Issue No. 58

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 58 | Mar 31, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

¶OneWeb has filed for bankruptcy. Blaming COVID-19 for delays in financing, OneWeb has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company, backed by ~$3.4 billion from Softbank and others, has launched 74 of their planned constellation of 650 satellites, with their second batch of 34 satellites launched just last week. Each satellite costs about $1 million. Rather than the convenient scapegoat of COVID-19, their situation is likely actually due to pressure from SoftBank to move quickly, then the unexpected loss of additional capital as SoftBank adapted to the dramatic WeWork collapse. Competing against Starlink and SpaceX’s vertical-integration and Project Kuiper with Amazon’s endlessly deep pockets, OneWeb chose to rely on subcontractors like Airbus for satellite manufacturing and Arianespace (to whom they owe a whopping $238 million) for launches—initially, 20 Soyuz launches, then launches on Ariane 6 and LauncherOne—but have avoided SpaceX’s more affordable service. OneWeb joins a long history of satellite constellation bankruptcies (see Iridium, Orbcomm, and Globalstar), all of which didn’t happen during a global pandemic. But like those previous bankruptcies, the vision and assets may well continue on to become successful.

¶Environmental impact of rocket launches. Several readers have asked about the impact of rocket launches and how they relate to climate change. Rockets are often fueled with fossil fuels—RP-1 is highly refined kerosene, methane comes from natural gas extraction, and hydrogen is currently generated by cracking methane. Tim Dodd recently released a long-promised 55-minute monster video on this topic. Takeaways: SRBs, which are very common in Chinese launches (among many others) and will feature on the SLS, and hypergolic fuels like hydrazine are definitely not great for the environment or human health. Modern cryogenic rockets running on hydrogen or methane tend to be better due to their more inert byproducts. However, the entire international launch manifest is minuscule compared to the climate impact of commercial air or ground transportation. Companies are also working on green solutions, including ARCA Space, who is working on a super ambitious linear aerospike rocket and touting a steam-powered booster for its environmentally friendly aspects. Other green fuel initiatives include SpaceX’s plan to generate methane from carbon dioxide and water and NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission which aims to replace hydrazine with a monopropellant that produces non-toxic combustion byproducts.

¶SpaceX news.

Starship SN3 being vertically stacked in Boca Chica.

¶Upcoming virtual events. One side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is many in-person events are moving online and becoming free. Here are a few upcoming ones. See Space Agenda for more.

¶COVID-19 hacking efforts. We’ve been impressed with the efforts of groups like Helpful Engineering (join with this direct Slack invite link) that are coordinating tens of thousands of online volunteers to design open source ventilators, O2 concentrators, and software projects. Many other DIY projects are going on as well. (Related: Andrew and a friend started a project called HospitalHero and were joined by a group of volunteers on the COVID Accelerator—cough, poor naming choice—Slack.)

¶News in brief. Boeing is likely to receive a $17 billion bailout from the coronavirus federal loan program in a classic example of privatizing profits and socializing losses; a ULA Atlas V launched the US Space Force’s first mission, the geostationary AEHF-6 military communication satellite; Kubos, Andrew’s old employer, is offering Major Tom, their cloud-based mission control software, free for 90 days to support remote mission operations, a growing need due to COVID-19—ESA just put the operation of 4 missions on hold to reduce in-person staffing needs; the March 24th Rocket Lab launch has been postponed due to COVID-19; Astra’s first orbital test rocket was damaged during pre-launch testing; the Kagra gravitational-wave telescope in Japan has started observations—it’s the first detector in Asia, the first detector underground (with 3 km long underground interferometric arms), and the first to use cryogenic mirrors; and, the U.S. Space Force’s Space Fence situational awareness radar is now operational.


A global map of Bennu created with >2,000 images from OSIRIS-REx. At 5 cm/pixel, this is the highest resolution global mapping of any planetary body.

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