Issue No. 26

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 26 | Aug 20, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰

Maybe 2020 will be the year of space tourism? Virgin Galactic unveiled their fancy new Spaceport America and are in the process of building a second SpaceShipTwo to join their existing VSS Unity craft. VSS Unity has made suborbital flights twice, in December 2018 and February 2019 (video), and Virgin Galactic says roughly 600 people have signed up for future flights. Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle is also getting close to carrying humans to suborbital space. Related: How to Make a Spaceship by Julian Guthrie is an enjoyable read (or listen) about SpaceShipOne, Peter Diamandis, the origin of the X Prize, and how improbable it seemed for spaceflight to shift into the private sector.

RRM3 successfully demonstrated connecting and sealing propellant transfer hoses. The final mission operation used Dextre, the Canadian two-armed robot, to accomplish its delicate tasks. Unfortunately, the actual cryogenic fluid had to be vented earlier in the mission due to a loss of cooling for the liquid methane. This ongoing mission began with RRM1 in 2011 and RRM2 in 2015 with the goal of bringing technologies required for on-orbit refueling to useable technology readiness levels (aside: the software industry could really benefit from something similar to the TRL… anything other than stars on GitHub). Multiple startups (Orbit Fab, Effective Space Solutions) are also going after the nascent fuel transfer market (related: an interview with Orbit Fab’s CEO on Space Bandits) and SpaceX is studying it with NASA for Starship. Interestingly, the same team at Goddard Space Flight Center that is responsible for RRM3 was in charge of the Hubble repair missions—here’s a look back at the intricate Hubble repair mission in 1993 and its effects on NASA’s repair culture.

Marsha, a prototype of a habitat for living on Mars, is built out of biopolymer and basalt fiber—materials manufacturable on the red planet. The habitat features a dual-shell design which provides a flexible interior space, and the chosen materials shield against radiation. AI Space Factory, Marsha’s creator, has a near(er) term sister habitat named Tera that it’s developing to be printed here on Earth. The company recently won NASA’s 3D printed habitat challenge after autonomously printing a scaled-down Marsha in 30 hours (except for the final skylight which dropped through the top when they ran out of time to print one last layer).

Carbon fiber compositing robots play a crucial role in manufacturing large rocket parts. COPVs, fairings, and small rockets like the Electron are made by robots out of composite materials (video) to reduce weight. This niche market of gigantic part fabrication can become quite political. Last month, Swiss manufacturer RUAG got in the middle of SpaceX and ULA sparring about the manufacturing of longer fairings required for future US Military missions.

News in brief. SpaceX is now confident enough in their ability to catch falling $6 million fairings to start prepping a second catcher boat, GO Ms. Chief, to join GO Ms. Tree; Chandrayaan-2 should reach lunar orbit today after a 1,203 second burn last Wednesday—the lander and rover duo are scheduled to land on September 7th; Rocket Lab launched four satellites into orbit on a rocket outfitted with sensors to characterize the reentry environment for future booster reuse; and, China Rocket Co launched their four-stage solid-fueled Jielong-1 rocket into orbit for the first time.

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