Issue No. 78


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 78 | Aug 19, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Space Entrepreneurship Funding Sources. We were looking for a directory of funding resources for space entrepreneurship and couldn't find one, so we decided to start our own. We’re excited to release what we hope will become an expanding list of resources for space entrepreneurship funding. Please send us links to the incubators, VCs, government resources, and other funding opportunities that we’ve inevitably missed!


Psyche. NASA’s Psyche mission, to the eponymous asteroid, is moving from design to manufacturing for an August 2022 launch (mission trailer video). Psyche (the asteroid) is a 226 km wide, unusually metallic, body in the main asteroid belt. Given its high proportion of iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core, it may well be part of the core of an early protoplanet that broke apart. It also likely contains quintillions of dollars of precious metals (if you pretend that the market wouldn’t crash due to the huge influx of supply). Psyche (the mission) will use electric propulsion and carry a magnetometer, multispectral imager, and neutron and gamma ray spectrometers for characterizing the asteroid. It will also carry the Deep Space Optical Communications experiment to test laser comms from deep space. Here’s a short talk by Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the mission’s principal investigator, on the genesis of the mission from back in 2016.


Magnetoplasma to Mars in 39 days? With all the 2020 Mars missions enroute for the next six months, we’re taking a look at one of NASA's propulsion projects aimed at decreasing deep space transit times, potentially drastically. VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) is a helicon magnetoplasma thruster designed to provide a variable thrust profile, from low-specific-impulse / high-thrust to stupidly-high-specific-impulse / low-thrust. Specific impulse could max out at ~12,000 seconds, drastically higher than the roughly 2,000 s from current hall thrusters. VASIMR creates thrust through a multi-step process. First, it bombards a neutral gas with RF energy in helical waves to ionize the gas and create plasma (it can use multiple gases: argon, hydrogen, or even CO2). Then, it uses magnetic fields and an additional RF coupler to contain and energize the plasma to a superheated state (in the neighborhood of the temperature of the Sun’s core). Finally, a magnetic nozzle ejects the plasma at exceptionally high velocity. The most recent tests of VASIMR have run at 200 kW and expelled ions at 180,000 km/h (test fire video… or a blue party light being turned on, we’re not sure). A massively scaled up version running at 200 MW could make the one-way transit to Mars in as little as 39 days, but generation of this amount of in-space energy isn’t currently anywhere near possible and would require both an advanced onboard nuclear reactor as well as super-efficient heat radiators. Solar power is also an option, but the ISS’s solar arrays, while no longer state of the art, represent the largest space-based solar production capacity, and come in at 120 kW. We’re going to need something bigger.


News in brief. Skyrora’s Skylark Micro performed a successful suborbital launch from Iceland—they’re hoping for an orbital launch of Skyrora XL in 2023; JAXA’s HTV-9 departed the ISS and burned up in the atmosphere carrying a load of trash (this was the last of its kind—to be replaced by the HTV-X next year); Skyroot, the first private launch startup in India, tested their Raman upper-stage engine; an Ariane 5 launched two communication satellites and Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-2, the sibling of MEV-1 which successfully docked with and took over propulsion for Intelsat 901 in February—MEV-2 will do the same with Intelsat 1002 sometime in early 2021; NASA delayed Crew-1 to NET October 23rd, possibly to give them and SpaceX more time to analyze Demo-2 data as part of the final certification of Crew Dragon; Northrop Grumman test fired the GEM-63XL strap on solid rocket booster (video) which is destined to be part of ULA’s Vulcan; and, yesterday’s launch of 58 Starlink satellites and three Planet sats was performed by a Falcon 9 flying for its sixth time, a new record (one fairing half was caught and the booster landed successfully, setting up a possible seventh flight). 


Two massive storms caught in the act of merging on Jupiter in March.


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