Issue No. 143

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 143 | Nov 17, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Russia’s exceptionally reckless ASAT test. Earlier this week, the Russian military conducted a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) test of their Nudol missile targeting the defunct, Soviet-era 2,200 kg Kosmos-1408 satellite. The “successful” test created a cloud of 1,500+ new pieces of trackable debris at 440-520 km in altitude, endangering the ISS at 428 km. The station’s crew was sent into emergency “safe harbor” which involved Anton Shkaplerov, Pyotr Dubrov, and Mark Vande Hei boarding the Soyuz MS-19 craft while Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron, and Matthias Maurer boarded a Crew Dragon. Hatches between modules were also sealed to mitigate a potential depressurization event. The US State Department and Space Command, UK Defence Ministry, and NASA have all condemned this test. It was especially surprising as it directly endangered Russia’s own cosmonauts and its huge investment in the ISS. The new debris will remain in orbit for years. With timing of impeccable irony, the Paris Peace Forum had just released its “Net Zero Space” declaration targeting global support by 2030 for generating no new hazardous debris and remediating extant debris. Also, just last week, the ISS conducted a planned avoidance maneuver to avoid debris generated by China’s 2007 ASAT test. Despite its size, orbital space is a surprisingly finite resource, and between the proliferation of huge constellations, nationalistic saber-rattling, and the lack of mature mitigation technologies, its outlook isn’t looking great this week.

A solid piece of aluminum after being hit by a 14 g chunk of plastic traveling at 6.7 m/s. The whole Twitter thread by @megsylhydrazine is worth reading.

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Spin it up. Last week, SpinLaunch, a startup chasing the dream of chucking stuff into space, released a video of their first test. The ~¼ scale, electrically-powered rotating accelerator (33 m in diameter vs the proposed 100 m orbital-class version) spun up to about 180 rpm in a vacuum and yeeted a test projectile out its exit tube to a potential height of ~3,000 m (although the test article may have failed before reaching this altitude). The eventual launch vehicle will have a small first and second stage that will be able to propel a 200 kg payload to orbit after having cleared the majority of the atmosphere—it will coast to an altitude and velocity similar to the first stage separation of a Falcon 9. However, the forces on the orbital launch system and payload will be huge, with a sustained 10,000 g during spin up and the shock of the vehicle hitting the atmosphere at > Mach 6 (~2.2 km/s). The accelerator’s bearings also have to absorb the sudden release of an 11-ton vehicle (multiplied by 10,000 gs), meaning the system will likely have to simultaneously release a counterweight with ~1 ms precision—how they’ll manage an 11-ton counterweight moving at 2.2 km/s… will be interesting. SpinLaunch’s progress is impressive—their ¼ scale system is already the largest diameter vacuum chamber ever built—but, they still have a long road ahead of them. Lucky for them, their fundraising has also been impressive, with $110 M raised to date. While it may eventually work on Earth, systems like this could have significantly better applications on the Moon or Mars where the atmosphere is thin or non-existent and the gravity wells are much smaller.

SpinLaunch’s 33 m diameter vacuum centrifuge yeet machine in New Mexico.

No Moon in 2024. NASA officially pushed back Artemis II and III to NET 2025, acknowledging that a 2024 crewed Moon landing won’t happen. The global pandemic and litigation from Blue Origin provided convenient scapegoats, but Trump’s 2024 Moon landing was never realistic. Meanwhile, the US Office of the Inspector General released their own prediction (pdf) of Summer 2022 for Artemis I’s launch. They also estimated a true cost per launch of SLS + Orion at $4.1B, or… 27 launches of Falcon Heavy in fully-expendable mode or three Saturn Vs. (The previous estimate was an only-slightly-less-absurd $2 billion per SLS launch.) The OIG also suggested that even the revised 2025 crewed Moon landing schedule is unlikely. Don’t color us surprised.

News in brief. JAXA launched 9 smallsats on a solid-fueled Epsilon launch vehicleESA highlighted their upcoming TRUTHS climate-change monitoring satellite at COP26, although it doesn’t launch until 2029Planet Labs is acquiring VanderSat, a Dutch crop and water monitoring geospatial analytics companyCrew-3 launched on SpaceX’s fifth human launch, taking four astronauts to the ISS SpaceX launched 53 Starlink satellites on Saturday, again including intra-satellite laser links and starting the deployment of their next orbital shell—they also debuted a new Dishy designSN20 performed a brief full six Raptor engine static fire test for the first time​​Glen de Vries, who flew on New Shepard last month, passed away in a private plane crash in New Jersey on ThursdayHubble is partially back online while engineers continue to investigate the source of “synchronization errors”.

XKCD #123

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