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

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 29 | Sep 10, 2019


🚀 🌍 🛰

Contact lost with India's Vikram lander just 2.1 km above the lunar surface. The Vikram lander, with its onboard rover, was designed to function for 14 Earth days (1 lunar daytime). Its status is still being studied by India’s ISRO. Multiple reports were published on Monday that unreleased imaging shows the lander intact, but lying on its side. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is functioning nominally and will continue its planned 7-year scientific mission, including imaging with its 0.3 m/pixel resolution camera, the highest in lunar orbit. ISRO and JAXA are planning a 2023 follow-up mission to hunt for water. Landing on any planetary body is exceptionally hard, as demonstrated by both this mission and the loss of the privately-funded Beresheet lander in April. Related: Cees Bassa, who last week identified the US spy satellite, tracked the Vikram descent live on Twitter using a radio telescope and Scott Manley synchronized his data side-by-side with the ISRO live coverage.

The Parker Solar Probe completed its third solar flyby. This flyby had a perihelion of 24 million km and an orbital velocity of 95 km/s. In the future the probe will approach within 6 million km of the surface, reaching a blistering 192 km/s while repeatedly breaking its own record as the fastest human-made object (but still only reaching 0.064% the speed of light).

The Open Lunar Foundation. An article by Ashlee Vance (who wrote the Elon Musk biography) introduced the SF-based non-profit that wants to create a collaborative lunar settlement. Founders include astronaut Chris Hadfield, the co-founders of Planet Labs, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, and Steve Jurvetson, a well-known VC and SpaceX investor. The organization plans to take an open-source approach to space hardware and software design and claims that it’s possible to create a self-sustaining presence on the moon for “single-digit billions”.  We’re hesitantly optimistic about what this group of entrepreneurs, investors, and administrators can do.

Two satellites didn’t collide. A 1 in 1,000 chance of a collision between the ESA’s Aeolus Earth-observation satellite and Starlink-44 prompted the ESA to tweet repeatedly and minimally change the satellite’s orbit after failing to hear back from SpaceX—apparently due to an email/ticketing system glitch at SpaceX. (Many in the industry seemed nonplussed by the drama.) As LEO satellite counts increase, collision avoidance must become significantly more autonomous, something the ESA and others are working on. Starlink satellites currently perform some independent collision avoidance based on NORAD data, although it is unclear if those systems were active on Starlink-44. Related: a quick look at algorithmic approaches to finding conjunctions in high N Keplerian element ensembles.

Virgin Galactic & Social Capital released info on their proposed merger. SEC filings (in the form of a 100-slide deck) contain illuminating information about Virgin’s plans and expectations for the high-net-worth space tourism industry. Currently, the company has over 600 flights reserved, more than $80 million in deposits, and is expecting to clear $820,000 per flight at scale. These numbers back up plans to build four more SpaceShipTwo vehicles by 2023 while increasing launch cadence to (an insane sounding) once per week per vehicle (meaning they would eventually launch every 32 hrs). This is particularly impressive since SS2 requires a new, non-reusable RocketMotorTwo for each flight. The merger is peculiar since a no-vote by Social Capital shareholders on an upcoming extension request would see the publicly-listed fund liquidated and it’s $700+ million in cash returned to investors. If the merger does go through, Virgin will become the first publicly listed space tourism company.

Etc.

Where We Are: a diagram of every active interplanetary spacecraft
[click to enlarge!]

(Vikram’s optimistic status here remains to be seen, though... 😢)