¶NEA Scout and solar sails. Now tested at scale, first by Japan’s IKAROS in 2010 (196 m2 sail) and later by The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 (32 m2 sail), solar sails allow for low, continuous thrust without the use of fuel. NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission, or NEA Scout, is a 6U CubeSat with an 86 m2 aluminized polymer solar sail planned to launch on Artemis I (e.g. probably very late this year or early next). The entire craft and sail weigh less than 14 kg. The mission will spend two years sailing on solar photon pressure (and adjusting course with cold gas thrusters) to reach 1991 VG, a very small NEA, and will then characterize the asteroid’s physical properties during a slow flyby (10-20 m/s; paper). If successful, the mission may be extended to another asteroid. Further out, NASA plans to launch Solar Cruiser in 2025 to the Earth-Sun L1 point where it will use the largest solar sail ever flown (1,650 m2, with built-in reflection control devices at the sail’s corners for attitude adjustments), to explore a novel orbit: “Solar Cruiser will fly beyond L1 and use a solar sail to make its own artificial orbit closer to the Sun, but still on a straight line between the Sun and Earth as Earth revolves around the Sun. Only a solar sail can provide the forces necessary to maintain such an otherwise unstable orbit, since doing so requires constant fuel.” This is a testbed for future, even more ambitious missions.
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¶Bezos goes to space. Bezos, his brother, the venerable Wally Funk, and last-minute addition 18-year old Oliver Daemen visited space yesterday on the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle. This launch set a record for both the oldest (Funk, at 82) and youngest (Oliver, at 18) person to visit space. While somewhat underwhelming when watching the live stream (no in-capsule views, few rocket cam shots, and poor audio)—the 10-minute flight takes the vehicle straight up to 107 km and then down again with 3 minutes of weightlessness along the way—Bezos says Blue Origin has sold nearly $100 million worth of future flights. The original winner of the auctioned-off fourth seat, who donated $28 million to Blue Origin’s Club for the Future charity, delayed their flight due to scheduling conflicts but will ride in a future New Shepard seat (it's a bit unclear if the charity proceeds make up ~30% of Bezos' 100 million in sales or not). Instead, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of another bidder, private equity executive Joes Daemen, got to fly. Blue Origin has donated $19 million of the initial proceeds to space non-profits including The Planetary Society, Space Camp, and the Brooke Owens Fellowship.
| Wally Funk emerges from the New Shepard capsule after becoming the oldest human to reach space. Credit: Blue Origin|
- Registration is open for the 10th annual NASA Space Apps Challenge. “NASA is inviting coders, entrepreneurs, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, builders, artists, and technologists to come together in a global, virtual hackathon the weekend of October 2-3, 2021. During a period of 48 hours, participants from around the world will come together to create virtual teams and solve challenges using NASA’s open-sourced data.”
- On MESSENGER’s 2004-2011 trip to orbit Mercury, engineers conserved fuel by solar sailing to set up precise planetary flybys—they oriented the craft’s solar panels to reflect sunlight and gently change the craft’s velocity, which allowed all planned flyby approach burns to be skipped. This made MESSENGER the first craft to use solar sailing for trajectory control (pdf).
- NASA is also developing its ACS3 mission to test light-weight deployable booms for solar sails using composite materials that are 75% lighter and experience 100x less in-space thermal distortion than those used previously. The ACS3 sail is 9 meters on a side and deploys from a 12U CubeSat.
- Recently announced, joining NEA Scout on Artemis I are two CubeSats from JAXA. EQUULEUS is a 6U CubeSat that will demonstrate low-energy trajectory control technologies at the Earth-Moon L2 point, and OMOTENASHI, which will attempt a sort-of soft landing on the Moon with a small rocket motor and an airbag, all in a 12 kg, 6U spacecraft!
- 60 years ago today, Gus Grissom became the second astronaut to reach space, then almost drowned when his capsule’s explosive hatch activated prematurely.
- An infographic showing the current development status of Chinese (semi-)private launch vehicles.
- A recent issue of Tim Fernholz’s Space Business newsletter discussed Orbital EOS, a startup that tracks oil spills from orbit using Capella Space’s SAR to observe changes in wave behavior due to oil’s effect on water surface tension. This capability can bring accountability when companies deny that anything has spilled. Similarly, according to new research using NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System constellation, surfactants often co-occur with microplastics, and it appears that detecting their effect on waves from orbit could allow tracking of microplastic at a global scale.