Issue No. 95

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 95 | Dec 16, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

SN8 flops. Last Wednesday, Starship SN8 conducted its much anticipated high-altitude flight test 📺—the whole flight is very much worth watching. The test, originally suggested over a year ago, demonstrated the viability of the vehicle's core innovations: multiple configurations of three-Raptor flight, the high-drag belly flop reentry maneuver, and header-tank-fueled propulsive landing. Prior to launch, Musk gave the 6m40s, ~12.5 km test flight a 30% chance of success. It proceeded according to plan until landing, at which point low header tank pressure led to loss of engine power and a faster-than-planned landing, resulting in an enormous fireball that left only SN8’s nose cone on the landing pad. (Here’s a huge 352-megapixel image of SN8… very much from before the launch.) The ‘belly flop’ with its 70° angle of attack and landing flip was particularly impressive—looking much like a happily skydiving 16-story stainless steel grain silo 📺. SN9 is almost complete and is slated to continue SpaceX’s aggressive test flight plans. (However, earlier this week the stand supporting SN9 collapsed and the 50m tall rocket was photographed leaning on the inside wall of SpaceX’s new high bay structure.) SpaceX continues its “hardware rich” design methodology (a list of decommissioned hardware) and has SN10 through SN15 in various stages of production, along with Starship’s first stage, Super Heavy BN1 (its stack shown at right in the image below). Even culminating in a fiery RUD, SN8’s flight was a resounding success for SpaceX and is a major milestone in Starship’s development. Related: SpaceX also launched its second-to-last Falcon 9 of the year, bringing the company’s total 2020 launches to 25.

Angara tests out. The Russian Angara 5 heavy lift vehicle—we first covered it in Issue No. 77launched on its second test flight this week (video) after over four years of delays. The original payload scheduled to fly on Angara’s second test flight, Angosat-1, was rescheduled in 2017 on a Zenit-3F flight due to multiple schedule slippages from its original 2016 launch date. This week’s launch carried a mass simulator instead. Angara will now enter regular service with as many as five flights scheduled for 2021, and it will fully replace the Russian Proton-M workhorse in 2024.

Rocket 3.2 almost reaches orbit. To cap off a week studded with high profile flights, Astra joined the select group of companies that have reached orbital space, narrowly missing full orbit. The Bay Area rocket startup launched their Rocket 3.2 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska with a dummy payload onboard for the vehicle’s second launch. They had previously stated that the rocket would likely take three launches to achieve orbit. They have now passed their goal of fully testing the first stage capabilities with both a successful first and second stage firing (video). The rocket came just half a kilometer per second short of reaching orbital velocity and will likely accomplish that milestone with its 3.3 launch.

Rocket 3.2’s upper stage view from above the Kármán line.


News in brief (also mostly about rockets). Virgin Orbit targets December 19th for a second orbital launch attempt for their air-launched rocket, this time with 10 NASA CubeSats onboard; NASA is considering commercial Mars data relay satellites; China launched their GECAM satellite to watch for gravitational wave electromagnetic counterparts (visible events that correlate with gravitational wave detections); Isar Aerospace raised $91 million for their Spectrum vehicle (targeting a 2022 launch) and Orbex raised $24 million for their Electron-esque booster (also targeting 2022); Space Rider, Europe’s first orbital spaceplane, is really happening and received a €167 million contract; a secret NRO satellite finally launched on a Delta 4 Heavy rocket after two previously scrubbed attempts; Beresheet 2 has been announced for a 2024 launch and will include an orbiter and two small landers targeting different parts of the Moon; a Virgin Galactic test flight was aborted safely when the rocket motor failed to ignite; and, NASA announced their 18-astronaut “Artemis Team” who will all train for, and some may return to, the Moon, and also outlined their science priorities for the first crewed mission, including recovery of cryogenic volatiles from permanently shadowed lunar regions (which, at 23 kelvin, are colder than Pluto).


2016 HO3 (aka 469219 Kamoʻoalewa) hasn’t been further away than 100x the distance to the Moon, nor closer than 38x the lunar distance, for the last ~100 years. ZhengHe is a proposed Chinese mission to collect samples from 2016 HO3 before dropping them off at Earth and continuing on to a comet (pdf).

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