Issue No. 55

We have some preliminary results from the roughly 250 readers who kindly took the time to respond to our recent survey. Industry-wise, you were approximately 55% in tech, 10% in academia, 15% in the space industry, and 20% in other industries. In general, you seem to like our format and style (we assume that’s why you’re here, not just for our good looks). We heard your request for a few more images and potentially some reformatting to break up long chunks of text. A decent subset of you would also like to take part in some sort of online community. In the coming weeks, we’ll be considering your feedback and planning out some next steps. Whatever we do, we’ll make sure to solicit your feedback to make sure it’s moving in the right direction. For now, forward this issue along to a friend!

Ben’s kids are home for the month due to COVID-19 school cancellations, so the next few issues may be shorter than usual.

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 55 | Mar 12, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Inside Elon Musk’s plan to build one Starship a week. Eric Berger’s excellent piece details SpaceX’s effort to iterate while massively scaling Starship production—all the way up to one every 72 hours. In late February they doubled their employee headcount in Boca Chica by hiring 252 people in two days. “A high production rate solves many ills,” he [Musk] said. “If you have a high production rate, you have a high iteration rate. For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations do you have, and how much progress do you make between each iteration. If you have a high production rate then you have many iterations. You can make progress from one to the next. [...] I’ll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining, but I’d like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars.” Related: designs have also emerged for SpaceX’s massive Falcon Heavy vertical integration bay.

More about Boeing’s testing & software failures. NASA has found “61 corrective actions and identified 49 gaps in Boeing’s testing procedures” around the Starliner OTF mission. Doug Loverro, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Mission Operations, said, “We could have lost a spacecraft twice during this mission.” NASA plans to embed software engineers into the Starliner team and, apparently, audit millions of lines of code (which isn’t something that’s actually very possible...?). Related: an investigative report (pdf) about the Boeing 737 has been released by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee—one finding was that “technical and safety experts determined that certain Boeing design approaches ... were potentially unsafe and failed to comply with FAA regulation, only to have FAA management overrule them and side with Boeing instead.” Meanwhile, a new Inspector General report (pdf) finds more SLS cost overruns and delays, in large part due to Boeing’s slippages in development on the Core Stage. We’re curious how many of these problems come from using waterfall development in an environment with requirements volatility (as must be the case on a decades-long, technically uncertain, and politically-guided project). Compare this to the Kessel Run in the Air Force, or SpaceX’s approach, as exemplified by Musk's intention to build and iterate on Starship prototypes weekly.

The coronavirus pandemic is starting to affect the space industry. NASA Ames is on mandatory telework due to a coronavirus detection, with a work-from-home practice run happening throughout NASA. Many events are canceled, including the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, an upcoming International Astronautical Federation meeting, and some NASA events. The 15,000-person Satellite 2020 conference began this week in Washington DC, despite many companies not in attendance, but was abruptly canceled on Wednesday. While most individuals are unlikely to die from COVID-19, it’s shockingly easy to be the vector that causes the death of someone else, which is why flattening the curve is so important. (A sad, related upside: the air above China is currently cleaner than in recent memory.)

SETI@Home is going on hiatus. The groundbreaking distributed computing project SETI@Home is pausing after 21 years (and probably shutting down). SETI Researchers at Berkeley decided to suspend the project due to a huge backlog of processed data and the desire to focus on generating research based on it. Over the many years of the project, a platform for distributed computing has been created, called BOINC. SETI@Home is now just one of many projects on the platform. Other novel space-related distributed computing and crowdsourcing projects include Galaxy Zoo (crowdsourced classification of galaxies, one of many on Zooniverse), Asteroids@Home (deriving shape and spin information for much of the asteroid population), Cosmology@Home (searching for models that best fit our universe), and Stardust@Home (finding interstellar grains in the sample return data from the Stardust mission). However, one of the most compelling distributed computing projects right now might be Folding@Home which is processing data related to the structure of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

MEV-1’s view of Intelsat 901 from its “near hold” position near the geostationary arc with the Earth in the background. (Featured again this week because we botched our embedded image last week.)

News in brief. Mars 2020 is now named Perseverance, selected from 28,000 entries submitted by US children—Rovey McRoveface was unfortunately cut early; SpaceX launched their 20th ISS delivery—the final one for their original Crew Dragon capsules—and landed a booster for the 50th time, delivering gear including a device to turn urine into drinkable water; Axiom Space, who are working on a commercial (and eventually free-flying) segment for the ISS, has contracted with SpaceX for a Crew Dragon to fly three passengers to the station in 2021—the first privately funded mission to the station; Geely, the largest private car manufacturer in China, is building a satellite factory and plans a LEO constellation for high-speed car internet services; Texas-based AST & Science has raised $110 million for a constellation that can link directly with cell phones; Voyager 2 is back online, but NASA is going to be unable to talk to it for the next 11 months while upgrading DSS 43, their aging 70 m DSN dish in Australia—the only one that can see the spacecraft as it descends below the ecliptic; Curiosity successfully summitted its slope; and, OSIRIS-REx flew within 250 m of sample site Nightingale, its closest Bennu approach yet.


An image of Earth’s new tiny, temporary moon. It’s probably a captured asteroid, but it could also be untracked space junk in a crazy orbit.

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