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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 138 | Oct 13, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Guest Contribution

A Journey to a Metal-rich World. Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter lies a large asteroid, averaging 225 km in diameter (and shaped like a potato! 🥔) and made largely (30-60%) of metal—its size and composition make it unique in our solar system. This is Psyche, a mysterious world full of questions. How was it created? What is the connection between it and the other planets? What does a metal-rich surface look like? Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University, principal investigator of the Psyche mission, leads a team that’s aiming to solve the mystery of how Psyche was created. Scientists suspect that Psyche is a stripped core of a planetesimal: a metal core left floating in space after collisions stripped at least some of the rocky mantle surrounding it. Whether Psyche is part of a differentiated planetesimal (one that melted and formed a metal core and rocky exterior), or if its components never melted and are still intimately mixed, Psyche represents a sample of the building blocks of planets. By exploring Psyche, we will be looking back to the creation of our solar system, and we may even peer inside the rocky planets we know in the present day by directly examining a possible core-mantle boundary. The Psyche mission was selected along with its sister mission Lucy as the 14th mission in NASA’s Discovery program. The Psyche spacecraft is jointly built; its body, the Solar Electric Propulsion chassis, comes from Maxar Technologies, but its brains, the main computer and software, come from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The combined Maxar-JPL team is integrating and testing the spacecraft right now in JPL’s High Bay 2 in Pasadena, CA. The spacecraft will launch next August from Kennedy Space Center on a Falcon Heavy and will travel to the outer asteroid belt using Hall Effect thrusters, a technology that turns solar power into thrust by ionizing xenon gas and expelling it at high velocity (cf. ion propulsion!). The spacecraft will get a gravity assist from Mars in May 2023 and will enter orbit around Psyche in January 2026. There it will use its instruments to measure Psyche’s magnetic field, determine its elemental composition, measure its internal structure, and take the first pictures of a metal-rich world. Psyche continues the legacy of NASA’s Discovery program by being the first mission to explore a metal-rich world and the first mission to use Hall Effect thrusters beyond the Earth-Moon system. — David Oh is a Principal Systems Engineer at NASA’s JPL and is the Project Systems Engineering Manager and Engineering Technical Authority for the Psyche mission.

Spacecraft are the ultimate in function over form, which means every part has a purpose and every design has a story. Learn why the Psyche spacecraft (above) has its unique appearance on the Psyche mission blog. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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MRV will make GEO a bit less junky. Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics group recently announced MRV, the sequel to their geostationary Mission Extension Vehicles (MEVs). MEV-1 & 2 both attached to Intelsats, retrieving one from a graveyard orbit for reactivation and docking directly with the second while it was still in service. Each MEV can deliver 15 years of mission extension station keeping and can dock/undock to split that time across multiple satellites. MRV is an evolution of this concept, with a single craft acting as an installer for multiple “mission extension pods” (MEPs, of which more could be delivered to the installer in the future). Each MEP is deployed as a free-flying craft after launch with its own solar-electric propulsion. Once they reach a rendezvous point in GEO, the MRV vehicle will grab a pod with its robotic arm (provided by DARPA), approach a customer’s geostationary satellite, and position the MEP for attachment. A docked pod can provide 6 additional years of station-keeping and maneuverability. Watch the mission conops video—it feels pretty sci-fi. MRV also has grand plans for satellite service, inspection, and debris cleanup using interchangeable tools and its robot bits over the course of its 15-year life, and is currently slated for launch in 2024. 🦾 🛰

Orbit Fab is also going GEO. In the nearer term, Orbit Fab, a space startup that launched the first orbital refueling platform earlier this year carrying 45 kg of peroxide, is planning their next fuel depot mission, this time targeting GEO. The GEO refueling tanker will carry 90 kg of hydrazine—enough to extend the life of a geosynchronous satellite, like those based on the popular A2100 bus, by roughly 2 years. Orbit Fab plans to send smaller “fuel shuttles” into orbit to ferry fuel to customers’ satellites from the tanker’s parking orbit several hundred km away from the geostationary band. Orbit Fab will continue to use its (now public) RAFTI refueling port (cf. Issue No. 124) for these operations. The mission is scheduled for launch in late 2022 or early 2023 as a rideshare with Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander and will be delivered by a Spaceflight Sherpa-ES space tug to geostationary orbit after doing a loop around the backside of the moon. (Entry into GEO from above saves significant fuel by skipping the stepped orbit raising that traditionally deployed GTO satellites require.)

News in brief. Lucy is launching on the 16th to start its 12+ year mission to study the Trojan asteroids (see Issue No. 130) won a $19.3 million contract from the US Air Force to continue developing a constellation of 32 weather satellites William Shatner is headed to space today on New Shepard—at 90, he is now the oldest person to reach space The UAE Space Agency announced an ambitious 2028 mission to land a spacecraft on a main belt asteroid via gravity assists from Venus and Earth NASA reshuffled commercial crew astronaut assignments because of Starliner delays, shifting from Starliner’s eventual first crewed flight to SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission—meanwhile, all but one of Starliner’s stuck valves are moving again and they believe the root cause is probably “oxidizer and moisture interactions”, with an uncrewed test flight likely in the “first half of 2022” NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, in which a kinetic impactor will strike the asteroid moon Dimorphos, now has a launch date of Nov. 23rd from Vandenberg SFB (cf. Issue 71) China’s Chang'e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover reached 1,000 (Earth) days on the Moon, going strong and far surpassing the previous 321 day record for the working lifespan of a rover on the Moon which was held by Russia’s Lunokhod-1 rover Rocket Lab is acquiring Advance Solutions, an aerospace software company, for $40M SLS has passed NASA’s final design certification review, clearing the way for an eventual launch of Artemis I in the first half of next year.

A volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands (video) has been erupting since last month. Lava flows have been caught by satellites (Planet, Copernicus, NASA Terra) as they have made their way to the ocean, creating over 38 hectares of new (and temporarily toxic) land and demolishing over 1,000 buildings.