Issue No. 49

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 49 | Jan 30, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Axiom Space selected to build the first permanent commercial ISS module. NASA announced that Axiom's commercial modules, incorporating habitation, research, on-orbit manufacturing, and a large windowed Earth observatory, will join the ISS starting in 2024 as part of its NextSTEP initiative. Together these will form the Axiom Segment of the ISS. Axiom's first module will join Bigelow's BEAM module (originally planned as a temporary stay from 2016-2020, but extended last year through 2028) and become the second commercial module attached to the station, docked to one of the Harmony module's forward ports. Axiom plans to conduct at least 3 missions to the ISS annually, with NASA being one of the primary customers for their services. Axiom was founded in 2016 and proposed ambitious plans for a very similar addition to the station which included a first Axiom astronaut visiting the ISS in 2019 and a first module launching this year. Both the earlier plan and the updated ones, now accepted by NASA, call for the Axiom Segment to detach from the ISS when it is decommissioned (currently projected to be sometime around 2030) and to become a free-flying station with the addition of a large power module. (Related: Bigelow Aerospace says it passed on the NextSTEP commercial module solicitation due to limited funding and its focus on Gateway and NASA’s related free-flying solicitation which was supposed to be released in December).

The Axiom Station will fly free after the ISS is decommissioned around 2030.

The 15-year-old Boeing-built Spaceway-1 satellite owned by DirecTV could explode. DirecTV has asked the FCC (pdf) for permission to move the 6,080 kg geostationary satellite into a graveyard orbit after determining that “significant and irreversible thermal damage” to its batteries could cause an explosion if charged, which would need to happen by the end of February when the satellite goes into its annual eclipse season inside the Earth’s shadow. The graveyard orbit is 300 km away from other geosynchronous satellites. There also isn’t enough time to vent Spaceway-1’s remaining 73 kg of bipropellant fuel before the move into a graveyard orbit—a passivation step that is normally required and can take 2-3 months. An explosion inside of the geostationary arc could threaten all other geostationary satellites, as fragments would be thrown into elliptical orbits that continued to intersect the satellite’s original orbit at the point of explosion, but with a different period, causing debris to cycle through other points along the original orbit.

Maybe Earth is just a galactic backwater. A piece in Scientific American proposes a solution to the Fermi paradox based on analogy to the sporadic settlement of far-flung South Pacific islands and computer simulation: stellar motion, random chance, and the longevity of any given civilization have a huge effect on how they expand and settle a galaxy, giving a very real chance of a planet like Earth just coincidentally finding itself in a rarely visited and unsettled void. “For example, if typical planetary civilizations can last for a million years and if only 3 percent of star systems are actually settleable, there is a roughly 10 percent probability that a planet like Earth has not been visited in at least the past million years. In other words, it is not terribly unlikely that we would find ourselves on the lonely side of the equation.” It seems unsurprising to us, anthropically speaking, that we find ourselves evolving on an isolated planet, unhampered by meddling alien civilizations—if it were otherwise, would we have been allowed to evolve at all? Visitors may still be forthcoming some millions of years in the future. “The real question, as it was for Polynesian settlers across the centuries, is whether our planetary civilization will still be here when that happens.” Relatedly, would we even recognize life on exoplanets if we saw it? And, why do we think Earth is even the best place for life?

Saying goodbye to Spitzer. Today marks the end of mission for NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope after having observed the universe in infrared for more than 16 years. The infrared Great Observatory is now trailing the Earth by about 254 million kilometers (> 600 Earth-Moon distances) which has made operations progressively more challenging. Among many other discoveries, Spitzer identified the most distant galaxy observed to date, watched Deep Impact slam into Comet Tempel 1, and confirmed two Earth-size planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1. The massive JWST, hopefully launching next year, will replace Spitzer’s infrared observing capabilities.

News in brief. Sixty more Starlink satellites were deployed, bringing the largest constellation in space to nearly 240 active satellites—the Falcon 9 rocket hoverslammed back onto Of Course I Still Love You and Ms. Tree was able to catch one of the fairings; Firefly experienced a minor “anomaly” (aka pad fire) while performing a hot fire test of its Alpha booster ahead of a planned April test launch—apparently the stand and rocket are fine and no one was hurt; Boeing has pulled out of DARPA’s experimental space plane program, grounding the proposed XS-1 Phantom Express; Tethers Unlimited successfully tested their 70 meter “Terminator Tape” electrodynamic drag-based deorbit tether (pdf), accelerating the natural deorbit of the Prox-1 satellite by 24x (Prox-1 is the same satellite that deployed LightSail 2); Boeing’s Starliner thruster performance is receiving additional scrutiny from NASA after being overstressed during their recent underwhelming orbital flight test, with a source saying that “eight or more thrusters on the service module failed at one point and that one thruster never fired at all”; Curiosity lost its orientation for a little while, freezing in place for safety until engineers could fix it; two very old satellites came exceptionally close to colliding (Related: a good twitter thread leading up to the event, and one giving history of the satellites); and, after 4 spacewalks, the ISS’s $2 billion AMS antimatter detector has been repaired.


"Actually, Jupiter already has a very impressive ring system!"
-- someone who knows Jupiter is within earshot

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