Issue No. 80

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 80 | Sep 2, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

CubeSat interplanetary exploration is heating up. The twin MarCO 6U cubesats (3D model) made history when they flew past Mars and successfully relayed Mars InSight’s landing in real time (+ speed-of-light delay, natch). Now, many more lunar and interplanetary CubeSats are under development. From NASA comes Lunar Flashlight, Lunar IceCube, and NEAScout (a solar sailing small near-Earth asteroid explorer). ESA is working on M-ARGO, to explore small, rapidly spinning asteroids, and 2 cubesats that will tag along with their Hera mission to the Didymos/Didymoon system (which will have already been attacked by NASA’s DART kinetic impactor along with its LICIACube companion CubeSat). Caltech is working on Lunar Trailblazer to map the lunar water cycle, while University of Arizona’s LunaH-Map will perform a high resolution search for water in permanently shadowed regions on the Moon’s poles. CubeSats can also enable less resourced countries and private entities to do deep space exploration. Poland and Virgin Orbit are collaborating on a Mars cubesat. Rocket Lab is planning a mission to the Moon next year (check out Rocket Lab’s lunar site), and Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck is even investigating a private mission to Venus—the upgraded Electron should be able to deliver around 25 kg to Mars or Venus (Venus requires an additional ∆v of ~1,000 m/s according to the handy chart at the end of this issue, ignoring aerobraking). Slightly larger upcoming vehicles like Firefly's Alpha and Relativity Space’s Terran 1 “probably could put CubeSats beyond the asteroid belt, toward Jupiter or beyond.” Related: JPL’s "Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload" challenge recently ended with awards for miniaturized lunar payloads. Also Related: Astrobotic’s CubeRover is pretty cute.

Quick papers.

A Busy Weekend in Launch. ULA, Rocket Lab, and SpaceX all had scheduled launches over the weekend. ULA kicked the weekend off with a Delta IV Heavy launch of an NRO spy satellite. The aging heavy lifter, which will be phased out and replaced by Vulcan over the next few years, had a T-3 sec hotfire abort complete with a dramatic fireball (video). The rocket and payload are undamaged, but launch is delayed a week or more while expendable ground systems are replaced. Next up was SpaceX, launching SAOCOM-1B into a polar orbit, the first such southward flight path from Florida since 1969 when booster debris landed on Cuba and killed a cow named Rufina 🐮. Returning to this flight path was only possible due to the Falcon 9’s automated self-destruct systems—rocket exhaust in this flight path can block manually radioed abort messages. This launch was also temporarily halted due to its overflight of ULA’s aborted NROL-44 payload (expensive!) and required last minute approval from the NRO. To cap the weekend off, Rocket Lab returned to flight with their 14th mission (and announced that they will be conducting a first soft ocean splashdown of the booster for their 17th mission). Their I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical mission was a dedicated launch for Capella Space, a startup focused on capturing 0.5 m resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data as a service, the first of an eight satellite constellation. (Ed., amusingly, this satellite was originally supposed to launch as a rideshare with SAOCOM-1B, but when that mission was delayed, Capella switched to Rocket Lab, which was then delayed by a July 4th failure, eventually launching just a few hours after the original mission. You just can’t get ahead. 🤷‍♂️)

News in brief. SLS is getting even more even more expensive; NASA approved final development of the 2021 Lucy mission to explore the Trojan asteroids; NASA and Boeing are now targeting December for Starliner’s OFT-2 re-test, followed by a first crewed mission in June 2021; the EPA recently launched an investigation into a 300 metric ton methane plume in central Florida based on observations by methane tracking startup Bluefield; 星际荣耀iSpace closed a nearly RMB1.2 B (~$172 M USD) Series B round last week—this is the largest round to date for a Chinese private rocket company; and, NASA will broadcast the Artemis solid rocket booster test live this afternoon.



A subway system-style map of the solar system’s delta-v requirements (plus, the all-important Kerbal version of this chart).

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