Issue No. 86

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 86 | Oct 14, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

The Patti Grace Smith Fellowship. This week, in uncharacteristically positive form for 2020, a new fellowship for Black students in aerospace was announced. The new program was spun out from, and modeled after, the well-loved and successful Brooke Owens Fellowship for women and gender-minority students in aerospace. (The Brooke Owens fellowship hasn’t been around all that long itself: 2020 produced just the fourth cohort of ‘Brookies’ to date.) The new fellowship’s namesake, Patti Grace Smith, had an exceptionally varied life that included youth involvement in integrating schools in Alabama in 1963, running the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and serving on NASA’s advisory board. Applications for the fellowship are open through November 15th!

This is going to be touch and go. OSIRIS-REx, which launched in 2016 and has been orbiting the asteroid Bennu in microgravity since 2018, is going to try its first Touch And Go (TAG) maneuver next week. This maneuver involves autonomously descending toward the asteroid with the craft’s sample arm extended, briefly making contact at a location dubbed as Nightingale, using nitrogen gas to blow regolith into a sample collection head, verifying collection of sample material by observing a very small change in the craft’s inertia, and returning to orbit (here’s a quick visualization 📺 ). The pristine sample should arrive at Earth in September 2023 and will likely contain organic compounds. Detection of carbonates, which may have formed in an “asteroid-scale hydrothermal system” inside Bennu’s parent body, has been a triumph of this mission. OSIRIS-REx has been charged with returning at least 60 g (and up to 2 kg) of sample material—the most returned since an Apollo mission. (Hayabusa2’s sample, due back this December, is 100 mg.) Bennu has a 1 in 2,700 chance of colliding with the Earth between 2175 and 2199, so we should probably keep an eye on it (and the other eye on Apophis, a 350 m NEO that will come within 6 Earth-radii in 9 years). Related: Space is a messy place and Bennu has little pieces that probably came from Vesta sitting on it.

Blue Origin Update. Blue Origin’s reusable suborbital New Shepard flew for the first time since December 2019, completing its 13th flight, and seventh reuse for this booster (launch replay 📺). The mission successfully carried several NASA experiments, including a “microgravity LilyPond”— a hydroponic chamber for growing edible aquatic plants in space— and a system for precise planetary landing that uses both terrain relative navigation (for high altitude use, soon to be used for landing by Mars 2020) and LiDAR (for final propulsive landing), with a planned application to upcoming lunar landing missions. Blue Origin is also working on its massive New Glenn vehicle, the Blue Moon lunar lander, and (apparently) space stations, as well as several engines: BE-4 for New Glenn and Vulcan, and BE-7 for Blue Moon. This launch brings them closer to crewed suborbital spaceflight, but with nothing more official than “after a few more launches,” it is unlikely this will happen in 2020 as hoped. We’re looking forward to Team Blue finishing any of these ambitious projects! (Related: the first ‘pathfinder’ BE-4 engine was delivered to ULA in July for advance testing on Vulcan, and flight-qualified engines are on-track for delivery by EOY. So, credit where credit’s due.)

Starlink 12. Last week, the twelfth batch of v1.0 Starlink satellites launched in what is now a routine manner: the reused booster landed on an autonomous drone ship and one fairing half, flying for its third time, was caught by the net ship Ms. Tree. Musk tweeted that Starlink will be ready for a public beta in southern Canada and the northern US once this batch reaches operational altitude (550 km), likely in January. Casey Handmer recently dug into Starlink packet routing. Ben found a great open source Starlink coverage visualizer back in July created by Greg Morenz and has now updated it to support more recent launch data. You can view a live version of the preview below at:

Current Starlink coverage is visualized as circles, where any user terminal in the circle with an uninterrupted view from 25° above the horizon upwards should have connectivity.

News in brief. SpaceX is now building satellites for other organizations: the US Defense Department’s Space Development Agency granted contracts to L3Harris and SpaceX for both companies to build four infrared missile detection and tracking satellites as the military moves away from massive geo satellites that take many years to build; Roscosmos announced designs (in Russian) for a proposed partially-reusable launch vehicle that looks a whole lot like a small Falcon 9; and, now in interplanetary space, Tianwen-1 released a small probe and took this self-portrait on its way to Mars.

Tianwen-1 in interplanetary space.


John Kraus caught a SpaceX Falcon 9 launching in front of the rising Sun as it carried 60 Starlink satellites to orbit. (Meanwhile, Cygnus beautifully flew past the moon.)

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