Issue No. 124

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 124 | Jul 7, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Transporter 2. Much better than the other sequel, SpaceX’s second dedicated rideshare Falcon 9 mission launched from Cape Canaveral with a menagerie of small satellites. Initially delayed from June 25, booster B1060’s eighth mission delivered 88 satellites into polar orbit—its predecessor, Transporter-1, carried 143 satellites, still the record—before making the year’s first beautiful Return to Launch Site (RTLS) landing. This single booster has now completed eight flights in just one year, launching a GPS-III mission, five Starlink missions, Turksat 5a, and now this rideshare. SpaceX’s Transporter missions use a series of payload rings that each have multiple attachment ports, sold individually or to brokers. On this mission, Spaceflight used three ports for two attached deployers, a free-floating deployer, and a test run of their first electrically-propelled Sherpa orbital transfer vehicle (with thrusters from Apollo Fusion, soon to be owned by Astra). In total, they will release 7 microsatellites and 29 cubesats. And that’s just one broker. Another 29 satellites were brokered on Exolaunch’s “Fingerspitzengefühl” mission, Maverick has two, and 6 cubesats and 3 hosted payloads are on D-Orbit’s ION SCV-003 orbital transfer vehicle. The OTV also hosts non-deployable payloads and will eventually attempt a deorbit using a 1U deorbit sail. All told, this beast of a SpaceX launch had satellites from Loft Orbital (their first orbital sats, YAM-2 and YAM-3, themselves containing multiple hosted payloads), Echostar, SpaceAI, Capella, Umbra, Lincs, DARPA, NASA, Fleet, FlanetIQ, ICEYE, Lynk, Satellogic, and a bunch more. And to top it all off three Starlink sats filled out the Falcon 9’s available mass and/or volume budget. 🥵

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Funk will fly! Finally. Jeff Bezos recently announced that Wally Funk would fly with him on the first crewed New Shepard suborbital launch. Funk was one of the Mercury 13, a controversial, privately-funded program that put women through astronaut screenings in the 1960s. But, due to gender discrimination at early NASA, none of the Mercury 13 ultimately flew despite being well qualified to do so. Wally went on to become the first female FAA inspector and the first female NTSB air safety investigator. At 82 years old at the time of the flight, she will be the oldest person to attempt to cross the Kármán line, beating current record holder John Glenn by 5 years.

A first on-orbit fuel depot has been deployed. Orbit Fab’s 35kg Tanker-001 Tenzing was one of the many spacecraft aboard Transporter-2. Deployed by Spaceflight’s Sherpa tug, the mini-tanker carries high-test peroxide (HTP), a green alternative to hydrazine, long-used for orbital station-keeping. Orbit Fab and its first orbital refueling spacecraft (video) are at the heart of a small web of space startups that will test the long imagined promise of on-orbit satellite refueling. Benchmark Space Systems will provide its refuelable Halcyon peroxide thrusters as part of their satellite mobility platform, Starfish Space Technology’s CEPHALOPOD software will support proximity, rendezvous, and docking operations, while SCOUT’s inspection satellites will leverage Benchmark’s mobility platform which itself includes Orbit Fab’s RAFTI fueling port. (Spaceflight’s Sherpa is also in line to use Benchmark’s thrusters and therefore RAFTI.) Orbit Fab’s fueling port has been supported by NASA with an earlier tanker prototype flying to the ISS carrying water in 2019. Who is paying who is all still a bit unclear at this point—but, if refueling is going to work sustainably, it will need a network of both providers and customers. The industry has had much of the technology for refueling developed for some time, but without fuel in space or satellites in orbit equipped to be refueled, the reality has stayed just out of reach. We hope this cadre of test satellites will yield some success. It really takes a village. 🏘

Falcon 9 deploys Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTE1 carrying Tanker-001 Tenzing along with multiple other satellite payloads.

News in brief. Virgin Orbit delivered two small satellites to orbit with their first official commercial launch of the air-launched LauncherOne—congratulations!—now comes the scale-up; OneWeb raised another $500 million, bringing them to $2.4 billion in total investment to date; Astra completed its SPAC reverse IPO and joined NASDAQ under the symbol ASTR; Gilmour Space raised a $47 million Series C for their hybrid rocket (solid fuel + liquid oxidizer) to launch small satellites; Russia launched a Progress MS-17 cargo craft to the ISS and a Cygnus cargo craft undocked to deploy five CubeSats and then burn up; Chinese astronauts performed the first spacewalk on their new station, and their first tandem walk ever; China also launched five small remote sensing satellites and a meteorological satellite; construction has been approved for the Square Kilometer Array’s $2.3 billion pair of radio telescope arrays, in South Africa and Australia, the latter of which will have 131,072 antennas (cf. Issue No. 96); NASA announced a solicitation for $45 million contracts aimed at risk reduction and long term sustainability of Artemis HLS; not to be outdone by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic plans to launch Richard Branson into space on July 11th, ahead of Jeff Bezos; and, SpaceX rolled their first gargantuan Super Heavy Booster 3 to the launch site for static tests—built in just 6 weeks, it won’t fly, but Booster 4 may attempt orbit with a Starship on top—at 65 m tall, just the booster is the “same height as an entire two-stage Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft and is expected to single handedly weigh six times more than a fully-fueled Falcon 9 when loaded with liquid oxygen and methane propellant. Once Super Heavies are eventually outfitted with a full 32 Raptors, more engines than any other rocket in history, the booster will also produce more than twice the thrust of NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket – still the most powerful vehicle ever successfully flown.

Can you find the puny human?


Hubble’s 2015 image of a newborn star shooting skybeams of superheated material into space inside the Orion B molecular cloud complex, 1,350 light-years away.

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