Issue No. 135

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 135 | Sep 22, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Inspiration4. SpaceX completed the first free-flying space tourist mission of Crew Dragon in a show of industry dominance. An on-time liftoff, nominal flight and landing of the Falcon 9 booster, well-designed coverage and mission updates, and a successful reentry and recovery resulted in a mission that appeared to go off without a hitch (apparently, there was a small problem with a “waste management fan” 🤢). Despite not actually being the much-repeated “first all-civilian orbital spaceflight” (that honor goes to Roscosmos Soyuz TMA-3 in 2003), nor “the record number of people in space,” (that happened during VSS Unity’s flight this summer when 16 people were very briefly in space), the flight broke important ground. It was the first time someone with an internal prosthetic or a child cancer survivor had flown to orbit, the first black woman to pilot a space mission, and the largest single-pane window ever flown in space. These represent steps toward the expansion of space access to a wider swath of the population, in more habitable conditions—not just mega-rich individuals or government astronauts in a crowded government research station (although we are fully aware that this mission itself was funded by a mega-rich individual). This mission’s execution and publicity have created something of a rush for additional privately crewed missions, with interest in both “free flyer” missions like Inspiration4, as well as ISS missions like those upcoming from Axiom. SpaceX may be most constrained by limited hardware, with its three extant Crew Dragon modules in high demand and most Falcon 9 boosters already tasked with satellite and governmental launches. We’re gearing up to fly three, four, five, six times a year, at least,” [Benji Reed] said later of the potential Crew Dragon flight rate. “There’s nothing that really limits our capability to launch. It’s about having rockets and Dragons ready to go.”  (Related: Live video during the mission was minimal due to the mission being non-governmental and therefore data limited. SpaceX paid NASA $1 million for data and tracking support, but ground station downlink coverage limited all live video to 10-minute windows.)

Crew Dragon Resilience splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean as SpaceX recovery boats race to welcome her and her crew back to planet Earth.

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From Xometry, a good case study on how NASA’s Environmental Control and Life Support Systems team used Xometry’s CNC machining services to build the closed-loop Four Bed Carbon Dioxide Scrubber on a short deadline.

Privateering is a humanitarian mission? Steve Wozniak, the ex-Dancing with the Stars contestant and co-founder of Apple, obliquely announced Privateer Space, a new space startup that he is co-founding with Alex Fielding (also ex-Apple), via an (exceptionally glitzy) 1-minute teaser spot. The claim is that “a private space company is starting up, unlike the others” and that they will “keep space safe and accessible for all humankind.” The company, which is based in Hawai’i, is apparently working on space debris cleanup—or something similar—but has yet to reveal any meaningful details other than that they plan to fly a 3D printed satellite chassis next year.

Who owns space debris anyway? Speaking of space debris cleanup, we recently supported some exploratory research into the legality of recycling space debris for parts, reaction mass, or upcycling. (Think: satellites that eat other satellites as fuel… or grind them up and use them to print new components!) Turns out, it’s complicated. If you were starting a company focused on recycling or deorbiting satellites, you’d need to work directly with the owners of defunct satellites, or with the nations under whose laws their owners reside. Or, if you’re dealing with defunct satellites owned by US companies, you might be able to use the Doctrine of Abandonment and the Rule of Capture to show an intent to abandon when their owners went out of business, failed to deorbit them, or failed to move them into a graveyard orbit (pdf). All of this is for objects whose (original) owner is known, not ownerless debris. The Outer Space Treaty, unfortunately, does not formally define space debris and because tracing its origin (and thus owner) is often impossible, you can’t legally show an intent to abandon (someone cannot abandon something they don’t know they have), and thus can’t claim salvage rights. This seems ridiculous, and likely no one would complain if companies capture small debris, but the necessity to spend many millions standing up salvage operations is a large bet. Because of this, the United Nations is working to modernize the very outdated Outer Space Treaty with definitions of space waste and space debris. There are recommendations that they consider all non-registered space debris as abandoned property, open to salvage. But, until this happens, upcycling and life-extension of cooperative satellites (as with the recent MEV missions), or deorbiting satellites by request of their owners or governments, will be the most obvious business cases.

News in brief. Spire is acquiring Canadian maritime tracking company exactEarth, its first acquisition as a public company Musk mentioned on Twitter that Starlink will come out of beta sometime “next month”—it is unclear what this means for the service, perhaps pricing changes, faster rollout, or fewer connection interruptions Researchers funded through NASA and the NSF will have access to Planet’s Earth-observation data An amateur astronomer spotted an impact flash on Jupiter (video) Russia and Kazakhstan signed an agreement for the construction of a Soyuz-5 launch complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Spaceflight Inc. announced their ‘GEO Pathfinder’ lunar and GEO rideshare mission consisting of a Sherpa-ES tug riding as a secondary payload on Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 South Pole Mission in late 2022 NASA will split the leadership of its human spaceflight program with Kathy Lueders taking the ISS and Commercial Crew and Jim Free returning to NASA to lead Artemis, Orion, SLS, and the Human Landing System programs The three Shenzhou-12 astronauts returned to Earth after their 3-month mission to the new Chinese space station.

A shot from a panoramic video in the new Crew Dragon cupola (with the craft's nosecone in the lower left) during Inspiration4. The video was captured on an iPhone by mission commander Jared Isaacman. (Related: a video of the crew opening the hatch to the cupola for the first time.)

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