Issue No. 201

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 201 | Jan 11, 2023

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What was on Transporter-6? As with all of SpaceX’s breakbulk-to-orbit rideshare missions, a whole lot of interesting stuff was among the 114 payloads from 23 countries sent to orbit on Transporter-6, the company’s first orbital launch of what will be a busy 2023. The mission’s manifest included six orbital transfer vehicles (from D-Orbit, Launcher—their first—, Skykraft, Momentus, and Epic Aerospace—their first, also), hosted payloads, and many smallsats, brokered and bundled either by SpaceX directly or by companies like Exolaunch, D-Orbit, and ISILaunch. As usual, the majority of payloads were for Earth observation, including 36 multispectral SuperDoves from Planet, four optical microsatellites from Satellogic, SAR satellites from ICEYE and Umbra, the agricultural-imaging EOS SAT 1 (at 178 kg, one of the larger satellites on board), and a number of other EO sats. Companies building or expanding constellations included Astrocast (data relay and asset tracking), Skykraft (air traffic management over remote areas), Lynk Global (direct-to-phone satellite service), Spire (ship tracking and weather data), and Swarm Technologies (owned by SpaceX and providing low-data-rate comms). Many satellites were themselves “condosats,” such as Loft Orbital’s YAM (Yet Another Mission) 5 and Bulgarian EnduroSat’s Platform 2. Reviewing the satellites and hosted payloads on board provides a thorough survey of current space applications, including numerous technology demonstrators (thrusters, inspection cameras, thermal control technology, radio comms), spectrum monitoring and signal geolocation, maritime communications and surveillance, high-throughput communications, internet of things connectivity, cloud monitoring, and… carrying cremated human remains. Other interesting highlights included a 50 kg space-based solar power tech demo from Caltech (testing lightweight deployable structures, high-efficiency solar cells, and local microwave power transmission), French Gama Space’s Alpha (a CubeSat with a 73-square-meter solar sail!), Star Sphere from Sony (a remote camera to be used by artists), a Czech amateur radio sat, and Kuwait’s first satellite mission (testing camera-based attitude control). Keep them coming! Related: watch the Transporter-6 launch (sped up) from the perspective of the booster all the way up to space and back to LZ-1.

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Guest contribution

Interrogating matter from other stars. It’ll take a while for human-created matter to reach other star systems. (Although by using chipsats and laser-accelerated solar sails, Breakthrough Starshot is trying to speed this up!) In the meantime, we can interrogate the matter that other stars send us — interstellar dust, nanometer-scale messengers from lightyears away. Dedicated instruments, like IDEX, typically apply in-situ compositional analysis to study impacting dust. They can investigate the panspermia hypothesis, for instance, which suggests that ingredients for life may spread from star to star onboard nature’s nanosatellites. There are also more exotic approaches for getting our hands on interstellar matter. In 2019, scientists found dust from a near-Earth supernova explosion freshly deposited in Antarctic snow (NYTimes article, academic paper). Additionally, a team from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is planning an ocean expedition to extract an interstellar meteor from the seafloor. Meanwhile, my Ph.D. work in the Responsive Environments group at MIT (also collaborating with the fibers@MIT group and in tandem with JAXA CLOTH) works to ‘piggyback’ large-area dust sensors on subsystems that are already common to spacecraft, like thermal blankets. Our thermal blanket’s exterior layer is made of a space-grade fiberglass fabric called Beta cloth. By integrating piezoelectric / charge-sensitive fiber sensors, we can sense the extreme kinematics associated with interstellar grain strikes (think sub-micron scale particles turned to plasma at tens of km/s). Dust flux is on the order of a few strikes per square meter per day. With enough data, dust kinematics and spatial distributions can teach us about comet tails, supernova explosions, and the local interstellar cloud (in which our solar system will remain enmeshed for the next ~2,000 years). We’re currently flying a technology demonstration on an ISS exterior facility, ironing out kinks for our primary design. Some exotic fabric topologies were also tested terrestrially at a warehouse-scale dust accelerator. This fabric is multi-use: with high-momentum debris populations in LEO skyrocketing, a damage telemetry stream (to work in tandem with robotic repair agents) will help to ensure the safety of future inflatable / stow-and-deploy structures. The multifunctional nature of this smart thermal blanket allows us to work right at the boundary of space technology and fundamental science, an unusual and exciting design methodology for building out core infrastructure in space… with our scientific curiosities woven right into the walls! – Contributed by Dr. Juliana Cherston (MIT Media Lab), who was recently awarded first prize in the Aerospace category of the Tech Briefs ‘Create the Future’ Design Competition.

The author preparing a smart-fabric system in a clean room at Alpha Space in Houston.

The UK’s first orbital launch failed. After delays from its original Oct 29th launch date, Virgin Orbit attempted the UK’s first orbital launch from domestic soil airspace. Unfortunately, the air-launched LauncherOne vehicle suffered a failure and did not reach orbit. Lost were a load of smallsats: Prometheus-2 (2x 6U cubesats, intended to test radio signal detection and imaging for the UK Ministry of Defense), IOD-3 AMBER (a 6U maritime domain awareness SIGINT demonstration sat for a future constellation), CIRCE (2x 6U sats with multiple academic payloads, including ionospheric space weather photometers), DOVER (a 3U GNSS testbed), ForgeStar-0 (a promising on-orbit manufacturing and re-entry test from Space Forge), AMAN (EO 3U, Oman’s first satellite attempt), and, finally, STORK-6 (a 3U cubesat from SatRevolution, part of a 14 sat EO constellation). Our thoughts go out to all the people who put their sweat and tears into these missions. SpaceX makes it look easy, but space remains hard. The UK’s first ground-based orbital launch should happen soon, with Orbex’s Prime rocket recently unveiled in northern Scotland, Edinburgh-based Skyrora shooting for a launch later this year (assuming the issues that caused their recent launch failure from Iceland are resolved), and ABL Space Systems planning a long list of flights from the Shetland Islands.

“This feckin' guy! Always popping up when you don't want him.” Credit: Aisling

More satellite-enabled cell phones are incoming. Iridium and Qualcomm are partnering on satellite SOS services and messaging for next-generation Android cell phones. Current plans will support multiple Android OEM vendors (and service providers) using updated Qualcomm Snapdragon Satellite silicon, which will enable “premium” phones to up-/down-link on L-band spectra licensed by Qualcomm to Iridium’s 66-satellite constellation. This service will initially support SOS services (with responses handled by long-time-GPS-expert Garmin), much like Apple’s iPhone 14 running on Globalstar’s 24-satellite constellation. In the future, the partnership plans to support general-use text messages and eventually low-resolution images. Samsung already announced the inclusion of Snapdragon Satellite in their Galaxy S23 phone, likely to be the first phone to support the new service. No information has been released on whether the service will be free to end users or not—Apple’s service is free for the first two years, with ongoing pricing not yet announced. The Apple / Globalstar and Iridium / Qualcomm / Garmin / Samsung partnerships are likely to diverge, as Apple is investing $450 M into Globalstar expansion for 85% of their bandwidth, while the Iridium / Qualcomm / Garmin / Samsung partnership appears to be led by Iridium with each partner seemingly funding their own development, productization, and marketing efforts.


News in brief. China undertook their first two launches of the year: a Long March 7A sent the tech demo Shijian-23 satellite to GTO while the fifth launch of Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 solid-fueled rocket carried five commercial satellites to SSO NASA appointed A. C. Charania as its new agency-wide chief technologist—Charania, who previously worked with Reliable Robotics, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, will act as a principal adviser to Administrator Bill Nelson Canadian space situational awareness firm NorthStar Earth & Space raised a $35M C Round, and SpaceX is rumored to be raising another round of funding, this time $750M at a $137B valuation Airbus is joining Voyager Space’s Starlab commercial space station effort ispace Japan’s lunar lander, en route, successfully performed its second trajectory adjustment maneuver on January 2 Walter Cunningham, the last of the Apollo 7 astronauts, died at 90 Already well into its extended mission, China’s Zhurong Mars rover should have awoken from a 6 mo hibernation in December, but has failed to phone home—the Tianwen-1 orbiter also appears to be having communication issues Musk now says an orbital test of Starship and Super Heavy will likely happen in late February or March.


📹 A quick video of Ship 24 being stacked on top of Booster 7.


Now with a circularized ~100 km lunar orbit, Danuri (KPLO), South Korea’s first lunar orbiter, has sent back some breathtaking initial photos.

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