Issue No. 69


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 69 | Jun 17, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

A VIPER on the Moon. NASA’s upcoming 2023 Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will be delivered to the moon by Astrobotic. Delivery will be completed by their Griffin lander for $199 million through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program—more on this in a moment. VIPER, which is about the size of a golf cart, will land at the lunar south pole to search for water ice. Its goal is to provide evidence for the “hundreds of millions of tons” of ice that is expected to be hidden in shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles and could support future Artemis missions. VIPER will be able to cover several kilometers of ground and sample many wet soil environments for the presence of hydrogen. Detection will be carried out by the Neutron Spectrometer System (which measures the energy released by hydrogen atoms when struck by neutrons) and from samples collected with its meter-long “TRIDENT” drill built by Honeybee Robotics (see the Jobs section from last week’s issue for open positions with Honeybee). Gathered samples will be analyzed by two instruments that can determine their mineral composition and whether or not any detected hydrogen is present in the form of water or hydroxyl.


Griffin extending its integrated rover ramps for VIPER to explore the lunar south pole.


The other CLPS landers. NASA’s CLPS program contracts with companies to deliver payloads to the Moon with the goal of bringing down lunar exploration costs through commercial competition. NASA’s assumed cost is one million dollars per kilogram to the lunar surface, with the expectation that not all missions will be successful. In additional to VIPER, there are currently three other active delivery contracts: Intuitive Machines and their Nova-C lander in 2021, Astrobotic Technology with their Peregrine lander also in 2021 (a smaller sibling to VIPER’s Griffin lander), and as of April, Masten Space Systems XL-1 lander in 2022. Intuitive Machines recently announced (pdf) that Nova-C will land near Vallis Schröteri, the Moon’s largest sinuous rille (a valley that may be a collapsed lava tube) located in the Oceanus Procellarum / “Ocean of Storms”, which itself is the largest lunar maria—a flat, low-boulder region with lots of sunlight. Launched on a Falcon 9 from KSC, Nova-C will carry 5 NASA payloads (along with additional commercial payloads) and will use optical Terrain Relative Navigation to land within 200 m of a target (pdf). Meanwhile, Masten’s XL-1—based on their landers that won the Lunar lander X Prize in 2009—will head for the lunar south pole, and Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will head to a currently unannounced location with payloads that include their tiny “CubeRover”. So many lunar missions!


PSP and Solar Orbiter get close to Sol. ESA’s Solar Orbiter completed its first perihelion, approaching within 77 million km of the sun. Solar Orbiter is carrying six telescopes and used its first pass to verify their function. Data will be downlinked over the next few weeks and the images—representing the closest-ever captured of the sun—will be released in July (the four-meter Daniel Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawai’i took higher resolution images earlier this year, but those images were taken through the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks a significant portion of the solar spectrum. Meanwhile, Parker Solar Probe is now cooking along at up to 109,200 m/s (still just 0.00036c) and recently checked in after completing its fifth successful perihelion at only 18.6 million km. The current science campaign is the mission’s longest so far and was influenced by the detection of solar wind rotation farther from the sun than anticipated. Up next for PSP is a Venus fly-by at just 830 km (including an 11-minute solar eclipse behind the planet) to shed orbital energy so that an even closer solar approach can be achieved during its sixth perihelion.

News in brief. The first US female spacewalker (pdf) has now become the first woman to reach Challenger Deep, the deepest known point on Earth (here’s a beautiful exposition on the team that made this possible); with Endeavour’s solar arrays performing well, Bob & Doug are likely to stay at the ISS until August, with two spacewalks scheduled over the next few weeks for Bob; a Long March 2C launched the Haiyang 1D oceanography satellite which will measure ocean pollution and temperature levels—the launch also carried instrumented payload fairings that may be testbeds for future fairing recovery; SpaceX launched yet another batch of Starlink satellites on Saturday, putting on an early morning light show, and also providing rideshare to three Planet SkySat imaging satellites for a price that couldn’t be beat; Rocket Lab’s 12th mission—‘Don't Stop Me Now’—launched three experimental NRO payloads, the 3U Australian M2 Pathfinder test satellite, and NASA’s 6U ANDESITE which carries 8 “pico” magnetometer satellites for monitoring space weather; Japanese Interstellar Technologies’ suborbital MOMO-5 sounding rocket failed when its engine nozzle broke apart (video); commercial crew manager Kathy Leuders is the new head of the NASA’s human spaceflight program; and, a Vega rocket will launch ESA’s SSMS rideshare dispenser with a whole load of smallsats onboard later this week.
  • SpaceX is hiring an Offshore Operations Engineer to “work as part of a team of engineers and technicians to design and build an operational offshore rocket launch facility”. Offshore launch of Starship has been rumored for some time and would be a pretty stunning affair.


One of the highest-resolution photos of Jupiter taken from the ground (by the Gemini North telescope in Hawai’i), this infrared stacked image is bright where the atmosphere allows heat from the planet to escape and dark where clouds are blocking its emission. When combined with imagery taken with Hubble and Juno, these images provided data on Jupiter’s 80 km tall thunderstorms (complete with 2,000-60,000 lightning flashes per second on the planet).


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