Issue No. 142

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 142 | Nov 10, 2021

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The 20s astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. Last Thursday, at the request of multiple space and science agencies, NASEM released their astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey for the 2020s (full paper). Following a decade of exoplanet discovery, the report’s top recommendation was for the development of a space telescope significantly larger than Hubble that could directly image habitable zone exoplanet atmospheres in both IR and optical wavelengths to search for biosignatures. This telescope's ambitions would be between HabEx and LUVOIR (two previously-proposed next-gen telescopes) with the goal of superseding the JWST in the early 2040s. The survey also recommends the development of a very high-resolution X-ray mission and a far-infrared mission. To enable these efforts, and avoid delays and overruns (*cough* JWST *cough*), they recommend establishing a ‘Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program’ as a new approach for developing future space telescope missions. “The program would provide early investment in technology development for multiple mission concepts to lower the risks and costs of projects before they become too complex, large, and costly.” Decadal surveys have a real impact: the 1980s decadal survey resulted in the Chandra X-ray Observatory launching 20 years later; the 90s survey resulted in the Spitzer Space Telescope; the 00s resulted in the James Webb Space Telescope (launching next month!); and, the 10s pushed forward WFIRST & LSST, now both under active development. Other recommendations from this survey include the development of a regulatory framework to control the impact of satellite constellations; funding changes to increase research and promote diversity; continued development of ground-based gravitational wave observatories; a focus on multi-messenger astrophysics; program management changes inside the NSF; and, continued investment in large ground-based telescopes, such as the Extremely Large Telescope, a next-generation ground-based cosmic microwave background experiment, the Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA) radio telescope, and the IceCube-Generation 2 neutrino observatory. 😮  (Related: here are the most recent decadal surveys in Planetary, Heliophysics, and Earth science.)

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Blue Origin lost its lawsuit against NASA and SpaceX. Blue Origin’s federal lawsuit complaining about NASA’s awarding of their Human Landing System (HLS) contract to SpaceX has been dismissed. Redacted details of the case will be released by the end of the year (ruling), but see here for some initial takeaways from Michael Sheetz. NASA and SpaceX can now resume work on Lunar Starship (not that SpaceX ever stopped Starship development). Bezos conceded rather gracefully, but this saga may continue as the current Senate Appropriations Committee 2022 appropriations bill directs NASA to fund two lander programs (despite not providing nearly enough funding to actually do that).

Megaconstellations proliferate. On the day of the FCC’s deadline for satellite V-band applications, four companies filed independent requests to build megaconstellations: Astra (13,620 sats), Hughes Net (1,440 sats), Inmarsat (198), and Telesat (increasing current constellation to 1,671). The FCC also approved a 2017 request from Boeing to build a 147 sat mixed LEO and non-GEO high-orbit (between 27,355 and 44,221 km) broadband internet constellation. All these constellations would join Starlink (​​currently at 1,584 satellites, with the next phase planned for 4,400, and future phases growing it to as many as 42,000) and OneWeb (358 deployed, 648 planned), along with the planned Project Kuiper (3,236 sats, and up to 15,000 in the future). Other constellations are being proposed outside the US: China’s SatNet (13,000 satellites rumored), Chinese GalaxySpace’s Yinhe (1,000), Polish SatRevolution’s STORK/REC (1,024), Korean Hanwha Systems (~2,000),  Russia’s Sfera constellation (>600), and …many others? While some of these projects will never achieve operational status, the reality of multiple tens of thousands of satellites is looking inevitable. We crossed 1,000 operational satellites in 2013, doubled that number by 2018, and are now well past 4,000. The shared commons of Earth’s orbital space is quickly getting crowded.

News in brief. NASA and Intuitive Machines announced that the ‘Shackleton connecting ridge’ will be the landing site for their upcoming 2022 mission to drill for water (and deploy two rovers!) Redwire acquired Techshot, a company with a bioprinter and other microgravity biotechnology payloads on the ISS China launched SDGSAT-1 into LEO with IR and multispectral cameras to help evaluate the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and three other remote sensing satellites Crew-2 safely returned to Earth in a (toilet-less) Crew Dragon capsule after conducting an ISS flyaround to image the station After being pushed back several times, the Crew-3 launch is scheduled for today Originally aspiring for 5 flights, Ingenuity has now taken 15 flights on Mars In the world of GEO communications satellites, ViaSat is acquiring Inmarsat for $7.3B The UN voted to create a working group to develop regulations and norms around preventing escalating military tensions in space, as well as space debris The first Starlink launch in ~2 months (and since May before that!) is likely to happen on Friday The first images are in from Landsat 9, which launched Sept. 27th.

Detroit and Lake Erie as seen by Landsat 9. Image Credit: NASA


A shot of the robotic arm on the Chinese space station, taken from the Tianhe core model. The station continues to develop with two additional modules planned for 2022.

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