Issue No. 22

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 22 | Jul 23, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰

It’s hard to get to Mercury. The joint ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission to Mercury, which launched in Oct 2018, has completed its near-Earth commissioning phase and is officially operational. Next April, BepiColombo will fly within 11,000 km of the Earth for the first of its 9 gravity assists (animation)–one at Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury. By 2025, these gravity assists plus the spacecraft’s onboard solar electric propulsion will have provided the approximately 7.5 km/s of delta-v needed to enter orbit around Mercury, roughly 2.5 times that needed to get to Mars. BepiColombo consists of two orbiters: JAXA’s 5-instrument Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and ESA’s 11-instrument Mercury Planetary Orbiter (which had to have 30% of its solar panel space replaced with mirrors to keep its temperature below 200° C).

CRS-18 is planned to launch tomorrow. The twice-reused SpaceX Dragon capsule will include 2500 kg of experiments (including one about printing soft human tissue) and supplies for the ISS along with CubeSats and the Slingshot deployment system which will be attached by astronauts to the already-birthed Cygnus vehicle. The Cygnus will then detach from the ISS, raise its orbit to 500 km, and spend 9 months doing tests and deploying the CubeSats before burning up in the atmosphere with its payload of ISS trash (including human waste). The Slingshot was first tested in Feb 2019.

Three smallsat companies recently announced investments. UbiquitiLink raised $12 million to develop 25 kg satellites that provide cell phone connectivity from orbit without having to modify cell phones. FluroSat secured $3.2 million in seed funding, led by Microsoft's M12 venture arm. FluroSat uses hyperspectral imaging for agricultural applications, such as diseased crop detection. And Momentus, a Bay area startup, closed a $25.5 million round for Vigoride, a vehicle using their water plasma thruster for moving smallsats between orbits. (Related: The FCC recently proposed new licensing rules that could reduce smallsat licensing fees from $472,000 to $30,000. In one of his few inspired moments, Chairman Pai stated, “I see no reason why a satellite the size of a shoebox, with the life expectancy of a guinea pig, should be regulated the same way as a spacecraft the size of a school bus that will stay in orbit for centuries.” These changes seem to have reasonably wide industry support.)

It’s been a busy few weeks in Musk-dom. In addition to this week’s CRS-18 (if Florida weather cooperates with the instantaneous launch window to the ISS), SpaceX’s summer has been a flurry of activity. Starhopper [scale rendering compared to Starship/Super Heavy] performed a static fire of its Raptor engine with only a little bit of catching fire (video) and is probably still ready for a first 20 m “hop” test later this week—a bigger update on Starship + Super Heavy is planned once this is complete. NASA awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its small Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission—the Falcon 9 has 50x the lift capacity of its disposable Pegasus XL competitor but costs less due to reuse and frequent launches. And, Musk says that Crew Dragon should ferry it’s first humans to the ISS in about 6 months. Related: Neuralink (Musk’s other other other company) gave a flashy presentation [NYT summary] last week on their robot-surgeon-installed brain-computer interface (paper) which they hope we’ll all gladly implant into our skulls just as soon as we’re allowed. Wait But Why covered Neuralink’s ambitions in a (very long) article back in 2017. (If you haven’t read Wait But Why, it’s excellent... if quite heavy on the Musk fanboyism. We think it’s worth starting with the book-length series about Musk’s companies and culminating with “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce”.)

News in brief. NASA admitted that the first flight of SLS won’t happen until late 2021, contrary to their claims over the last 6 mos; China’s 8.6 metric ton space lab Tiangong-2 performed a controlled deorbit (brief reentry video) into the South Pacific (unlike the uncontrolled Tiangong-1 reentry last year); Europe’s 22-satellite pilot-phase Galileo navigation system was offline for six days due to ground equipment malfunctions—luckily most devices can also use GPS and GLONASS; a Soyuz rocket launched two astronauts and a cosmonaut to the ISS on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11; construction of the contentious Thirty Meter Telescope resumes on Mauna Kea; and, Chandrayaan-2, delayed a week, launched for the Moon (see Issue #20).

A little more Apollo.


The 8 km Daphnis as imaged by Cassini shaping and interacting with icy particles in Saturn’s rings (paper), much as nascent planets would in a protoplanetary disk.

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