Issue No. 122


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 122 | Jun 23, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Tiangong has a crew, and China has a vision. Shenzhou-12 launched three Chinese astronauts on a Long March-2F from the Gobi Desert and ferried them to Tiangong (here’s a video of the docking). This means there are now two long-duration crewed habitats in Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s when Skylab and Salyut stations both hosted humans on-orbit (Mir’s last crew departed just a few months before Expedition-1 arrived at the ISS). The three astronauts are slated to stay in the new station’s Tianhe core module for up to three months, breaking China’s 30-day record set during their last crewed spaceflight five years ago. The Shenzhou spacecraft is based on the Russian Soyuz design, but is substantially larger and has modernized construction. Similarly, the Tianhe module is based on the Russian Functional Cargo Block (FGB) design, which is used by the Zvezda module of the ISS, and previously by Mir. China has built heavily on a foundation of Russian technology and experience while moving quickly to demonstrate its own capabilities in space. Barred from collaboration on the ISS by the Wolf Amendment, China will host international experiments on Tiangong. China and Russia also just announced a roadmap for their International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), starting with robotic exploration landers over the next five years (Chang’e 6 and 7, complete with a mini-flying probe, along with Luna 25, 26, and 27), then moving on to base construction starting in 2026 with cargo delivery and robotic construction missions, and finally crewed missions around 2036. (Related: The two counties are also collaborating on a Chinese mission to sample a near-Earth asteroid in 2024.)


Shenzhou-12 approaches the Tianhe core module for docking.


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Rocket Lab is aiming for Mars. Adding to their lunar and Venusian ambitions, Rocket Lab just won a contract to design two Mars-bound space probes for Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory and NASA, based on the company’s Photon satellite bus. If selected for development, the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) duo will be launched in 2024 on an existing NASA mission (they won’t use an Electron rocket). The pair would orbit Mars and study its magnetosphere for a nominal mission of one year, studying how the solar wind strips away Mars’ atmosphere over time. EscaPADE was one of three missions selected in 2019 by NASA’s SIMPLEx program. We should know after confirmation review in July if the mission will proceed to development. Related: Rocket Lab competitor Launcher just announced Orbiter, their own orbital transfer vehicle and competitor to Rocket Lab’s Photon (and Firefly’s Space Utility Vehicle, and Spaceflight’s Sherpa, and D-Orbit’s ION Satellite Carrier, and Momentus’ Vigoride, and Astra’s upcoming offering based on their recent acquisition of Apollo Fusion—the orbital transfer vehicle space is getting crowded.)

News in brief. Following in the recent footsteps of South Korea and New Zealand, Brazil joined the Artemis Accords last week (the 12th nation to do so, if you’re keeping count); Japan (another Artemis Accords signatory) became the fourth country to legally allow private organizations to own space resources; Hubble is having hardware issues with its almost-40-year-old payload computer; Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 mission is set to launch July 30th; long ignored, NASA and the White House have requested budget for the Near-Earth Object Surveyor space telescope and it has moved into its design phase, for a hopeful 2026 launch; meanwhile in the House of Representatives, Blue Origin’s lobbying quest for additional HLS contract funding was quickly voted down; former astronaut Pam Melroy was sworn in as NASA deputy administrator; large UK defense contractor BAE Systems announced their solar-powered HALE “pseudo-satellite” which can fly at >20,000 m for a year at a time; SpaceX’s orbital launch tower for Starship has begun to take shape in Boca Chica (but a July launch is looking unlikely in part due to FAA launch licensing delays); three small (spy) satellites for the NRO were launched on a Minotaur 1—this the first use of the vehicle, based on retired Cold-War-era Minuteman II missile technology, in ~8 years; a Falcon 9 carried a GPS III-5 satellite into orbit on a used booster, a first for US national security missions; and, the G7 nations “pledged to take action to tackle the growing hazard of space debris”, although the type of action and scope remain unclear.
Perseverance used its Mastcam-Z stereo imaging system to capture a 360-degree panorama while waiting for Ingenuity to complete its early flights. The resulting composite is comprised of 992 images and 2.4-billion-pixels. Can you find Ingenuity? (click for an interactive, zoomable version)

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