Issue No. 44

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 44 | Dec 24, 2019

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Happy Holidays from The Orbital Index!

Starliner’s “off-nominal” orbital insertion. Boeing's Starliner Orbital Flight Test (OFT) launched last Friday on an Atlas 5 N22. The launch itself went smoothly, putting the Starliner second-stage into a suborbital trajectory designed to allow for safe aborts. However, Starliner’s thrusters, which were supposed to fire 31 minutes after liftoff, did not. An internal timer that tracks the Mission Elapsed Time was set incorrectly—it was 11 hours off because it read the wrong parameter from the APIs provided by Atlas—causing the spacecraft to believe that it was at a different altitude and fire thrusters to maintain an alignment that wasn’t required, wasting fuel. Ground control operators recognized the problem but corrective commands didn’t reach the spacecraft in time due to a gap in TDRS communications coverage. They were eventually able to boost the craft from its suborbital trajectory (with a perigee of 76 km) to a 180 km perigee stable orbit, but could not reach the ISS safely. NASA has stressed that, had there been crew on board (instead of just Rosie), they would have been both safe and able to return to Earth, and perhaps could have overridden the erroneous burn. The capsule did successfully return to Earth on Sunday in White Sands, New Mexico using its three-parachute system. It’s currently unknown if NASA will require another OFT test before crewed flights—their contract says an ISS docking demonstration is required. With this week’s Starliner issues (despite NASA giving Boeing $2 billion more than SpaceX), delays and cost overruns on SLS of another $2 billion, halted production on the 737 Max and their CEO resigning after two deadly crashes, and federal inquiries into their Dreamliner production line, this has not been Boeing's best year. (Next up for the Commercial Crew Program is the final inflight abort test for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, scheduled for NET Jan 11th.)

News in brief. JPL is helping ESA build ExoMars’ new parachutes (extraction test video), and the timeline is super tight; two more satellites for China’s Beidou GPS system launched over the beautiful mountains of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center—it needs just 2-4 more satellites (launching next year) to complete global coverage; rocket startup Vector filed for bankruptcy due to loss of funding; a Soyuz launched the CHEOPS exoplanet-characterizing space telescope into orbit last Tuesday—it will perform ultra-high precision photometry of stars already known to host exoplanets; Mars 2020 drove for the first time; Yutu 2 is now the longest active lunar rover in history; a bipartisan deal established the Space Force as a new branch of the US armed services (here come the Space Cadets); and, Apple is rumored to have assembled a small team to explore satellite technology.


Not actual size, except technically at one spot near the left.

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