Issue No. 185

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 185 | Sep 14, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

New Shepard booster lost. On Monday, Blue Origin’s third New Shepard booster (NS3) suffered an in-flight anomaly while increasing its thrust after hitting Max-Q (video). The uncrewed launch’s flight termination system and emergency abort functionality worked as designed, safely separating the capsule from the booster. Had there been crew on board, they would have experienced a high-g burn to escape the booster followed by a quicker than expected return to Earth. The anomaly appears to be an engine failure in the single BE-3 engine—possibly either a fuel line or pump causing an “engine-rich exhaust” scenario—with the booster subsequently losing power and crashing into the West Texas desert. This was Blue’s 23rd New Shepard launch, with only one previous failure (flight NS-2) during the rocket’s early flight test campaign. Booster-4 is Blue’s human-rated booster and was not involved, but the FAA is still conducting an investigation, and so New Shepard is grounded until it has been completed and any findings have been incorporated into the rocket system.

New Shepard’s emergency abort motors ignite, propelling the cargo capsule away from the impending rapid unscheduled disassembly of NS Booster-3.

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Satellite comms come to cell phones. As anticipated, last Wednesday, Apple announced that the new iPhone 14 will be able to send SOS messages and current location coordinates to Apple, Emergency Services, and Emergency Contacts via Globalstar satellites. Apple is dedicating $450M toward satellite infrastructure, covering 95% of the system’s cost, and will use up to 85% (!) of Globalstar’s network capacity. Due to limited bandwidth and the characteristics of cell phone antennas, users will need to point their phone at a satellite using a new UI and will select from a set of pre-written messages instead of sending free-form texts. Meanwhile, in addition to SpaceX and T-Mobile’s announcement a few weeks ago, Huawei unveiled their new smartphone which can do similar messaging via the BeiDou satellite constellation, Lynk Space is developing more partnerships, and AST SpaceMobile’s Bluewalker-3 satellite launched on Saturday, tagging along on a SpaceX Falcon 9 with 34 Starlink satellites. Bluewalker-3 is a test for an eventual 110-satellite constellation that would provide global cell phone coverage, “using 3GPP low-band cellular frequencies and Q/V-band frequencies” (it has an FCC experimental license). Concerns have been raised, however, about the satellite’s potentially-unprecedented brightness (> Venus), with a reflective and record-setting 64 m2 antenna. Even larger satellites are intended for the company's final constellation.


Bluewalker-3 has a reflective, 64 m2 antenna which is quite worrying to astronomers.

Earth Observation: will it commodify? Several years ago, a commonly held belief in the industry was that Earth Observation (EO) data would quickly move towards a commodity market enabling a host of new startups that would simply consume EO data from one of the growing number of constellation operators and would transform it into valuable, investor-friendly SaaS data intelligence businesses. While EO constellation operators continue to receive investment—ICEYE (SAR, $136M Series D), Wyvern (Hyperspectral, $9.5M Seed + non-dilutive), Satellite Vu (Thermal IR, $26M Series B), Albedo (High res visible, $48M Series A), and more this year alone—EO data-only startups trail far behind, with LiveEO’s recent $19.5M round and Taranis raising a $40M Series D being some of the few notable events this year. Meanwhile, a few of the successes have been quickly picked off and vertically integrated by EO market leaders: Planet acquiring Vandersat ($28M) and Spire acquiring ExactEarth ($161.2M) come to mind (Spire is an Orbital Index sponsor). The availability of EO data has continued to balloon with visible imaging, SAR, hyperspectral, GPS radio occultation, thermal IR, and traditional weather data all now available from multiple providers, along with more exotic data types like lightning detection and soil moisture content. Jim Morrison at Umbra (builder of one of the many new SAR constellations) claims that instead of data intelligence SaaS companies, EO data will mainly be consumed directly by customer-facing companies solving real problems. He points out that the old belief, "Nobody wants pixels, they want insights." is wrong. “It turns out some people do just want pixels and they spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on satellite data, so that part of the aphorism is wrong. Even worse, the second part is wrong, too. It turns out nobody wants insights, either!” A semi-recent acquisition from the Apple-world may support this viewpoint—in 2020 Apple bought Dark Sky, an EO-driven mobile weather app, and eventually rolled it into iOS. This then begs the question: has the adoption of the data-only EO insights-provider model failed, or does it simply need more time to leverage the ever-falling cost of EO data?

News in (not so) brief. Albedo, working on Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) 10 cm resolution Earth-imaging satellites, closed a $48M Series A Vast (a startup which Andrew consults for) is now out of stealth and being more public about its plans for an artificial gravity commercial space station An FCC draft proposal changes the required LEO deorbit period post-mission from 25 years to 5 years, which seems like a great idea China hot-fired a closed expander cycle hydrogen-oxygen engine for their eventual Long March 9 heavy-lift vehicle An Ariane 5 launched the Eutelsat Konnect VHTS satellite from French Guiana—only three Ariane 5 rockets remain in Arianespace’s inventory, with Ariane 6 on the way NASA awarded Axiom Space a $228.5M contract for lunar space suit development for Artemis III, winning out over Collins Aerospace—both companies are eligible for ISS and lunar suit awards in the future China’s 36th and 37th launches of the year occurred just hours apart—a Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket with two CentiSpace satellites (experimental GNSS augmentation and inter-satellite laser comms) and a Long March 2D with more Yaogan-35 EO sats The lunar CAPSTONE cubesat entered safe mode after a problem near the end of a trajectory correction maneuver—it is now tumbling in space while ground teams prepare a detumble operation 🤞 Chinese company GalaxySpace raised a large investment round for the development of LEO communication satellites Observer LICIACube successfully separated from the main DART probe, whose high-velocity asteroid impact is on course to happen Monday, September 26th Firefly scrubbed their Sunday (drop in helium pressure) and Monday (wind) launch attempts, with the next window opening on Sept. 19th Astrobotic has acquired Masten Space (building out their CLPS mission portfolio and VTOL test capabilities) for just $4.5M—David Masten is their new Chief Engineer Starship 24 completed a 6-engine static fire test and caused a 5-hour-long grass fire near its Boca Chica launch facility.

Starship 24's 6-engine static fire.


The North America Nebula (NGC-7000), located in the constellation Cygnus. The light captured in this image of the highly dense hydrogen alpha cloud was emitted 2,202 years ago. The photo was taken with an Ha filter to isolate nebulosity and was then combined with an RGB image. Photo Credit: our new friend, Paul Briaud (funny the people you meet on a clear night while taking a run if you’re interested in space).

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