Issue No. 25

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 25 | Aug 13, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰

In June, ESA selected three ‘deep fields’ for their upcoming Euclid mission. These deep fields, or regions of the sky unusually free of Milky Way stars, will be a partial focus of Euclid’s 2022 mission to map the structure, gravitational distortion, and distance-redshift relationships of galaxies in order to study dark energy and dark matter. Dark energy (also known as Einstein’s Cosmological Constant and self-proclaimed “greatest blunder”) is the non-zero energy density of space itself that we think is causing the accelerating expansion of the Universe. (Since the expansion started accelerating ~10 billion years ago, Euclid will focus on galaxies whose redshift is within that window.) The nature of dark energy is intimately tied to the eventual fate of the Universe—whether it will collapse, expand at a moderate pace, or expand so fast that it rips literally everything apart—which is something that keeps us all up at night. Dark matter, Euclid’s other focus through a survey of gravitational lensing, has nothing to do with the ill-named dark energy. Dark matter is matter that seems to interact only through gravity and must exist to explain gravitational lensing, the rotation of galaxies, and many other observations (cf. an entirely scientific and accurate survey of possible dark matter explanations). It’s estimated that about 71% of the mass-energy of the universe is dark energy, 24% is dark matter, and only about 5% is the “normal” matter that we observe. Related: Cosmology by Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and From the Big Bang to Dark Energy are both excellent free online courses about these subjects. (Special thanks to our intern Emma Drake for helping write this and other entries this summer—she’s off to Berkeley to study astrophysics!)

A chaotic week for smallsat launch options. The two most active players in the new space launch industry have decided to do things they'd previously said they wouldn't do. The most interesting was Rocket Lab’s announcement of a booster reuse program after having previously stated that reuse was not worth pursuing in the small lift category that their Electron rocket is currently dominating. Modified boosters will deploy a parafoil and then be caught by a helicopter after hypersonic reentry [full announcement video]. Unlike the Falcon 9, their 17 m x 1.2 m booster will not carry extra fuel for a boost back, deceleration, or landing burn since doing so would significantly reduce its modest lift capacity. The reason for the change [interview] is to increase launch cadence to meet demand (a good problem to have), with manufacturing of the 3D printed Rutherford engine likely the bottleneck (much as SpaceX’s (difficult to manufacture) fairing recovery promises to increase their cadence, which was recently proposed to be as high as 50 Falcon 9 from LC-40 and 20 Falcon 9/Heavy launches from Pad 39A by 2024). The other about-face was the entrance of SpaceX into the smallsat rideshare market, directly competing with (previous?) partners like Spaceflight and to a lesser extent Rocket Lab and other small lift options. SpaceX’s new price-competitive rideshare program is for 150-300 kg sun-synchronous payloads (e.g. not CubeSats), a market that SpaceX had previously said wasn’t lucrative enough. Finally, Vector, a still-in-development small lift entrant who raised over $100 million last year and has launched several sub-orbital test flights, paused operations due to “a significant change in financing.” Related: Arianespace announced GO-1, their first dedicated smallsat rideshare mission last week.


News in brief. ExoMars failed its second parachute test, calling into questions its scheduled July 2020 launch; Chandrayaan 2 completed its fifth earthbound orbit-raising maneuver to a 276 x 142,975 km orbit and ISRO released its first photos; Chinese company Linkspace’s 8-meter tall ethanol and liquid oxygen rocket flew to 300 m [video] in a test akin to SpaceX’s pre-Falcon 9 Grasshopper tests; Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired the head of the Brazilian National Space Research Institute due to the release of satellite data demonstrating a dramatic rise in Amazon deforestation—since if you don’t measure it, it’s not true (“Not great, not terrible”); NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative is looking for payloads for Artemis 2 (they’ll need to launch Artemis 1 first though); and, MarCO won the Small Satellite Mission of the Year award—according to a JPL representative at SmallSat, contact will be re-attempted next month as the satellite duo comes back into range.

…unless it is.

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