Issue No. 67

A week of protests, police brutality, and rockets have reminded us how little the US has changed since 1968. We were moved by this message from Charles Isbell, Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech (and, Andrew’s old grad school advisor), one of the still very few African Americans in Computer Science.


Black Lives Matter. 

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 67 | Jun 3, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Bob and Doug reach the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour launched in spectacularly nominal fashion on Saturday and carried NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit (along with Tremor the Apatosaurus), and then, 19 hours later, to the ISS. Here are some of our favorite highlights from the historic commercial space mission.

Demo-2 launching.

The Roman Space Telescope. NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), currently being built from a surplus NRO spy satellite, was just renamed to be the, very apropos, Roman Space Telescope (RST) after Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer and the “Mother of Hubble” who passed away in 2018. Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to cancel it, development on the RST has continued. Its main mission is to perform a microlensing survey of hundreds of millions of stars. Microlensing occurs when, from our perspective, a star passes in front of a more distant star, and light from the further star is distorted by the gravity of the closer one and its potential planets. Of the >4,000 exoplanets discovered so far, only 89 were found through microlensing. RST should be able to detect planets smaller than Earth—possibly approaching the size of moons like Ganymede—, as well as stellar-mass black holes and rogue planets that are wandering the galaxy after having been ejected from their host stars. Due to the amount of data involved, machine learning techniques will be needed to process it (and are also being developed to look for lensing in existing astronomy datasets). Related: a super-Earth was recently detected because it, and its host star, microlensed a background star during a brief 5-hour observation window (paper).

China’s Space Station is Back on Track. Chinese officials shared updated plans for their ambitious space station last week (video interview) calling for 11 launches starting in 2021, with completion sometime in 2023. The station, orbiting at 340-450 km, will have an initial design lifespan of 10 years and will include three modules, with potential expansion up to six. The core module, ‘Tianhe,’ along with a crewed mission and a cargo mission, could launch in early 2021 on LM-5B (module), LM-2F (crew), and LM-7 (cargo) vehicles. Plans had been on hold due to Long March 5B's grounding after a launch failure in 2017 (launch video), but are now back on track with last month’s successful return to flight. China is now recruiting new astronauts, including non-military scientists, for 6-month stays on the station, which has a strong science focus (previous astronaut selections were made from the Chinese air force in 1995 and 2009). This focus has led to multiple collaborations with international partners, which include: a follow up on the Gamma-Ray Burst polarimeter POLAR which flew on the Tiangong-2 space lab, experiments into the effect of microgravity on the growth of disease-causing bacteria and tumor growth caused by galactic cosmic radiation, a spectroscope to study gas in nebulae, a mid-infrared sensor platform for weather forecasting, and experimental development and production of high-efficiency multi-junction gallium arsenide solar cells. Lastly, and what we’re most excited about, the station will have a co-orbiting space telescope named 'Xuntian' with a large field of view (300x Hubble’s) that can dock with the station for upgrades and repairs.

A render of China’s planned space station.

News in brief. SpaceX’s Starship SN4 prototype was destroyed after a static-fire test—SN5, SN6, and SN7 are all under construction—and the FAA has provided a launch license for suborbital testing (pdf); meanwhile, SpaceX has raised almost $1.7 billion since the beginning of 2019, including $346 million this year; it’s been three years since Rocket Lab’s first launch; Lincoln Lab decommissioned LES-9, the longest continuously operating communications satellite in US history, at 44 years; European space agencies have resumed operations at their French Guiana spaceport; India announced a policy shift allowing commercial involvement in future space projects; and, a Long March 11 (from Xichang Satellite Launch Center for the first time) and a Long March 2D launched in quick succession, delivering their Earth-imaging and unspecified tech demo payloads successfully to orbit.


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