Issue No. 125


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 125 | Jul 14, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Branson beats Bezos to space. On Sunday, Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity flew above 80 km in the company’s fourth test flight, carrying Richard Branson and 5 others into space. This flight, briefly, set a new record of 16 humans simultaneously in space. Unlike SpaceShipOne, its predecessor which won the Ansari X Prize by crossing the 100 km Kármán Line (the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s definition of space), VSS Unity “only” climbs to 80 km, the altitude that the US Air Force and NASA consider to be the boundary of space. While Blue Origin’s marketing team disputes this altitude being truly “Space”, there isn’t a significant difference between 80 and 100 km. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter—they went above (most of) the atmosphere and achieved weightlessness for a few minutes—and it sounded like fun. The flight was not without risks though—a pilot was killed in 2014 when VSS Enterprise broke up during a test flight. Whether the view and a couple of minutes of microgravity are worth the $250,000, which purportedly 600+ people are signed up to pay, is entirely subjective. (Personally, we’d rather go to orbit.) Virgin Galactic hopes to start commercial service in early 2022 and is raffling off two seats on a flight as part of their launch marketing. Virgin’s next challenge is proving its ability to conduct rapid turnarounds between flights. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is scheduled to attempt their first crewed launch of their suborbital New Shepard, which should reach 100km with Bezos and company on board at the end of the month—the company just received licensing from the FAA for the launch. (Please note: Jeff Bezos would like you to stop referring to it as a “space race”.)


Branson in microgravity. Credit: Virgin Galactic


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A ‘blue jet’ reaching 30 km into the stratosphere above a thunderstorm, as seen from the ISS.
News in brief. Initially planned for launch in 2007, Russia’s Nauka ISS science lab module is finally scheduled to launch on July 21 on a Proton booster, with docking to the nadir port of the Zvezda module scheduled for July 29 ● JWST passed its final launch review, although its name may get changed due to pressure over accounts of Webb discriminating against (and firing) LGBTQ NASA staffers during his time as administrator in the early 1960sNASA awarded a $935 million contract to Northrop Grumman to build and integrate the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module for the lunar Gateway, based off their Cygnus cargo craft, targeting a launch on a Falcon Heavy in late 2024—this module will house astronauts and provide command, control and power, plus three docking ports and mounting hardware for Canadarm3 ● In other robot arm news, the European Robotic Arm (ERA) will fly with Nauka to the Russian segment of the ISS ● Rocket Lab is now producing a new rocket every 20 daysDava Newman, an MIT astronautics professor and former NASA Deputy Administrator known for her design of the BioSuit, will lead the renowned MIT Media Lab ● The space SPAC pack grows again—Satellogic (deck; valued at $1.1 billion) and Planet Labs (deck; valued at $2.8 billion) both announced SPAC mergers, while Astra completed its own last week.

Curiosity took this picture shortly after sunset on January 31, 2014. The Martian rover was 160,000,000 km from Earth at the time. Earth is faintly visible just left of center.


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