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

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 181 | Aug 17, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

A reusable spacecraft from Europe. Last year, Airbus, provider of Orion’s European Service Module, suffered a small exodus of the project’s key members. They left—frustrated by the slow speed of development common at large prime contractors and the company’s continued investment in high-cost disposable spacecraft—to build their own reusable and refuel-able spacecraft. Their startup, The Exploration Company, has now raised $11.6M with the goal of meeting Europe's need for a reusable capsule that would initially be equivalent to Cargo Dragon, but could eventually be human-rated like Crew Dragon and Starliner. The startup plans to fly its first reentry demonstrator, code-named Bikini, on Ariane 6 whenever it launches next year (currently rumored for June), followed by a full-scale functional prototype—complete with paying customers—on a Falcon 9 in 2024. The completed launcher-agnostic vehicle, capable of carrying 4,000 kg of payload and performing on-orbit refueling, will be christened Nyx (after the Greek goddess of the night) and could fly in 2026. Even farther into the future, the barely-year-old company has aspirations of servicing Gateway, working with NASA, and refueling on the lunar surface while providing “last-238,900-mile” logistics for cislunar space (Ed. this just might be the first use of imperial units in The Orbital Index, and in reference to a European company no less…). Related: Due to Ariane 6 delays, ESA has begun talks with SpaceX to purchase several launches until their new workhorse is ready for prime time.

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So, you want to build a CubeSat? (A version of this item was originally published in Issue №. 23 when we had about 1,000 subscribers; we wanted to share an updated version again now that we have almost 7,000.) First, select an appropriate CubeSat form factor based on payload size, power requirements, and deployment mechanism. Consider power budget (especially for when the spacecraft is “in eclipse” on the dark side of the Earth), acceleration and vibration tolerance (the sound of launch alone can damage the spacecraft), and thermal management (your satellite is effectively sitting in a rather large vacuum thermos). Use Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) parts with existing flight heritage wherever possible—see satsearch and CubeSatShop. Pick solar panels, batteries, and an Electrical Power System (EPS) to manage them. Include one or more antennas and radios to talk to a ground station or ground station network (or broadcast up to GlobalStar or Iridium instead). If you need to maintain orientation, include an Attitude Determination and Control Systems (ADCS) which will use some combination of Earth, Sun, and star trackers, gyroscopes, GPS receivers, and magnetometers to sense orientation, and rotate the spacecraft using magnetorquers and reaction wheels. Some CubeSats also now use miniature thrusters for attitude control, desaturation, and orbit maintenance. Deployable components, such as antennas and solar panels, are usually stored under tension and released with electromagnets or redundant burn wires. Next, select an On-Board Computer (OBC) for Command & Data Handling (C&DH) and the flight software that will run on it, such as the open-source cFS and  frameworks from NASA. Prior to assembly, perform “flatsat” testing with everything wired on a bench. This is also when you should verify communications with the spacecraft via its radios. Once assembled, put the CubeSat through vibration and thermal vacuum testing to ensure that it will survive the stresses of launch and the space environment. Finally, obtain the required certifications for earth observation, radio licenses, and an approved deorbit plan. NASA has a helpful guide for first-time CubeSat developers with instructions and templates, and also a state-of-the-art technology report. As always, see Awesome Space for more resources. (This overview is incomplete—please do not base your spacecraft design on an email newsletter.)

Lava tubes and Lunar pits.

The entrance to the Raufarhólshellir lava tube. Farther into the tube you can see snow drifts that have accumulated under two “lava pits” where the ceiling of the tube collapsed. Their existence in Icelandic summer demonstrates the temperature moderating potential of lunar lava pits. Credit: Ben

News in brief. The US House of Representatives passed IRA, the $369B climate bill, sending it to Biden’s desk where it was signed into law Tuesday—a win for the planet and space startups working on climate impact, especially those tracking methane leaks, which could now cost US companies $1,500/ton under the new bill ● New Zealand startup Zenno Astronautics raised $6.6M to work on superconducting magnetorquers for satellite attitude controlA Soyuz launched a (not particularly capable) Iranian spy satellite for the first timeA couple weeks ago, China launched Jinan 1, another experimental quantum key distribution satelliteSpaceX Starlink had its 2020 tentative award of $866M for FCC subsidies for rural America rejected, with the agency citing the system’s experimental nature and steadily declining speedsSpaceX performed partial static fires on Booster 7 and Ship 24, the Starship duo that might attempt orbit later this year ● SpaceX also launched another Falcon 9 with 46 Starlink satellites on board ● President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law, which includes a formal extension of the ISS to 2030 and an authorization of NASA’s Artemis efforts, directing the agency to establish a Moon to Mars Program Office ● Despite NASA’s plan for the ISS through to 2030, Roscosmos revealed a model of a Russian station consisting of an initial four modules (launching 2025-2030, dovetailing rather well with NASA’s timeline, irrespective of their bluster about leaving “after 2024”) joined later by two additional modules and a service platform (by 2035), eventually supporting intermittent crews of four cosmonauts. We’ll see.
A model of the proposed, fully built Russian station, which would host two crews of up to four cosmonauts annually.
A little-known image of Pluto’s Southern Hemisphere, including part of Sputnik Planitia, a basin of frozen nitrogen. The image was captured by New Horizons’ MVIC imager which sweeps a 1-pixel band across its target as the spacecraft carefully slews, creating an image one line of pixels at a time. However, this image was experimentally captured by the NS team in reverse as the craft quickly “rewound” to take its next image and was later deconvolved and rectified (the original raw capture is the band at the bottom of the image). Credit: Tod Lauer