Issue No. 139

An enthusiastic welcome to Epsilon3, our newest sponsor. Epsilon3’s ex-SpaceX team is building a software platform for managing complex operational procedures, getting you out of paper checklists, spreadsheets, and Confluence pages. We’re thrilled to have them!

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 139 | Oct 20, 2021

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SpaceX’s missing gas. When SpaceX first started the Starship project in southern Texas, there was talk of using the Sabatier process onsite with atmospheric CO2 and PV-generated electricity to produce the methane required for Starship’s Raptor engines, much as it will have to be produced on Mars. However, plans have now changed to the use of a vertically integrated natural gas extraction, piping, purification, and liquefaction system that is glossed over in their recent Project Environmental Assessment (PEA, pdf version). This assessment is an update to the initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) completed in 2014 when the site was to be used for low-frequency Falcon 9 launches. New plans include a co-located liquid natural gas processing plant, a 250 MW natural gas-powered generator (to produce the electricity needed for the desalination of water used in the deluge system for launch vibration/noise suppression), and a flare stack—which together will require as much as 1.41 MSm3/d of natural gas (enough to supply ~250,000 average US homes). SpaceX hopes to extract the gas from mineral rights it has purchased bordering federal lands, including the Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and somehow pipe it through that same land to SpaceX’s Boca Chica site. While these plans may be necessary and reasonable to consider, the PEA’s lack of inclusion of details on infrastructure and seeming underestimation of environmental impact is concerning. SpaceX and the FAA may be attempting to avoid another full EIS, which can take years, by downplaying the magnitude of the infrastructure. A perturbed anonymous writer has unpacked the assessment in overwhelming detail, and while the commentary feels overly inflammatory and Musk-hating, it is meticulous and calls SpaceX out for lack of transparency and flouting of regulatory due process. It’s currently unclear if FAA approval of this PEA stands in the way of an orbital test launch for Ship 20 and Booster 4, or if the impending test campaign can proceed without it. (And here’s the latest, an update on Monday’s first PEA public hearing from Ars.)

The expanded launch site and supporting infrastructure (blue) that SpaceX is proposing in their latest PEA with the FAA.

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Privateer is a mapping company. We now know a bit more about Privateer Space, the startup founded by Woz and Alex Fielding. They aim to increase the resolution of object tracking in space and are planning to quickly launch their first satellites—Pono 1, a 3U cubesat equipped with 42 sensors including 12 cameras, is planned to launch in February with Pono 2 following in April. Other companies in this space include surface radar-based debris tracking provider LeoLabs (check out their radar visualization) and the brand new HEO Robotics who hope to retask existing idle Earth Observation satellites for on-orbit inspection.


A false-color image taken by NASA’s MRO shows the elemental signature of clays and carbonates in the sedimentary fans and deltas within Jezero Crater.

News in brief. Astra will launch their next orbital attempt, LV0007, NET Oct. 27 with a test payload for the US Space Force—the previous launch powerslid due to a propellant leak disabling one of the five engines ● Actress Yulia Peresild and producer-director Klim Shipenkois are back on Earth after 12 days filming “Challenge” on the ISS—before leaving, their Soyuz misfired its thrusters, pushing the ISS out of orientation again Chinese startup Deep Blue Aerospace successfully conducted a 100 m vertical takeoff and landing of its Nebula-M small launch vehicle—this was the same vehicle that was used for a 10 m VTVL test in July, demonstrating reuse and GNC maturity (video) JWST has arrived safely in French Guiana for launch on an Ariane 5 NET Dec 18th Planet announced plans for a new fleet of higher resolution Earth observation satellites called Pelican 90-year-old William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen (co-founder of Planet), and two others rode Blue Origin’s second crewed New Shepard flight to the edge of space for 10 minutes—Shatner, struck by the Overview Effect, waxed poetic on the fragility of life on Earth and declared that ‘Everybody in the world needs to do this’, much to BO’s delight OneWeb launched 36 more satellites on a Soyuz, bringing their total to 358 Spaced Ventures, one of our sponsors, announced a $1.2 million seed round A Chinese Long March 2D rocket launched the country’s first solar observatory—the H-alpha Solar Explorer (pdf), a full-disk solar spectrographic imaging and space weather forecasting satellite—as well as 10 other satellites, and the first stage constrained its crash landing zone using grid fins China also launched Shenzhou-13 with 3 astronauts to the Tiangong space station for a six month stay Finally, China may have tested a Mach 5 FOBS missile earlier this summer, which they deny Virgin Galactic pushed back commercial launches to Q4 2022 in order to make vehicle safety enhancements An Atlas V sent Lucy on a 12-year journey to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids (as well as one in the main belt)—see our coverage in Issue 130—unfortunately, one of its massive solar arrays failed to latch properly, threatening the mission if it cannot be fixed and a maneuver causes it to unfurl.


An awesome photo of the recent nighttime Lucy launch by Stephan Marr of



From the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, this is the visible Universe. Each dot is a galaxy.

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