Issue No. 37

A warm welcome to our new readers! This week we’ve brought back our recurring DIY section. If you have any suggestions for ways to get involved with aerospace for future issues, please send them our way—we’d love to include them. And, if you could take a moment to mention Orbital Index on Twitter or share this issue with a few friends, we’d appreciate it!

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 37 | Nov 5, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰

There are *so many* small launch vehicles under development. We linked to coverage of Carlos Niederstrasser’s updated list of 148 small launch vehicles proposed or under development last week [a pdf of last year’s analysis since 2019’s isn’t online yet]. Listed companies range from well-funded corporations to a few people in a garage, with the majority that are under active development based in the USA (21), China (7), and the EU (10). To demonstrate the diversity of launchers, here’s a selection. Aevum is working on a two-stage, liquid-fueled, drone-launched rocket targeting 100 kg to 500 km sun-synchronous orbit; Relativity Space (technically over the 1000 kg to LEO cutoff for Niederstrasser’s list) just raised $140 million USD for their plans to 3D print entire rockets, with a first launch now slipped to 2021 (Rocket Lab and SpaceX use direct metal laser sintering to make their Rutherford & SuperDraco engines, but Relativity plans to print the whole vehicle); Zero2Infinity and Stofiel Aerospace are working on balloon-launched rockets; and, Virgin Orbit, Celestia Aerospace, and CubeCab all launch from aircraft. For fuel, some are using hydrogen peroxide, nitrous acid, rotational momentum, or air. There are single and clustered aerospike engines, full and partial space planes, and of course solid rocket engines. With these and around 100 more companies proposing or developing vehicles, we expect to see many failures and mergers over the coming years. 🚀💥

Commercial Crew Update. Despite high profile press events (including Bridenstine climbing inside a spacecraft), NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has been slow to achieve public milestones since Starliner’s delay and Crew Dragon’s RUD. However, this week starts what promises to be a busy few months for the CCP. On Sunday, SpaceX released a new video of their Mk3 parachutes successfully completing a failure-test-case where only 3 of 4 chutes deploy—after conducting 13 successful single-chute tests in two weeks. Their Mk3 system relies on Zylon, the world’s highest tensile strength fiber at ~1.6 times the strength of carbon fiber and Kevlar (it’s also used in F-1 race cars, superpressure balloons, the landing bridle used to lower recent NASA rovers to the Martian surface, and... maybe space elevators). On Monday, per NASA’s “transparency for the taxpayer” request, Boeing shakycam live-streamed a pad abort test of Starliner, showing the vehicle propelling itself away from the pad to an altitude of 1.3 km at just under 6 Gs, but only 2 of 3 parachutes opened. (TBD if NASA will want more tests.) Tomorrow, SpaceX will likely perform a SuperDraco test (similar to the failed test this spring) before what should be a spectacular inflight abort test in December (Falcon 9 booster losing its aerodynamic nose cone at Max-Q = 🎇). Starliner is also scheduled to conduct its orbital flight test in December, with a NET launch of 12/17. (Boeing won’t be doing a full inflight abort, and instead will extrapolate data gathered during Monday’s tests.) This means that 2020 may see Crew Dragon and Starliner flying humans early in the new year.

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument is ready to go. DESI, just installed at Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory, is about to begin a 5-year survey recording the precise positions and velocities of 35 million galaxies up to 12 billion light-years away. The resulting 3D model of the local universe will refine our understanding of Dark Energy, the resulting expansion of the universe, and the continuing uncertainty around the universe’s age (cf. Issue #25 for a deep dive into Dark Energy and ESA’s upcoming Euclid mission). DESI uses 5,000 fiber optic cables that are each robotically targeted at a sequence of individual galaxies or quasars feeding into 10 spectrographs, which allows DESI to target and observe 5,000 galaxies every 20 minutes. More details are available in this video from the Berkeley Lab about DESI.

"So what's dark energy?" "Cosmologists and the FDA are both trying very hard to find out."


News in brief.  The Mars 2020 rover stood on its own six wheels for the first time; new plans indicate that astronauts on the first Artemis Moon mission will stay on the surface for 6.5 days; for your weekly InSight mole news update: after progress was made by (more or less) stepping on it, the nail appears to have worked its way back out of the ground; and, in a very different black void, the deepest shipwreck has been found at over 6 km below the surface of the Philippine Sea (related: soon you may be able to buy a ride to the Titanic, at a depth of 3.8 km, or better yet, even to 6 km).


Starliner sits atop its Atlas V launch stand-in before yesterday’s pad abort test.

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