Issue No. 114


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 114 | Apr 28, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Perseverance made gas on Mars. Perseverance’s MOXIE technology demonstrator is an ISRU oxygen generator in a gold-plated aluminum box. The experiment uses electricity and 800° C temperatures to convert pressurized atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen through a solid oxide electrolysis process. This is similar to running a solid oxide fuel cell in reverse, splitting two CO2 molecules into two CO and one O2. As purely an experiment, hot exhaust gases will be analyzed before being cooled for planetary protection and simply released back into the atmosphere. In a first test run last week, MOXIE produced 5.37 grams of oxygen per hour (“about 10 minutes worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut”). The experiment will be run at least nine more times throughout Perseverance's mission, testing it in differing atmospheric conditions and temperatures. As a power- and thermal-budget-limited demonstration, MOXIE will only produce up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour (12g/hr is its theoretical maximum), but it proves the way for larger systems that could enable in situ generation of breathable air and oxidizer for fuel. Related: The just-released ISRU Gap Assessment Report (pdf).


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China’s Space Station. Tomorrow, China plans to launch the 18-meter-long, 22-metric-ton Tianhe, the core module of their new space station. Launching on a Long March 5B, Tianhe, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, will provide power and propulsion to the station as it grows, mating adapters for additional modules, and docking ports for crewed Shenzhou and uncrewed cargo Tianzhou spacecraft. In the coming weeks, an autonomous  Tianzhou-2 cargo vessel will depart on a Long March 7 with supplies and fuel for Tianhe. Possibly as soon as June, Shenzhou-12 will ascend from the Gobi Desert with three astronauts to supply Tianhe with its first crew. Similar to the ISS, the station orbits at a 340-450 km altitude. Three more modules will complete the initial build-out of the station, and at 66-metric-tons it will be about 20% the mass of the ISS. It is designed to last for at least 10 years. Additionally, the Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST), known as Xuntian, will co-orbit with the station and be able to dock for maintenance once it is launched in 2024. Xuntian is a massive telescope with a Hubble-class 2 meter lens, a 2.5 billion pixel sensor, and 300x Hubble’s field of view (paper). Related: The proposed Russian-Chinese international lunar base received a joint declaration from Roscosmos and CNSA last week, with initial robotic construction starting sometime between 2026 and 2030.


100 Million Dataframes for the SatNOGS DB. SatNOGS is the largest network of open-source satellite ground stations and works to identify and track satellites worldwide. SatNOGS is developed and maintained by the Libre Space Foundation, which supports the creation of open-source space technologies based on the Libre Space Manifesto principles. Recently, the project reached a significant milestone with the SatNOGS DB storing its 100 millionth dataframe. The frame was captured from FALCONSAT-3 (a previously DARPA-, now amateur-, controlled picosatellite for testing ambient plasma and micro propulsion attitude control systems). The SatNOGS database receives frames from more than 1,500 stations worldwide (SatNOGS stations, independent stations, and telemetry forwarders) and tracks 560+ satellites with 1,100+ total transmitters (cf. the Bobcat-1 CubeSat that was covered back in the fall has 7 transmitters). SatNOGS is a reliable, accessible, and affordable solution for satellite operators and its modular technology stack allows for integration with existing space and ground station hardware (here’s a video of the SatNOGs station at Dwingeloo Radio Observatory). With over 400 operational SatNOGS ground stations, the network provides global coverage. The collected data is distributed openly, making it ideal for educational, research, non-profit, experimental, and amateur missions. SatNOGS is a vibrant community with members who cooperatively operate the network, support satellite operators with onboarding, and help provide a seamless process of streamlined mission operations from building initial dashboards to monitoring and telemetry acquisition. Nikoletta Triantafyllopoulou from SatNOGS

News in brief. Speaking of space stations, Russia says they may pull out of the aging ISS in 2025 and launch their own station; former Florida senator Bill Nelson was quickly confirmed as the new NASA Administrator, to be joined by former astronaut Pam Melroy as deputy administrator; the NRO’s NROL-82 satellite launched on a Delta IV Heavy, it is likely a KH-11 spy satellite; four astronauts launched to the ISS in SpaceX’s Crew-2 in a reused Crew Dragon capsule flying on an also-reused Falcon 9 (and, briefly donned spacesuits due to what ended up being a false alarm of a surprise space debris conjunction); LeoLabs activated their second site, an S-band radar installation in Costa Rica, to track such debris more accurately (WebGL visualization); Blue Origin and Dynetics have (somewhat predictably) both filed protests with the Government Accountability Office over NASA’s selection of SpaceX’s crewed lunar lander; meanwhile, SpaceX filed its own protest with the FCC claiming that OneWeb misrepresented the conjunction of Starlink-1546 and OneWeb-0178 on April 2nd as dangerous and negligent on SpaceX’s part, when in fact both companies cooperated on the avoidance and there was a minuscule actual chance of collision; a Long March 6 launched nine smallsats into sun-synchronous orbit—their functions include SAR, optical remote sensing, IoT, and asteroid observation for eventual mining (Origin Space’s NEO-1); three days after its first flight, Ingenuity flew again for 52 seconds, up to a height of 4.9 m and sideways for 2.1 m… and again on the 25th, zipping 50 m downrange and back at 2 m/s. 🛫➰🛬

The tiny ISS transits Sol. This 140-megapixel image was captured by astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy using two telescopes and includes 35 “sections of the sun in tiles after the ISS was captured to fill in the rest of the scene, each tile being a stack of thousands of images, necessary to average out the effects of atmospheric detail.”


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