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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 204 | Feb 1, 2023

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The REV1 autonomous cargo craft. Developed by Thales and operated by Space Cargo Unlimited (a Thales investment), the recently announced REV1 spacecraft is being developed to deliver 1,000 kg of payload to LEO autonomously. In LEO, it would dock with Thales’s proposed Reusable Orbiting Service Module, an orbiting robotic station designed to last for 10 years (or ~20 REV1 missions). REV1 would use a heat shield and parachutes to return payloads (likely scientific, pharmaceutical, and microgravity manufacturing products) to Earth. Autonomous orbital stations with payload return is a category with a growing number of other early-stage entrants, including Varda (pictures of their first satellite to launch in June) and Space Forge (which has a reentry test scheduled for this year but unfortunately lost their first satellite to the recent Virgin Orbit failure). Related: SUSIE, an Ariane Space concept for a European crewed spacecraft, might not be the best idea, as it pushes the limits of the Ariane 64’s payload capabilities mostly to include a propulsive landing system like the one ultimately removed from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The proposed REV1, re-entering from LEO.

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The successor to JWST has a (working) title. At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Mark Clampin, NASA’s astrophysics division director, talked about JWST’s potential successor, a massive, 6.5-meter telescope with a working title of the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), which would orbit at L2 like JWST. But unlike JWST, it would be designed from the beginning for robotic servicing and expansion missions, making it more of a long-duration observation platform—a “mountaintop observatory at L2,” if you will, with instruments upgraded over time. This mission follows from the astronomy decadal survey which called for NASA to bring back their Great Observatories program and design a telescope in the ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared wavelengths to, among other things, look for “signs of life on 25 nearby Earth-like exoplanets—the minimum needed to confirm statistically whether life is common in the Galaxy.” Due to the shorter wavelengths than JWST, the mirror will need to be accurate down to the picometer, the mission will require a much better coronagraph than is planned for Roman, and the spacecraft will need a “cylindrical baffle” to protect against micrometeorites. This mission has no budget yet though, and is years away—it is unlikely to launch before the 2040s—so don’t hold your breath.

Lucy adds another asteroid. The Lucy mission to visit Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids (two groups of asteroids that precede and follow the gas giant's orbit), just announced the addition of a 10th rock to visit on the spacecraft’s 6.5-billion-kilometer, 12-year journey. This fall, the mission will visit 1999 VD57, a tiny 700-meter-wide main-belt asteroid, two years in advance of its initially planned first fly-by of asteroid Donaldjohanson. The primary goal of the new waypoint is to test Lucy’s asteroid targeting system. Previous flyby missions have spent a lot of time photographing empty space to safeguard against missing the object they’re flying by, but Lucy will forego this technique and instead rely on its wide-angle T2Cams for tracking targets as the spacecraft approaches, and then during rapid panning to keep the object in view of its instruments as it disparts (paper). With a small course correction to bring 1999 VD57 to within 450 km of the craft in November (down from 65,000 km on its original trajectory), Lucy will be able to test this new flyby targeting system before it reaches its primary science targets starting in 2025. The team also hopes to explore links between similar-sized near-Earth objects and main belt asteroids that are mostly much larger than this newly-added diminutive target. Related: NASA has paused efforts to finish deploying Lucy’s partially-displayed solar panel, as efforts have been fruitless and “operating the mission with the solar array in the current unlatched state carries an acceptable level of risk”.

News in brief. Ingenuity recently completed its 40th flight on Mars SpaceX sent their heaviest Falcon 9 payload to orbit—56 Starlink sats The company also won a $102M contract for the USAF’s slowly-developing rocket cargo program The US has imposed sanctions on Chinese SAR startup Spacety—although the company denies selling observation data to the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group which has had as many as 50,000 mercenaries on the ground in Ukraine Recent startup raises: Charter Space ($1.2M, satellite program management software), Quindar ($2.5M, constellation management software), Vaya Space ($12M, a small launch vehicle), and Atomos ($16M, nuclear orbital transfer vehicles??) That said, private investment in space fell 58% YoY in 2022 (report) Starship is moving towards a 33-engine static fire with a road closure currently scheduled for this Friday—meanwhile, a bevy of tanks and deluge equipment are headed across the gulf on a barge perhaps for use with an orbital launch Perseverance has finished depositing 10 rock sample caches on the Martian surface—these are the Plan B if something happens to Percy and it cannot deliver samples to a sample return vehicle at the end of the decade.

Perseverance took a selfie (composed of 59 individual WATSON images) with its 9th sample tube.

South Korea's KPLO/Danuri took its first image from lunar orbit of the permanently shadowed wall and floor of Shackleton crater. The NASA-provided ShadowCam delivers 200x the sensitivity of LRO’s camera and can image at 2 m/px using reflected light from sunlit areas nearby—it's equivalent to “increasing from ISO 100 to >12,800 without increasing grain.” Credit: NASA/KARI/Arizona State University