The Orbital Index is a curated newsletter about space and the space industry.

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 82 | Sep 16, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

(Very) tentative evidence of microbial life on Venus. Using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array observatory in Chile, researchers announced evidence of phosphine gas (PH3) in the Venusian atmosphere, a gas primarily created on Earth by microbes that live in oxygen-free environments (paper). While the surface of Venus is currently incredibly inhospitable, there are regions of the atmosphere around 50 km up where temperatures range from 0-150° C and one could imagine finding life (as we do on Earth)—and this is exactly where the phosphine was detected. Phosphine has previously been proposed as a biosignature (paper) since it’s reactive (e.g. short lived) and we don’t know of any abiotic process that could create it in quantity. “The presence of PH3 is unexplained after exhaustive study of steady-state chemistry and photochemical pathways, with no currently known abiotic production routes in Venus’s atmosphere, clouds, surface and subsurface, or from lightning, volcanic or meteoritic delivery.” For 3 billion years, ending around 750 million years ago, Venus may have had surface water and a habitable environment, leaving the tantalizing possibility that we’ve detected the last surviving vestiges of an ancient ecosystem. On the other hand, this could be measurement error, or we may have instead found evidence of a new abiotic form of phosphine synthesis in the extreme environment of Venus—scientists will be working hard to propose non-biological processes that could explain these results, and we expect to see a spate of new atmospheric Venus mission proposals. In the fantastic event that the phosphine is of biological origin, the next big question will be whether or not Venusian life evolved independently, or shares ancestry with life on Earth. The Planetary Society has more about these results.


Astra launches + let’s do a rocketry startup roundup. Last Friday, after multiple delays, Astra’s Rocket 3.1 made a beautiful, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at an orbital launch (here’s the official launch video, another with fun bystander commentary, and a third with a closer view of the explosion). The vehicle’s navigation system introduced an oscillation that caused the flight safety system to shut off the engine. This is the fourth failure for the company (Rocket 1 and 2 were launched under significantly more secrecy, and Rocket 3 suffered an anomaly/RUD pre-flight). Astra will attempt a Rocket 3.2 launch, likely later this year, but may be running low on funding, according to Scott Manley. Meanwhile, PLD Space, a Spanish startup initially focused on the sounding rocket market (with future orbital ambitions), recently closed an additional €7M investment after completing a full duration static fire (in February) and qualification of thrust vectoring (last month) for their TEPREL-B engine—the engine that will power their Miura-1 suborbital rocket. In the southern hemisphere, Gilmour Space Technologies has been making progress on their hybrid fuel rocket, Eris, and inked a launch deal with Space Machines last week. Eris uses a solid propellant with a liquid oxidizer, decreasing the complexity of development but retaining some of the efficiency and restartability that liquid engines provide. (Similarly, Rocket Lab reduced the complexity of Electron by using electric pumps instead of a traditional gas generator system.) And finally, Scottish startup Skyrora recently launched their tiny SkyLark Micro (mentioned in Issue No. 82) and are targeting a launch of their scaled up SkyLark XL with its restartable peroxide third stage in 2023. We’re pulling for them all! (Related: While not a technical development, Chinese startup Landspace just raised $175M for its Zhuque-2 two-stage methane-O2 vehicle and is targeting a June 2021 launch.)


Rocket 3.1 launches from the Pacific Launch Complex Alaska on Kodiak Island with Ugak Island viewed behind the heat distortion from the rocket’s exhaust plume. This distortion is usually invisible at other launch sites due to their lack of a backdrop.


The world is on fire (again). Everyone on the US West Coast (and in the Amazon, the Arctic, Siberia...) is suffering through unlivable air quality indexes from record-breaking fires, which have burned over 3.1 million acres in California alone, an area larger than Connecticut and 26x what had burned by this time last year. As Emily Atkin reported in HEATED, news sources are largely ignoring the cause of these fires: climate change. This is a vicious cycle—the fires’ emissions are the highest we’ve ever seen by satellite from CA or OR and have now emitted more CO2 than the states’ power sectors. Earth observation satellites are playing a key role in analyzing and responding to this crisis. NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System provides daily fire point-source detection, along with real time geofenced updates, world wide; and, here’s a view that their Aqua satellite recently captured of smoke and fire sources over Oregon. NASA also provides a dashboard of world temperature (📈), and ESA is reporting that “Antarctica and Greenland are melting at a pace that lines up with the worst-case climate scenarios predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (paper). Finally, even as satellites are starting to monitor methane releases, the Trump administration has dropped rules that require oil and gas companies to detect and repair methane leaks (along with 99 other environmental rollbacks). For more updates about the anthropocene, we recommend HEATED, Rewiring America, and The Race to Zero Emissions from Quartz. 🌍🔥


NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System showing detected fires from orbit. Andrew took this screenshot while using Earth observation data for what is now everyday life in 2020.

News in brief. Northrop Grumman’s solid-fueled OmegA is officially cancelled after their failure to win a military contract with it; Chinese ExPace’s launch of a high resolution remote sensing satellite on its three stage Kuaizhou rocket failed to reach orbit; however, China successfully launched another Long March 11 from a barge at sea a few days later (video); Astrobiotic completed structural testing of their Peregrine lunar lander model; the Angara launch pad we mentioned a few issues back arrived at Vostochny Cosmodrome after traversing the North Sea Route; NASA announced plans to buy lunar regolith mined by commercial companies by 2024, seemingly as a ploy to demonstrate resource ownership rights on the Moon; Boeing is facing an independent compliance and ethics review related to their communications with NASA’s Doug Loverro regarding their lunar lander bid; GHGSat, whom we mentioned last week, announced that it has raised $30M as part of its Series B round; and, Musk tweeted that SN8 will conduct an “exciting” 18 km flight with three Raptor engines in “about a week” (the flight might look something like this).

A sunspot recently observed by the GREGOR solar telescope, which can resolve details as small as 50 km on the surface of our local star.