Issue No. 41

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 41 | Dec 3, 2019

🚀 🌍 🛰

Bring the Noise. Vega-C is ESA and Ariane Space's latest installment of their Vega rocket family. Debuting in 2020 and intended to continue Vega’s success in the commercial satellite launch market, it increases Vega’s payload to SSO by ~46% and will launch atop the world’s largest monolithic solid rocket motor—the P120C. Currently, Vega-C’s new 3.3 m fairing is undergoing acoustic testing at ESA's LEAF facility where rocket components and payloads are subjected to a 154-decibel wall of sound generated by massive nitrogen-powered horns—acoustic conditions similar to launch and enough sound to kill you. (Related: the water deluge systems employed during launches are primarily there for sound dampening, not combustion/exhaust control.) NASA also has an acoustic test facility, the RATF, at Glenn Research Center. It’s been used routinely to simulate the SLS launch conditions and can output 163 decibels, making it the world's most powerful acoustic chamber (but not the loudest speaker) …and also a great place to play smooth guitar. (Not particularly related: we wonder if Anthrax & Public Enemy topped the 125 dB pain threshold when bringing the noise—and remember, decibels are logarithmic.)

ESA funding increased 21% to €12.5 billion for the next 3 years, the largest boost in 25 years, at their triennial ministerial meeting. This funding will be used to bring forward the 2034 launch date of the space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) gravitational wave detector; to develop a Uranus and Neptune probe in time for a 2030 planetary alignment; to fund climate-change monitoring Earth observation satellites through the Copernicus program (funding increased by €1 billion); to help support the ISS until 2030; to contribute to the Lunar Gateway; to develop a lunar lander and rover; to develop a joint Mars sample return mission with NASA; to continue development of Ariane 6, Vega-C, and the Space Rider reusable launch system; and, to fund the Hera mission to study asteroid deflection. We're thrilled!

Chemistry and rockets, rehashed. A recent video by Scott Manley about hypergolic fuels (which are both useful and generally terrifying) reminded us of an entry we wrote all the way back in Issue #3, reprised here, about “Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants” by John D. Clark. It’s more than one would expect of a book from 1972 about rocket propellants—dense, but surprisingly hilarious. It is now back in print (probably due to Musk calling it “fun”), but you can still find a free PDF of the original. Writing about chlorine trifluoride—one of many terrifying substances people have proposed putting into rockets—Clark writes: “It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water—with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals–steel, copper, aluminium, etc.–because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride[...]. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.” Sort of related: using discrete metal powders as fuel.

Lots of launches this month. After standing down from its November launch, Rocket Lab will attempt to launch its 10th mission, Running out of Fingers, by December 12. With a successful static test fire out of the way, SpaceX is launching CRS 19 to resupply the ISS tomorrow—and Andrew will be there to watch! Another ISS resupply mission, Progress 74P, will launch on a Soyuz a couple of days later (Dec. 6). A Falcon 9 is launching the Japanese JCSAT-18/Kacific-1 commsat on Dec 15. Boeing is scheduled to send their Starliner to the ISS for the first time on Dec 17. The same day, a Russian Soyuz is launching CSG 1 & ESA’s Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite (CHEOPS) to observe exoplanet transits. Also likely this month: China launching the Shijian 20 communications satellite, two Beidou navigation satellites, and the CBERS 4A remote sensing satellite; Russia launching the Elektro-L 3 geostationary weather satellite, a Glonass M navigation satellite, and 3 Gonets M communications satellites; India launching two RISAT radar satellites; SpaceX performing their Commercial Crew in-flight abort test and maybe another Starlink launch; and, possibly the first orbital test launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne. Whew!

News in brief. ISRO finally admits that Vikram “hard landed” (aka crashed) after contact was lost 355 m above the lunar surface; the Orion capsule was delivered via Super Guppy to the world’s largest vacuum chamber (in Sandusky, Ohio at same NASA facility where the RATF is located); in the hope that industry will find them useful, NASA has shared designs (paper) for a robotic “pallet lander” concept that could deliver 300 kg to the lunar surface; an Indian PSLV rocket launched Cartosat-3 (a high-resolution Earth observation satellite), a technology demonstration cubesat for Analytical Space, and 12 “SuperDoves” for Planet; and, a Russian Soyuz launched a satellite on some sort of secret space surveillance mission.

Testing Orion’s European Service Module at NASA’s Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility.

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