Issue No. 15

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 15 | Jun 4, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰️

NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope is shutting down early next year (spaceflightnow) after operating for 16 years on a planned 5-year mission. It ran out of cryogenic helium in 2009, disabling the far-IR instrument, and has drifted further from the Earth (at about 0.1 AU/yr) in its Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit (current visualization), reducing bandwidth for data return from the other two instruments. NASA was unable to find a private entity to take over the mission’s $10 million/year budget. Spitzer will be replaced by the notoriously delayed, but technically stunning (video), James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), now scheduled for launch in 2021. JWST just passed its final thermal vacuum test last week. The JWST will be located in the unstable Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point (animation) where it can block light from the Sun, Earth, and Moon simultaneously with a single deployable sunshield (video), yet still orbit the Sun a consistent distance from Earth. At around 1,500,000 km away, unlike Hubble, there won’t be the option of a human service mission if something goes wrong. Related: Fraser Cain reviews the decadal survey and the mega telescopes that come after Hubble and JWST (video).

Commercial Crew Update: Boeing performs a successful test of Starliner’s propulsion systems, and NASA talks about the Crew Dragon failure. Boeing’s tests included Starliner’s launch abort engines, which failed during a test last June. Starliner is currently scheduled to launch an uncrewed flight to the ISS in August. Meanwhile, NASA and SpaceX are still investigating why SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (that successfully flew to the ISS in March) exploded during propulsion testing a month ago, delaying progress towards an in-flight abort test and subsequent crewed launch. Last week, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, shed some light on plans for Crew Dragon, stating that a new vehicle for in-flight abort testing may be available by late July, with a crewed mission still possible before the end of the year. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also commented on the investigation, saying that information about the anomaly should have been released more quickly. (However, while suggesting that SpaceX and NASA think they know what the problem is, he again didn’t release any significant information about it.) Considering these delays, it’s now looking like Starliner may be the first crewed commercial orbital launch.

NASA awarded $250 million in contracts for end-to-end lunar payload delivery to Orbit Beyond (Z-01 lander in 2020), Astrobotic (Peregrine lander in 2021), and Intuitive Machines (Nova-C lander in 2021) as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Here’s the announcement. These companies will integrate, launch, and land hosted science payloads to study the Moon’s geology, analyze its radiation, magnetic, and dust environments, and look for water. NASA is planning to announce another CLPS order for rovers soon, with the goal of multiple landings per year in the early 2020s.

Northrop Grumman called the latest static fire test of their Castor 600 solid rocket a success, despite the engine’s bell getting blown apart. They have since stated that they will investigate the anomaly in the engine, a part of their upcoming OmegA launch vehicle, which is basically a stack of solid rocket boosters. Of course, failure during testing is a good thing—much better to discover your under-engineered rocket nozzle in testing than during launch, when you would lose the ability to thrust vector your large tube of inextinguishable explosives, leading to (at best) a failure to insert a high-value military payload into orbit. [video with lots of fire here]

Other News. SpaceX has raised ~$1 billion for Starlink and Starship, in two financing rounds, according to SEC filings (online here and here for the curious); NASA released 12 (very minimal) summaries of proposals from companies for creating commercial space stations in LEO for science, manufacturing, and tourism (spacenews summary); TechDemoSat-1, a smallsat launched in 2014, deployed and photographed a drag sail meant to deorbit the spacecraft from its 635km orbit; and, we’re sad that, just after the successful flight of the Roc a month ago, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch is closing operations and seeking a buyer.

Lightning struck a Soyuz launch last Monday, but the onboard Glonass navigation satellite was still successfully delivered to orbit.

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