Issue No. 134

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 134 | Sep 15, 2021

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Inspiration4. The first orbital spaceflight crewed exclusively by private citizens is (hopefully) launching today on a three-day orbital jaunt. This is also the first orbital space flight by tourists since 2009 when Cirque du Soleil founder Guy LaLiberté visited the ISS. The flight is being funded by Jared Isaacman, an American billionaire founder and pilot, and is designed to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (he kicked it off with a $100 million donation, and public raffle proceeds brought in another $113 million). Isaacman is joined by Dr. Sian Proctor (geoscience professor, artist, and science communicator), Christopher Sembroski (engineer buddy of the guy who won a raffle), and Hayley Arceneaux (physician’s assistant at St. Jude and childhood cancer survivor). While the mission is largely automated, the four crew members received commercial astronaut training from SpaceX. The craft is the modified, previously flown Crew Dragon capsule Resilience whose ISS docking adapter has been replaced with a domed glass cupola, the largest single-pane window ever flown to space. It sounds exciting and the views will be unbeatable, but we’re guessing that Resilience is going to feel pretty tight after 4 days—even more so if splashdown gets delayed at all, extending the mission toward its maximum length of ~1 week. This brings up the question: how do they poop? In that cupola, apparently. (Perhaps it should be called the poopola?) We’ll see if that makes the Netflix documentary. Inspiration4 is only the first in a series of orbital tourist missions: Axiom will soon fly Ax-1 with three tourists along with their own ex-NASA commercial astronaut to the ISS and has already booked Crew Dragons for three more ISS visits (and is working on their own space station); Space Adventures has booked multiple Soyuz rides for tourists to the ISS; there are both Russian (NET Oct. 5th) and American ISS-based films in the works; and, of course, there’s (eventually) the Starship-based dearMoon which is planned to take humans farther from home than they’ve ever gone.

Inspiration4 awaits launch day on the pad in Florida.

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How many exoplanets can support life as we know it? Calculating how much photosynthetically active radiation an exoplanet receives (light with a wavelength in the 400-700 nm band) can be used to estimate its suitability for Earth-like life (paper; background paper). Researchers who scanned through the list of confirmed exoplanets and evaluated their orbital distances and stars’ spectral types came to the conclusion that only a single one would be suitable for life as we know it: Kepler-442b, a rocky planet twice as large as Earth and some 1,206 light-years away. The soon-to-launch JWST will hopefully provide us with more data, and the population of potentially habitable exoplanets will certainly grow as we find more worlds (the number of confirmed exoplanets is now up to 4,516).

Kepler-442b’s size compared to Earth

NASA selects five companies to mature lunar landing. The announcement selects SpaceX, along with four other HLS bidders (Dynetics plus National Team members Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman) to receive a total of $146 million in funding to develop sustainable human lunar lander designs with the goal of maturing and de-risking human lunar landing such that crewed landings can become a steady and reliable part of NASA’s permanent lunar presence. To some, this may look like a National Team/Dynetics HLS participation trophy to the tune of ~$137 million, with SpaceX getting just $9 million in funding. But according to the source selection statement, SpaceX was awarded the single “risk reduction task order” they bid on—other contractors proposed multiple tasks (Blue proposed 17) with NASA selecting a subset. This funding is meant to move the ball forward while NASA prepares the more expansive Lunar Exploration Transportation Services (LETS) solicitation which it will conduct as an open bidding competition much like the Commercial Resupply Services and Commercial Crew programs. LETS will focus on expanding HLS into a multi-provider consistent lunar landing service, in the same way that Commercial Crew provides transportation to the ISS. Assuming congress funds it.


News in brief. Orbit Fab raised $10M for orbital refueling—their first trial with a pair of satellites to practice docking and fuel transfer is aimed for late 2022 A burning odor filled the ISS briefly this week, centered on the Zvezda module, and set off the smoke alarm, but no source could be found—fire in closed environments in space and on Earth is a super real danger  Meanwhile, Cosmonauts completed two of the 11 planned spacewalks to activate Nauka Chang’e-5 orbiter, having dropped off its lunar samples in December and visited the Earth-Moon L1, now appears to have headed back to the Moon, but its final destination is unknown—it may continue on to visit 469219 Kamoʻoalewa, the target of China’s 2024 near Earth asteroid sample-return mission OneWeb launched 34 more satellites, bringing their constellation to 322 of 648 China launched the Zhongxing-9B TV broadcast satellite on a Long March-3B and Russia launched the Razbeg n°1 military reconnaissance satellite on a Soyuz 2.1v rocket SpaceX launched the first 51-satellite batch of their second group of Starlink satellites on a booster being flown for its tenth time—this launch was a polar launch, included inter-satellite laser links, and launched from Vandenberg on the west coast of the US Rocket Lab won a five-launch deal to deliver French startup Kinéis’s internet-of-things satellite constellation Perseverance’s first core samples and the salts it contains suggest a “potentially habitable sustained environment” and a long history of water at Jezero Crater.



Enceladus and its massive geysers, shooting water (and methane) from a subsurface ocean, imaged over 14 hours by Cassini. Related: Just over 40 years ago, on Aug. 25, 1981, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Saturn and its moons.

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