift vehicle, which returned to flight last December, launched carrying a 20 metric ton crewed spacecraft prototype this morning (launch video, tracking shot). The 5B is a Long March 5 first stage with 4 strap-on boosters designed to hoist heavy payloads to LEO foregoing the rocket's second stage. The launch was the first test of this version of the vehicle, as well as the first flight for the country’s next-generation deep space crew capsule. The mission will test the capsule’s reentry capability from a highly elliptic orbit of ~8,000 km in order to simulate an energetic reentry from deep space. The Long March 5 and 5B represent core parts of China’s launch strategy for its upcoming space station, as well as the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission. They also represent a new era in Chinese rocket technology—running YF-77 hydrolox engines, they are a departure from China's historic reliance on toxic hypergolic fuels.

Long March 5B rolls out to its pad ahead of its successful May 5 launch.

News in brief. The 2 km wide 1998 OR2 flew by the Earth (at 6.3 million km away, >16 times the Earth-Moon distance—on average, asteroids of this size fly by this close to Earth once every five years)—check out this radar image; Progress MS-14 reached the ISS on 25 April; Sierra Nevada’s first Dream Chaser spaceplane got wings and a name; Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity took its first solo glide test flight (video); Rocket Lab rolled out their first Electron planned for launch from their new launch complex (LC2) in the US; and, SpaceX completed their final Crew Dragon parachute test ahead of Demo-2 launching NET May 27 to the ISS.

Hubble caught Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) breaking up into 30+ pieces. It was discovered in December by ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System), a pair of automated telescopes in Hawaii that scan the entire sky for moving objects nightly. “ATLAS will provide one day's warning for a 30-kiloton ‘town killer,’ a week for a 5-megaton ‘city killer,’ and three weeks for a 100-megaton ‘county killer’.

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