Issue No. 203

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 203 | Jan 25, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

A successful Starship Wet Dress Rehearsal. SpaceX successfully performed the first WDR of Starship Booster 7 and Ship 24 on Monday. This is a major milestone in any rocket’s march towards a first launch, especially for a super heavy lift monster like Starship, which will have more than twice the thrust of the Saturn V (here’s a scale comparison to the minuscule Falcon 9). SpaceX loaded 4.5 million kg of cryogenic propellant into the fully reusable, two-stage rocket (causing it to shrink noticeably) and performed a countdown as it would on launch day (including some massive venting). A 33-engine static fire is now the next dramatic step toward an orbital launch, although how soon that might happen is unknown.

Starship, fully stacked in the midst of Monday’s successful WDR. Credit: Nic Ansuni /


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Next-gen propulsion incoming? Yesterday, NASA announced a new collaboration with long-time partner DARPA to develop a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system and spacecraft. NTP promises 3x or more improvements in Isp over traditional chemical rockets by heating a low molecular mass propellant (like hydrogen) to high temps using a reactor and then expelling the expanded propellant out a rocket nozzle (this achieves high exhaust velocities while needing no oxidizer, saving mass). DARPA will continue to develop DRACO, an orbital and cislunar NTP-powered experimental spacecraft (cf. Issue No. 170) as part of this collaboration, and the agencies are targeting an in-space demonstration of the propulsion system as soon as 2027. The demonstration spacecraft could be used as low as 700 km or as high as 2,000 km, but the long-term vision is cislunar space and Mars. This collaboration is separate from other recent NTP projects like the DOE’s initiative.

DARPA’s experimental DRACO spacecraft, powered by an NTP reactor.

Rocket Lab’s first US launch. Rocket Lab finally launched the first Electron from US soil yesterday, from Wallops Island Launch Complex 2 in Virginia. The “Virginia Is For Launch Lovers” mission lofted three geospatial RF analytics satellites for HawkEye 360. This was also the first flight of a vehicle using an Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, and the main source of the 2-year delay in the company launching from the US. Rocket Lab wants to eventually build and launch Neutron in Virginia as well. Related: Rocket Lab will launch the remaining four TROPICS satellites, left launch-less by the failure of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 in June (causing the loss of two of the original 6 TROPICS satellites).

Credit: @TheFavoritist

News in brief. ClearSpace, a Swiss company working on in-orbit servicing and debris removal (including the upcoming ClearSpace-1 mission), raised a €26.7M Series A as ESA talks seriously about a “zero debris” policyQuindar raised a $2.5M seed for software to help design & operate constellationsChinese lunar program director Wu Weiren said that the LM-5DY lunar rocket has been renamed LM-10 and will fly circa 2030, while the super heavy lift LM-9 will be reusable, coming online ~2035 (cf. Issue No. 197)A Falcon 9 carried the sixth GPS 3 satellite to orbit and another took 51 Starlink satellites to orbit, putting SpaceX at a launch every 4.8 days in 2023 so far and three more launches scheduled for the end of the month (bonus: some stunning imagery from last week’s Falcon Heavy launch)Chinese companies JiuZhouYunJian and SPACE-EPOCH seem to have test-fired a miniaturized, very Starship-esque vehicle with a methalox engine2023 BU, a 3-8 meter asteroid just discovered last week, will come reeeally close to Earth on Friday—within 3,500 km of the surface (and while highly unlikely, potentially even hitting us, which would make for nice fireball sightings).
Comet 2022 E3 ZTF. Credit: Clemens Fischer

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