Issue No. 59

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 59 | Apr 7, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

NASA lays out its sustainable return to the lunar surface. A just-released 13-page report outlines the agency's plans and adds clarity to their existing trajectory of lunar return and exploration missions, despite current uncertainty around Gateway. It highlights three core elements of future surface presence: a Lunar Terrain Vehicle (recently the subject of a request for information) similar in range and application to the Apollo-era Lunar Roving Vehicle, a habitable "mobility platform" (possibly developed in cooperation with JAXA) for excursions of up to 45 days, and a lunar surface habitat that could host four astronauts on long-term missions. Together, these will be part of an Artemis Base Camp at the lunar south pole (related: possible South Pole landing sites) which could expand in the future. The report also spends significant time discussing the use of Gateway with an added "large volume habitation element" to simulate a future crewed Mars mission. The simulation would involve hosting a multi-month crew of four on Gateway, then splitting the crew and sending two to the surface, and finally bringing the surface crew back to Gateway for another multi-month segment. Go ahead and read the full report—or a longer summary—it's chock full of fun!

A visualization of Gateway with its proposed large-volume deep space habitation (and an arriving Orion capsule). Image credit: NASA report

SpaceX’s SN3 has collapsed. After a successful ambient temperature test, SpaceX’s third full-scale Starship prototype collapsed under its own weight during a cryogenic nitrogen test. This was a test configuration failure rather than a pressure vessel failure. The lower tank may have lost pressure or could’ve been filled at the wrong speed. If so, the vehicle wouldn’t have been able to support the weight of the upper tank, causing the collapse (see how Atlas Agena rockets would collapse if depressurized). Scott Manley has a video about the event (and an interesting discussion of launch vehicle welding techniques). Copied and expanded from Ars, here’s a recap of SpaceX’s full-size Starships to date which illustrates their accelerating iteration cycle:

  • Starship Mk1: Construction began in early December 2018. Failed during a pressure test on November 20, 2019. (~11 months from construction to failure)
  • Starship SN1: Construction began in mid-October, 2019; Failed during a pressure test on February 28, 2020. (~5 months to failure)
  • Starship SN2: Construction began in early February 2020. After SN1 failure, it was converted into a testbed for the thrust puck at the base of the rocket. Passed the test on March 8 and was retired. (~5-6 weeks to retirement)
  • Starship SN3: Construction began in March 2020. Cryogenic test failure on April 3. (~4 weeks to failure)
  • Starship SN4: Construction began in March 2020. (Testing later this month?)

The hard-charging ethic of NewSpace is a mixed bag during a pandemic. On one hand, rather than social distancing, SpaceX employees are busy 24/7 building Starships, Musk has spread misinformation and repeatedly downplayed the severity of the disease that has killed over 10,000 Americans so far, and Blue Origin is pressuring employees to travel during the pandemic. On the other hand, Virgin Orbit designed a ventilator, Airbus Spain is using its 3D printers to make visors, NASA and ESA are funding virus-related projects, Musk bought and donated 1,200 ventilators from China, SpaceX is making face shields, hand sanitizer, and ventilator parts for Medtronic, and Tesla have built initial prototypes of their own ventilator using Tesla parts (video). Undoubtedly, some of these efforts may be PR-motivated and won’t amount to much—but at least they seem more directionally appropriate. Related: What is a ventilator, anyway?

News in brief. NASA’s Mars Helicopter was tested a final time before being attached to Perseverance; CHEOPS has been fully commissioned in orbit; NASA selected a 6-CubeSat cluster called SunRISE for funding—the CubeSats will fly in formation slightly above geostationary altitude and pinpoint radio emissions from the Sun associated with solar storms, providing an alert about hazardous space weather; Stratolaunch, owner of the world’s largest airplane, has announced plans to launch hypersonic test vehicles; NASA selected astronauts for Demo-2, performed mission simulations, and branded it with their 80s-era “worm” logo (no Russian cosmonauts though, as “Roscosmos officials said they would not fly on what they consider an unproven vehicle”); a full mirror deployment test of the JWST was successful; Marshall Space Flight Center has joined the many NASA centers now on mandatory telework; and, Astra has fired 30 people in hopes of surviving the pandemic.

The South Sandwich Islands create interfering mountain-wave clouds, visible in MODIS data.

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