Issue No. 54

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 54 | Mar 5, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Two commercial satellites have docked for the first time. On Feb 25th, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV-1) docked with Intelsat 901 in a geostationary graveyard orbit in order to become its maneuvering system and extend its life. Intelsat 901, which is almost 19 years old, has plenty of power from its solar panels, but had run low on fuel and so had been moved to a graveyard orbit for safety. Docking with a satellite that was not designed to be docked with is an interesting challenge. Their solution: expand “fingers” inside of the target satellite engine’s narrow throat—picture a drywall anchor crossed with a leech’s jaws. After checkouts, MEV-1 will move the duo back into the geosynchronous arc and remain with Intelsat 901 for 5 years to maneuver it as needed, then will drop it off again in a graveyard orbit and head off to assist another GEO customer. MEV-1 has a design life of 15 years, allowing multiple dockings, and MEV-2 is under construction. This demonstration is a serious accomplishment, and we’re likely to see many similar missions in the future to service, deorbit, and extend the usefulness of existing space infrastructure. Check out these photos of the rendezvous and docking and a video overview of the mission.

MEV-1’s view of Intelsat 901 from its “near hold” position with the Earth in the background.

Heavy Lift: Starship goes boom, Blue Origin rocket factory, and Artemis-I slips again. Starship SN1 exploded dramatically during cryogenic pressure testing. Fittingly, Musk had said 12 hours before, “Failure must be an option […] What you want is to reward success […] there should be minor consequences for trying and not succeeding […] and major consequences for not trying” (we’ve paraphrased—the quote is at 20:04). Rapid failure + iteration seems to be the norm with SpaceX's "hardware rich" Starship development philosophy—they've already started to stack SN2. Meanwhile, Blue Origin released videos of their new rocket factory in Florida and the new 7-meter fairing they are building there for New Glenn—the size is staggering. Lastly, while the Orion capsule has completed testing, including a successful launch abort motor test (check out that video!), Artemis-I has slipped a little more, with NASA’s Steve Jurcyk suggesting that it'll now launch mid- to late- 2021 (here’s the Artemis update video).

No end-to-end test for Starliner. The Orlando Sentinel reports that Boeing never performed end-to-end testing of Starliner and its Atlas V launch vehicle together—to the apparent surprise of NASA’s safety panel. 🤦 Boeing claims they found a different way to test. NASA and Boeing will hold a press conference to announce findings and next steps for the project on Friday, March 6th. (Boeing recently intimated that there will be another OFT mission.)


News in brief. Jim Cantrell’s Vector is no more, and its assets have been acquired by Lockheed in bankruptcy; Curiosity is going to attempt to climb a 30˚ slope on Mars; SpaceX is looking to raise around $250 million with a $36 billion valuation; Astra failed to launch their rocket, so no one will complete the DARPA Launch Challenge; OmegA’s latest static fire test went well—no anomalies this time; a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will be the launch vehicle for NASA’s Psyche mission in 2022; NASA has officially ended the MarCO CubeSat mission after failing to regain contact with the duo last fall; WFIRST cleared an important development milestone before it begins construction (it’ll be built from a donated spy satellite)—and will launch in 2025 if it can avoid congressional budget cuts; NOAA announced that their JPSS-2 mission scheduled for 2022 will also carry a prototype inflatable decelerator designed to make human landing on Mars possible—meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed a 13.5% reduction in NOAA’s budget; and, NASA may explore human certification for New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, with the goal of flying researchers (solicitation), and potentially astronauts, on suborbital missions.


DSCOVR is back from safe mode with more EPIC photos!

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