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

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 126 | Jul 21, 2021


🚀 🌍 🛰
 

NEA Scout and solar sails. Now tested at scale, first by Japan’s IKAROS in 2010 (196 m2 sail) and later by The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 (32 m2 sail), solar sails allow for low, continuous thrust without the use of fuel. NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission, or NEA Scout, is a 6U CubeSat with an 86 m2 aluminized polymer solar sail planned to launch on Artemis I (e.g. probably very late this year or early next). The entire craft and sail weigh less than 14 kg. The mission will spend two years sailing on solar photon pressure (and adjusting course with cold gas thrusters) to reach 1991 VG, a very small NEA, and will then characterize the asteroid’s physical properties during a slow flyby (10-20 m/s; paper). If successful, the mission may be extended to another asteroid. Further out, NASA plans to launch Solar Cruiser in 2025 to the Earth-Sun L1 point where it will use the largest solar sail ever flown (1,650 m2, with built-in reflection control devices at the sail’s corners for attitude adjustments), to explore a novel orbit: “Solar Cruiser will fly beyond L1 and use a solar sail to make its own artificial orbit closer to the Sun, but still on a straight line between the Sun and Earth as Earth revolves around the Sun. Only a solar sail can provide the forces necessary to maintain such an otherwise unstable orbit, since doing so requires constant fuel.” This is a testbed for future, even more ambitious missions.

 

Andrzej Mirecki’s artistic impression of Japan’s IKAROS in flight.

 

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Bezos goes to space. Bezos, his brother, the venerable Wally Funk, and last-minute addition 18-year old Oliver Daemen visited space yesterday on the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle. This launch set a record for both the oldest (Funk, at 82) and youngest (Oliver, at 18) person to visit space. While somewhat underwhelming when watching the live stream (no in-capsule views, few rocket cam shots, and poor audio)—the 10-minute flight takes the vehicle straight up to 107 km and then down again with 3 minutes of weightlessness along the way—Bezos says Blue Origin has sold nearly $100 million worth of future flights. The original winner of the auctioned-off fourth seat, who donated $28 million to Blue Origin’s Club for the Future charity, delayed their flight due to scheduling conflicts but will ride in a future New Shepard seat (it's a bit unclear if the charity proceeds make up ~30% of Bezos' 100 million in sales or not). Instead, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of another bidder, private equity executive Joes Daemen, got to fly. Blue Origin has donated $19 million of the initial proceeds to space non-profits including The Planetary Society, Space Camp, and the Brooke Owens Fellowship.

 
Wally Funk emerges from the New Shepard capsule after becoming the oldest human to reach space. Credit: Blue Origin
 
News in brief. SpaceX performed the first static fire test of its Super Heavy booster (video) ● Amazon acquired Facebook’s satellite internet team to work on Project Kuiper, in addition to the 500 employees already working on the planned satellite internet service ● China’s CASC launched a reusable vertical takeoff, horizontal landing suborbital spaceplane as part of a development effort for full reusability—this is likely similar to the US’s X-37B and may be the first stage for the orbital VTHL craft launched last year ● The Zhurong rover found its deflated parachute and back shield 350m south of its landing spot on Mars ● NASA is seeking proposals for commercial space stations with up to $400 million in funding available between 2022 and 2025 (assuming Congress maintains the funding) ● Momentus is paying $8 million to settle SEC charges of fraud—the SEC says the company claimed orbital tests were successful when they were not—meanwhile, founder Kokorich is starting a point-to-point near-space rocket company in Switzerland… ● The Crew Dragon currently docked to the ISS was relocated to the zenith docking port in preparation for the arrival of Starliner OFT-2, which launches at the end of the month ● China tested fairing recovery for the first time on a launch of their Laung March-2C rocket ● Malaysia’s Boeing-made Measat-3 has drifted out of its 91.5° east GEO orbital position after it suffered an unknown anomaly late last month ● Roscosmos’ Nauka Module launched today aboard a Proton-M—14 years after it was initially planned ● After switching from its primary Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit (which was determined to have a faulty power control unit) to a backup, Hubble is back online! 🎉 🔭
 
 
Etc.
 

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of this photo, the first taken on the Martian surface. It was captured by NASA’s Viking 1 lander in 1976. And for comparison, here's the first aerial photo of the red planet.