Issue No. 137

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 137 | Oct 6, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

A VIPER is heading to the Moon. NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover is an ambitious mission to explore the truly frigid (-249 °C) interiors of permanently shadowed craters on the Moon’s south pole. The mission, launching in late 2023, now has a specific destination: the western ridge of the Nobile impact crater, from which it will be able to access multiple ~600 m craters. The comparatively affordable $660 million, solar-powered, golf-cart-sized rover uses batteries, heaters, and headlights to survive forays into these mysterious regions, possibly the coldest in the Solar System, where it will attempt to determine the nature of water on the Moon. Able to drive in any direction and climb 30° slopes with individually articulated wheels, it carries a meter-long drill (which will provide the deepest samples of any robotic mission to date) and three water-seeking spectrometers: neutron for detecting hydrogen up to a meter down, infrared for determining if the hydrogen is in water ice or locked up in minerals, and mass for detecting volatiles and gasses. In late 2023, all eyes will be on Astrobotic’s Griffin CLPS lander (and the Falcon Heavy that launches it) as it delivers this ambitious mission to the Moon. VIPER is designed to last 3 lunar days (3 Earth months), and hopefully will teach us about the origins of planetary water and find abundant ice for future mining (some of which we now think is in small and accessible craters).

A simulation of a small lunar impact crater at NASA's Ames Research Center is used to help with testing VIPER's lighting system.

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A film shoot starts on the ISS. This week Soyuz MS-19 carried cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, film director Klim Shipenko, and actress Yulia Peresild to the ISS to spend 12 days filming “The Challenge”, the first feature-length fictional film shot with professional actors in space (beating Tom Cruise to the punch). The movie follows a young doctor sent to space to perform an emergency zero-g heart surgery on a Russian cosmonaut who can’t return to Earth for treatment. The Challenge follows several previous films with on-orbit footage: the (exceptionally cheesy) short Apogee of Fear, shot completely onboard the ISS in 2008, and the 1984 Russian film Return from Orbit which contained shots aboard the Salyut 7 station. Filming on the ISS will include all three Russian cosmonauts in addition to Yulia Peresild with footage shot on the station ending up at around 35-45 minutes of screen time in the final feature-length film. There is also a (Russian) reality show about the filming of the movie.

Gambling is risky business. Joey Roulette dug into Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA and found that NASA believes Blue was gambling by submitting a high bid in the hopes that NASA would just accept it, given that this strategy worked earlier in the HLS procurement process. Instead, NASA just chose a less expensive offer. Blue "made an assumption about the Agency’s HLS budget, built its proposal with this figure in mind, and [...] bet that if NASA could not afford Blue Origin’s initially-proposed price, the Agency would select Blue Origin for award and engage in post-selection negotiations to allow Blue Origin to lower its price. [...] Realizing now that it gambled and lost, Blue Origin seeks to use GAO’s procurement oversight function to improperly compel NASA to suffer the consequences of Blue Origin’s ill-conceived choices," wrote four NASA attorneys. On the other side, Blue Origin’s core argument is that SpaceX and NASA are risking astronaut safety by forgoing flight readiness reviews ahead of Starship’s uncrewed refueling launches, and that had they known of this “flexible” safety review structure, Blue could have proposed a less expensive option to the agency. Meanwhile, a former Blue Origin employee (fired two years ago due to multiple US export control issues) has written an essay supported by 20 anonymous current and former employees criticizing the company’s culture and accusing management of sexism, safety issues (now being reviewed by the FAA), and more, saying that they would not feel safe flying on a Blue vehicle. Blue Origin has had a reported 20% employee turnover this year and their current CEO, Bob Smith, has an abysmal 19% approval rating on GlassDoor. Comparing this to other industry players, Relativity Space (Ellis) has a 98% approval rating, SpaceX (Musk) is 92%, Rocket Lab (Beck) is 78%, ULA (Bruno) is 77%, and even Boeing (Calhoun) has 71%. As always, we feel for the hard-working employees at Blue, many of whom do not agree with the litigious direction of the company, have conducted multiple successful New Shepard launches this year, and are hard at work on New Glenn, BE-4, and other projects.

News in brief. The FAA determined that Virgin Galactic’s July 11th flight of SpaceShipTwo indeed deviated from its flight path without notification—the company has been cleared to resume suborbital flights with required changes to how they communicate with the FAA Axiom’s Crew Dragon-based Ax-1, the first all-private mission to the ISS, is now scheduled to launch NET Feb. 21 Honda announced their intention to get into space technology and build a partially-reusable rocket Starfish Space raised $7 million to develop its Otter space tug 🦦 China publicly showcased more about its plans for a human lunar presence—the country plans to have a new lunar-capable super heavy lift rocket (LM-9) in service by 2028 and a first crewed landing, launched by a yet-to-be-named new deep space crew launcher, sometime around 2030 NASA is soliciting proposals for commercial spacesuits which will build upon, but not immediately replace, their billion dollar (and delayed) xEMU development efforts NASA has also requested proposals for commercial lunar communications services Lynk (neé UbiquitiLink) demonstrated two-way data between its satellite and an unmodified cell phone BepiColombo flew by Mercury, swinging by the planet just 199 km above the surface, in the first of six Mercury flybys between 2021 and 2025 before it will finally enter orbit (animation).

BepiColumbo snapped this photo as it flew within 199 km of Mercury. At 56 million kilometers from the Sun, the spacecraft is now experiencing 110° C temperatures.


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