Issue No. 91

Hi, it’s Ben’s Birthday. Happy Birthday, Ben! 🎉


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 91 | Nov 18, 2020

🚀 🎂 🛰

Chang’e-5. Originally scheduled for 2017, but delayed by the (unrelated) launch failure of its heavy-lift Long March 5 vehicle, China’s lunar sample return mission is launching next week. Chang’e-5 will collect and return about 2 kg of samples, the first lunar samples since the 1970s. Chang’e-5 consists of an ambitious four spacecraft fleet—a propulsion module to bring the vehicles into lunar orbit, a lander to collect samples, an ascent vehicle to carry the samples into orbit, and a return module that will receive the samples via orbital rendezvous and bring them to Earth. The lander is targeting the Mons Rümker formation on the near side of the Moon to collect relatively young (~1.21 billion years old) volcanic samples during one lunar daytime (14 Earth days—it can’t stay longer since it doesn’t have radioisotope heater units like Chang’e-4). To bleed off speed, the return vehicle will use a ‘skip reentry’ in which it bounces off the upper atmosphere once, as tested in the 2014 Chang’e-5-T1 test mission. It’s sibling, Chang’e-6, was built at the same time and will either serve as a backup if Chang’e-5 fails, or be repurposed for a south pole landing in a couple of years. Related: China’s proposed architecture for future crewed Moon landings.


Chang’e-5 during testing.


“All for one. Crew-1 for all.” After a month-long delay, due to the now-resolved issue with new Merlin engines’ potential for a lacquer-clogged relief valve, NASA certified Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 for routine crewed flights to the ISS and subsequently launched Crew-1 last Sunday. After a nominal liftoff and 27-hour transit to the station, with only a few minor hiccups along the way, the four astronauts (Victor Glover, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker, and Michael Hopkins) joined the existing crew of three on Monday evening 📺. Victor Glover became the first Black astronaut to crew the station. In another first, the FAA licensed this crewed flight for NASA, much like it does commercial airline flights—perhaps this sets us on a path to commercial crewed launches becoming a common occurrence. Crew-2 is scheduled to launch on the same Falcon 9 booster as Crew-1 while also reusing the Crew Dragon capsule from Demo-2. It’s currently scheduled for NET 30 March 2021. Crew-3 will continue the 6-month cadence, launching next fall.



News in brief. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity test flight should happen this week—it will carry payloads from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program; the US Senate appropriations bill does not meet NASA’s budget request for a 2024 Artemis landing; an Indian PSLV vehicle deployed 10 satellites, including India’s EOS 1 radar imaging satellite, four of Spire’s Lemur-2 CubeSats, and four of Kleos Space’s radio-frequency triangulation CubeSats—the latter company just raised $13.8 million to continue building their radio mapping constellation; a second cable failed at Arecibo, causing more damage; Starship SN8 melted the internals of one of its Raptor engines during its third static fire test, which resulted in loss of pneumatic control that led to a header tank not venting—the vehicle was only saved from an over-pressure RUD by a burst disc; Astrobotic received a $5.7M Tipping Point contract from NASA to develop a magnetic resonance-based wireless charging system for small lunar rovers (we’re hoping it fairs better than Apple’s AirPower); NASA and ESA’s Mars Sample Return mission reached another important milestone with NASA’s independent review approving of its technical feasibility and recommending that the program proceed; ESA signed a trio of Copernicus contracts worth 1.3 billion euros—meanwhile, the in-orbit Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite can now spot the nitrogen dioxide plumes from individual ships from space; an Atlas V successfully launched NROL-101; and, it looks like Earth has indeed re-captured a 1960s era rocket booster.

The SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope imaged the trinary star system GW Orionis in which three stars create bizarre shapes in a protoplanetary disk. Phil Plait shares animations and context. (Dehydrate!)


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