Issue No. 11

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 11 | May 7, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰️

Rocket Lab completed its second successful launch of 2019. This brings the young company closer to its goal of frequent low-cost launches. The mission delivered three smallsats to LEO for the USAF. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is powered by their 3D-printed Rutherford engine, which is the first flight-ready electric pump-fed engine. Pump-fed engines rely on an independently powered pump (in this case by lithium polymer batteries) to increase the pressure of propellants and feed them into the combustion chamber, instead of the pre-burner/turbopump cycles employed by most other liquid-fueled rocket engines. The Electron has nine first stage Rutherford engines which collectively draw ~1 MW from the rocket’s onboard batteries. Rocket Lab’s other main innovation with Electron is its all carbon composite body, including the first successful use of carbon composite for propellant and oxidizer tanks. These tanks have traditionally been made out of aluminum (the main reason given for the X-33 space plane’s cancellation was a testing failure of its composite liquid hydrogen tank). The all-composite design leads to a dry weight of “less than a Mini Cooper” for the 12.1 m tall rocket.

NASA may reuse a booster for the third time. The CRS-17 mission launched and arrived at the ISS after being delayed by an ISS power system failure that temporarily knocked out two of the station’s eight power channels. Among other payloads, CRS-17 successfully delivered the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 to be mounted on the outside of the ISS. CRS-18 is currently planned to reuse the same Falcon 9 booster, and NASA personnel stated this week that they have a “vested interest” in the possibility of using the booster a third time on CRS-19, which will be a first for the agency. This signals NASA’s increased confidence in the ability of boosters to be safely reflown multiple times.

More news in brief. NASA and the US DOJ reported that two satellite deployment failures, which cost the agency $700 million, were due to falsified testing reports by a contractor; Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket successfully performed a powered landing after releasing its suborbital capsule with 38 microgravity experimental payloads onboard—its eleventh launch to date; NASA also detailed a preliminary technical outline of how they could return astronauts to the moon by 2024 (this is very reminiscent of Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative); and Portugal has formed a space agency.

Papers. In the presence of a very strong magnetic field, such as a neutron star’s, the vacuum of space itself may become polarized, causing light to propagate more slowly than normal, and allowing high energy cosmic rays to emit Cherenkov radiation; Pluto’s nitrogen atmosphere will freeze and precipitate onto the planet’s surface by 2030 as Pluto moves into the colder part of its 248 year orbit; and analysis of Hayabusa’s data from Itokawa indicate that asteroids like Itokawa that formed inside the snow line could still have provided up to half of Earth’s water.


A tiny piece of the  Hubble Legacy Field. 
The full image, containing 265,000 galaxies, was released last week and composites 16 years of Hubble imaging.
(We recommend downloading the 672MB version and zooming waaaaaaay in.)

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