Issue No. 24

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 24 | Aug 6, 2019

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SmallSat workshop highlights. Andrew is attending the 33rd SmallSat conference this week in Logan, UT. (If you’re here, say hello and get some Orbital Index swag!) Here are a few highlights from this weekend’s workshop sessions:

NASA announced additional Artemis industry partnerships. 13 companies have been selected to receive non-reimbursable NASA expertise and facility support as part of the Artemis program. The R&D efforts include communication systems, in-space plant growth, advanced materials, inflatable heat shields, propulsion, and landing systems. Of particular note, NASA will assist Sierra Nevada Corporation (who are building the Dream Chaser space plane) with developing methods to recover rocket upper stages using deployable decelerators, Blue Origin will receive help to develop fuel cell power systems, navigation and guidance systems, and liquid rocket engine nozzles for their Blue Moon lander, and SpaceX will receive assistance on “technology to vertically land large rockets on the Moon” and “[the] technology needed to transfer propellant in orbit, an important step in the development of the company’s Starship space vehicle.” This seems to be the first time NASA has publicly acknowledged and supported SpaceX’s Starship plans. NASA has particular experience with fuel transfer (including the current RRM3 mission mentioned in Issue #3), and orbital refueling is one of the most challenging parts of SpaceX’s Mars transportation architecture. Meanwhile, a recently released environmental assessment provides a glimpse into SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy plans for Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. Slightly related: NASA and SpaceX were co-nominated for an Emmy for their coverage of the Demo-1 mission in March.

LightSail 2 successfully raised its orbit using a solar sail. After spreading its “boxing ring” sized sail last week, LightSail 2’s apogee was raised by about 2 km, causing The Planetary Society and its CEO, Bill Nye, to declare the mission a success. Solar sails work by harnessing solar radiation pressure—they reflect photons and thus experience an impulse through conservation of momentum. LightSail 2 is the second spacecraft to use a solar sail successfully for propulsion (the first was JAXA’s IKAROS) and the first to use one in Earth orbit. You can view live Light Sail 2 telemetry online and may be able to watch it pass overhead near dusk or dawn. LightSail 2’s mission will continue for about four more weeks until its change in orbit causes the craft’s perigee to decrease into the atmosphere and it burns up. In a few years, NASA’s NEA Scout will attempt to use a solar sail to visit an asteroid. Related: It is also possible to sail on the protons of the solar wind using an E-Sail, as we wrote about in-depth in Issue #7.

News in brief. Progress 73, carrying 2,454 kg of supplies, launched successfully on a Soyuz-2.1a and arrived at the ISS, while Progress 72 (intentionally) burned up in the atmosphere to make room at the ISS; July 25’s Long March 2C launch from Xichang included four very Falcon 9-esque grid fins intended to help control where the interstage makes its hard landing downrange—Long March 2C’s reddish-brown hypergolic fuel is quite unpleasant stuff and its discarded stages have a tendency to fall on villages; JPL tested the Mars 2020 rover’s 2-meter-long arm that holds a 40 kg “turret” containing cameras and instruments, along with a drill; and, the tiny Longjiang-2 crashed into the Moon (we recommend reading back through the thread, or The Planetary Society’s coverage) at the end of its mission which included capturing recent photos of the Moon eclipsing the Earth.

“Shop” by Brian McCutcheon. From a 2011 collection that features the artist and his son and references NASA mobility studies where space suits are tested on earth before use in space.

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