¶A Cliff was the Culprit. ispace released an analysis of their failed HAKUTO-R Moon landing, once again showing that space is hard: “the lander fully completed the entire planned deceleration process, slowing to the target speed of less than 1 m/s in a vertical position”, but it did so “at an altitude of approximately 5 kms above the lunar surface” and slowly descended from there until it ran out of fuel. The team believes this was due to the lander passing over a cliff at the rim of Atlas crater, causing its laser rangefinder to read a sudden increase in altitude, and resulting in software designed to detect and disable broken sensors spuriously marking the altitude sensor as broken and ignoring its output from then on. This situation wasn’t detected during testing because the mission’s landing site was changed in 2020 and the software, which had been tested extensively for the old site, was never tested on the altitude map for the new location. ispace’s next attempt is scheduled for 2024.
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¶ISAM update. There have been a bunch of in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) updates recently.
- NASA is getting more serious about ISAM in general, recently announcing a new consortium focused on ISAM capabilities while continuing slow progress on OSAM-1, a NET 2026 mission that will robotically refuel Landsat 7 and then experiment with assembling both a functional 3-meter antenna and a 10-meter composite beam in space.
- Italy recently awarded $256M in funding for their own NET 2026 in-orbit servicing demo complete with a dexterous robotic arm to test refueling, repair, orbital transfer, and “atmospheric reentry”.
- Rhea Space Activity won a small NASA grant to develop their proposed Spitzer Resurrector Mission, an ambitious mission that would fly to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in its Earth-trailing orbit, currently on the other side of the Sun, refill its coolant, and then act as a data relay for the (probably) functional but disabled Great Observatory.
- Relatedly, even as it faces a cash crunch, Momentus is partnering with Astroscale U.S. to bid on NASA’s request for a mission to reboost the Hubble. We know SpaceX together with the Polaris Program is also interested.
- Northrop Grumman continues to refine its GEO servicing offerings with their MRV robot, and its separately-launched MEP propulsion pods, launching in 2024 (covered in Issue No. 138).
- Space Forge, a Welsh startup working on offering in-space manufacturing capability with a satellite that can return to Earth, shared some details of their system. Somewhat like SpaceX’s fairing recovery systems, the company’s design uses a large, non-ablative heat shield that deploys from the satellite before reentry and an autonomous ship with a net to catch the returning craft. They hope to launch their second mission this year—the first was lost when Virgin Orbit’s January mission failed to reach orbit (cf. Issue No. 217 for more on heat shields generally).
- Sort of ISAM: The ESA-funded, Swiss startup ClearSpace booked an Arianespace Vega C for their NET 2026 ClearSpace-1 robotic orbital debris capture and deorbit mission.
| A rendering of Space Forge’s deployable non-ablative heat shield during descent.|
¶SpaceX continues to push at Starbase. A month after Starship’s first integrated flight test (new official launch video edit), SpaceX is firmly targeting another launch before the end of summer. Work on the launch site has included a water-cooled steel flame plate, repairs needed to fill in the DIY flame trench/crater dug by Booster 7’s launch, and upgrades to the orbital launch mount and propellant tanks. The company recently confirmed that Booster 9 and Ship 25 are the test articles intended for the next launch and that the launch will take place after another month of pad repairs and upgrades, followed by a month of more cryo proofing, spin-prime tests, and static fires. All of this is pending launch approval, which hangs a bit in the balance with a number of environmental groups suing the FAA for what they (somewhat reasonably) claim was a cursory environmental review of the launch site’s impact on the surrounding wildlife areas. SpaceX has joined the case as a defendant since it (somewhat reasonably) feels that the impact on Starship’s development timeline will hugely affect the company’s financial future, as well as its ability to complete Starship development in a timely manner for NASA contracts (among other customers), given a potential multi-year delay if the FAA is forced to go back and reassess the environmental impact of the launch site.
| ¶News in brief. Virgin Orbit sold its assets at bankruptcy auction and shut down—Rocket Lab bought the company’s Long Beach headquarters ($16.1M), Stratolaunch bought their modified 747 ($17M), and Launcher (now owned by Vast) bought a Mojave facility along with sundry equipment ($2.7M)—it may never have made economic sense, but we’re sorry to see Virgin Orbit go 😔 ● Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic flew for the first time in two years, with VSS Unity reaching a height of 87.2 km, and is targeting June for a first commercial flight ● An Electron rocket took NASA’s final two TROPICS CubeSats to orbit ● India launched its first next-gen navigation satellite NVS-01 on a GSLV vehicle to augment the existing IRNSS regional positioning service constellation ● China launched three crew to Tiangong ● South Korea’s Nuri rocket—aka KSLV-2— completed its third launch, and its first with commercial payloads (eight satellites were onboard), bringing South Korea into the commercial launch industry ● Australian company Fleet closed a $33M Series C for their resource exploration IoT constellation (interestingly, they focus on connecting networks of real-time ambient seismic noise tomography sensors to map underground deposits) ● More financing: Satellite Vu (UK) raised $16M for thermal imaging, GITAI (Japan) raised $29M for lunar rover and other robotic development, SkyFi raised $7M for a EO data marketplace, and TRL11 (🙄) raised $3M for low latency video streaming from space ● Astranis’s first satellite, Arcturus, has successfully deployed in GEO ● The LIGO gravitational wave observatory is back online, now with upgraded sensitivity—meanwhile, India approved construction of its own LIGO installation last month, which will join the global network and improve source detection for gravitational waves.|
| LIGO is made up of two large laser interferometry facilities that are widely separated (Washington and Louisiana), but operated in unison, to detect small ripples in space-time. It collaborates with Virgo in Italy, KAGRA in Japan, and soon LIGO-India.|
- Despite NASA’s recent wins and favorable public sentiment, SLS still weighs heavy on the agency, with a latest Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report yet again criticizing the agency’s handling of SLS, this time for its management of the SLS RS-25 engines and booster contracts with Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman. OIG attributed $6B in cost overruns and 6 years in delays to these two contracts. In particular, the office stated, “contractors did not receive accurate performance ratings in accordance with federal requirements, such as the “very good” rating awarded to Aerojet Rocketdyne on the end-item Adaptation contract despite only finishing 5 of 16 engines. As a result, we question $19.8 million in award fees it received for the 11 unfinished engines which were subsequently moved to the RS-25 Restart and Production contract and may now be eligible to receive additional award fees.”
- In a sort of SETI dry run, researchers collaborated to transmit an encoded message from ESA’s ExoMars Orbiter toward Earth where radio telescopes received it, and the public is challenged to decode it (via a Discord server and cryptocurrency for some reason).
- A NASA safety panel is (still) skeptical of Starliner’s readiness for crewed flight, currently targeting a launch NET July 21.
- Starlink revenue is growing quickly but is likely limited by user terminal production capacity. V2 Mini satellites have been projected to decrease the company’s launch costs to $35 per Mbps from >$50 for V1.5. Direct-to-cell service is also a potentially significant future revenue driver since it will sidestep the need for user terminal production and standalone service approval in new markets.
- Josef Aschbacher, Director General of ESA, wrote a candid assessment of Europe’s orbital launch situation, saying that “up until 10 years ago, Europe also dominated the commercial launcher sector,” but SpaceX has stolen the show, and Europe now “finds itself today in an acute launcher crisis with a (albeit temporary) gap in its own access to space and no real launcher vision beyond 2030.”
- Eric Berger writes about how, with Lunar Starship and Blue Moon, NASA is finally embracing reusable spacecraft, distributed reusable launches, and fuel depots. “This is a remarkable transformation in the way humans will explore outer space—potentially the biggest change in spaceflight since the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. It has been a long time coming.”