Issue No. 16

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 16 | Jun 11, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰️

The many upcoming Mars missions. Exciting times are ahead for Mars exploration with the 2020 minimum energy launch window rapidly approaching and four Mars missions planned to launch between July and September 2020. Let’s break them down.

  • China’s secretive orbiter, lander, and rover mission, collectively called Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover (HX-1), will launch on a Long March 5 (which will return to flight this July) and use a supersonic parachute, rockets, and an airbag to land on Mars. The rover will carry ground-penetrating radar. The mission is currently undergoing integration.
  • NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will focus on astrobiology and the search for biosignatures. The rover, based on Curiosity—with upgraded wheels and sensors and powered by an extra Curiosity radioisotope thermoelectric generator—will carry a core drill, an impressive array of instruments, and a helicopter drone that just passed key tests. It will stash material samples in capsules to be returned by a potential ESA & NASA mission. NASA recently released an image of the water-scared Jezero Crater where they plan to land the rover. Here’s a live stream of JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility working on Mars 2020 (available until Thursday).
  • ESA and Roscosmos are collaborating on ExoMars 2020, also focusing on astrobiology and technologies for sample return. The Russian-built Kazachok lander will use supersonic parachutes and rockets to soft land, then release the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover, named after the underappreciated co-discoverer of DNA. The rover carries a 2m drill, an exobiology laboratory, and stereo cameras for autonomous navigation. The rover control center with simulated Martian terrain for testing just opened in Turin.
  • The Hope orbiter from the United Arab Emirates, a first for any Arab or Muslim majority country. The orbiter will study Mars’ seasonal cycles and try to understand why the planet lost its atmosphere billions of years ago. It will carry a high-resolution camera and two spectrometers.
A little further out, India is planning to launch Mangalyaan 2, their second Mars mission, in 2022, and Japan, continuing their technical focus on sample return, plans to send MMX to retrieve samples from Phobos in 2024. Related: A Field Guide to Finding Fossils on Mars.

NASA announced a five-part plan for opening the ISS to commercial use. The plan, released as part of NextSTEP (the agency's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program, not the mid-90s groundbreaking operating system), defines commercial access to the ISS. It includes a pricing schedule, makes available a docking port on the Harmony module for commercial spacecraft, and permits private astronauts on the ISS as soon as 2020 (however, these will not be the first visitors to the ISS; seven paying private citizens have visited the station eight times since 2001, all via Space Adventures). Approved access to the station will require alignment with NASA's mission, the need for a microgravity environment, or be an activity that supports establishing an on-orbit economy. The agency will initially allocate 175 kg of cargo launch capability for commercial uses ($3K/kg, in single cargo transfer bag equivalents, which are just slightly larger than the average US carry-on size limit) and two 30-day private astronaut missions (which will cost roughly $35K/day, in addition to launch costs) annually. NASA also invited companies to submit proposals for modules that could be attached to the ISS. This plan for the ISS will be followed up next month with a free-flying LEO commercial space stations announcement. Related: Bigelow Aerospace announced it had made “significant deposits” to send 16 people to the ISS on four SpaceX launches.

Hayabusa2 successfully dropped another target marker in anticipation of a second sample collection. The operation to drop the marker came after an aborted attempt in mid-May. During the previous attempt, “noise data” prevented the spacecraft's LIDAR from correctly reporting its altitude and the craft auto-aborted the operation. With the marker now in place, the (hopefully) next step will be descending to collect a sample of Ryugu’s subsurface material from the region near where Hayabusa2’s copper impactor (fun test video) created an artificial crater in April. This must happen by the end of the month since Hayabusa2 is almost out of time—the surface of Ryugu will soon become too hot for a collection attempt as the asteroid approaches perihelion. (Note: The Planetary Society’s coverage of the Hayabusa2 mission is impeccable. Seriously, just go read about it there.)

Other News. China launched 7 small satellites into orbit with the four-stage ship-launched solid-fueled Long March 11 rocket (here’s a video of the launch taken from orbit); CRS-17 returned from the ISS carrying odds and ends, including a supercomputer; SpaceX is planning to launch the expensive 3 spacecraft Radarsat Constellation Mission for the Canadian Space Agency on Wednesday from Vandenberg; and, JPL has a new plan to free InSight’s mole (video).


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