Issue No. 72

This issue of The Orbital Index features a guest contribution! We’re glad to have Nick as a guinea pig this week—if you’d like to contribute, please drop us a note with some topic ideas.

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 72 | Jul 8, 2020

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Space Based Manufacturing is spinning up. Made in Space was recently acquired by RedWire, and says the deal “will free it from some of the financial constraints that come with being a small company.” Meanwhile, Space Forge raised $600K in seed funds last month to pursue cubesat-based manufacturing, with plans to deorbit cubes similar to the Qarman mission currently in progress. Orbit as a manufacturing platform provides three fundamental capabilities which can’t be replicated on planetary surfaces. First, orbit offers access to a persistent microgravity environment which in turn offers: perfect vibration isolation as demonstrated by LISA Pathfinder, convection- and sedimentation-free production of high entropy metal and glass alloys which would phase separate during production in gravity, printed soft biological tissues which would collapse in gravity, and much more. Second, leaving Earth’s atmosphere enables 24/7 full-spectrum radiation from the sun and into deep space. Deep space is an extremely cold radiation sink, and the sun provides cheap photovoltaic power (though not cheap enough to bother beaming to Earth), extreme heat, and extreme UV radiation, which Astrileux believes may one day be captured and used to perform semiconductor lithography. Lastly, orbit provides near-instantaneous access to high vacuum, which can otherwise be reached only via hours of pumping. Arrangements such as the Wake Shield Facility can produce the highest vacuum in the known universe, which is useful for growing ultra-pure thin film semiconductors and other exotic materials. Some materials, such as ZBLAN optical fibers, can only be manufactured in orbital conditions, and they’re useful enough to be profitable at current launch costs. ZBLAN will likely be the first profitable application, with Earth-produced prices ranging from $150 to $3,000 per meter (or $500K - $21M per kg). Multiple companies are racing to commercialize orbital production. ZBLAN is a high entropy alloy of five fluoride glasses which has high optical clarity across a wide bandwidth, enabling repeater-less transatlantic cables and new high performance sensors if it could be produced in bulk. With SpaceX projecting (potentially crazy) prices per kg that are below $100 on Starship (compare to $2,500/kg on Falcon 9 today), and small-sat launch providers like Rocket Lab offering cheaper, more frequent launches to projects like Space Forge, the set of profitable space-based manufacturing applications will likely grow rapidly over the next several years. — contributed by Nick Parker

More on that Solar Gravity Lens Focus mission. We first mentioned this crazy NIAC-funded mission a few issues back when JPL, The Aerospace Corp, and Xplore received $2 million for further development with a potential 2023-2024 early technology demonstration mission. A full mission could then launch a decade later composed of many small spacecraft delivered by solar sail moving at 20 AU per year—it’d still take 25 to 30 years for them to reach a vantage point at 547 AU (80 billion km / ~3 light days). Using the Sun as a gravitational lens, the many craft would sample the distorted Einstein ring around it, then combine and reconstruct an image of the disk of an Earth-like exoplanet up to 100 light-years beyond, at a resolution of 25 kilometers / pixel. However, mission designers would have to pick carefully because they could observe only a single target. “This award brings us toward a proof-of-concept flight that would exit the solar system faster than any previous spacecraft.

An Einstein ring around a red galaxy as its gravity distorts the light from a much more distant blue galaxy. 

OneWeb gets a new direction. The British government joined forces with Bharti Global, an Indian mobile network operator, to place the winning $1 billion bid on the bankrupt OneWeb with the apparent intention of augmenting its satellites with sat-nav capabilities. There is skepticism, as OneWeb satellites weren’t designed to offer GPS-like capabilities, but Brian Weeden discusses how it might be able to be done. The addition of governmental politics to OneWeb’s internet service may lead to conflicts of interest in geographies that lack broadband, but don’t have positive relations with the British government, since the sale includes the provision that, “The U.K. government will have a final say over any future sale of the company, and over future access to OneWeb technology by other countries on national security grounds”.

News in brief. NASA’s Perseverance launch has been delayed until NET July 30 due to some now-fixed issues with the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage; ESA awarded six development contracts totalling €2.55B for future Copernicus earth-observation missions; Amazon Web Services launched a business unit dedicated to space which joins (subsumes? devours?) their existing AWS Ground Station service; China launched a Gaofen remote sensing satellite, as well as a 2U youth space science education satellite; Israel successfully launched the Ofek 16 reconnaissance satellite using its “Shavit” rocket (which has been operational since 1982) from a launch site in central Israel; The Planetary Society’s Lightsail 2 spacecraft has successfully completed its primary mission and will now enter an extended mission phase before reentry; and, after 11 consecutive successes, Rocket Lab suffered their first commercial launch failure, with “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” experiencing a malfunction during its second stage burn causing  the rocket to fail to reach orbit—5 Planet SuperDoves, a 6U CubeSat from In-Space Missions hosting multiple rideshare payloads, and an Earth-imaging satellite from Canon Electronics were unfortunately lost (video of Peter Beck explaining the failure).


SPHERE image of the disc around AB Aurigae. ESO’s Very Large Telescope spotted signs of a planet forming—the ‘twist’ close to the center of the picture marks crossing streams of dust and gas starting to accrete at a similar distance from its star as Neptune is from our Sun.

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