Issue No. 146

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 146 | Dec 8, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

NASA’s first CLD contracts land. NASA announced awards for their first Commercial LEO Destinations program CFP with grants to three proposals. The largest, $160 million, went to Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin to help them develop their Starlab design. Meanwhile, Orbital Reef (Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Boeing, Redwire, Genesis Engineering, and ASU) received $130 million (we covered both stations a few weeks ago). The final award went to a previously-undisclosed entrant: Northrop Grumman will receive $125.6 million to develop a design using their extensive experience with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft (which uses a pressure vessel fabricated by Thales Alenia in Italy), recent MEV satellite servicing work, and development work on the Habitation and Logistics Outpost module for lunar Gateway. Absent were a number of smaller startups, including ThinkOrbital and the crowdfunded Orbital Assembly Corporation, the SpaceX Starship-based station proposal, and Axiom Space, who did not submit a proposal (we suspect they were disallowed due to their existing $140 million contract to add an ISS module in 2024 that will eventually become free flying). Related: A few days earlier, NASA’s Office of Inspector General warned (pdf) that current funding for commercial stations is insufficient and there could easily be a space station gap between the ISS’s end of life and the availability of commercial stations.

A rendering of Northrop Grumman’s previously-unannounced design.

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IXPE. The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer is scheduled to launch tomorrow on a Falcon 9 from Launch Complex 39A at KSC. The polarization of light tells us about the magnetic field environment where the light originated, or about scattering events along the light's path through deep space. IXPE will use the polarization of X-ray light to study the mechanisms in objects like neutron stars, active galactic nuclei, and supernova remnants that produce X-rays. IXPE will orbit at a 0° inclination in a 540-km circular orbit. It contains three identical telescopes (paper) with X-ray mirrors on a deployable boom, giving it a 4 m focal length.

IXPE with its deployable payload boom extended.

A busy week for Starlink. Breaking their annual launch record, SpaceX’s 27th Falcon 9 launch of the year lofted 48 Starlink satellites along with two Black Sky sats into orbit. These “v1.5” Starlink satellites, of which the company is now producing six per week, include laser links to decrease latency and reliance on terrestrial ground stations. Starlink also publicly stated that they are now testing commercial aircraft service (the USAF was one of their first tests, so this is unsurprising). This move places SpaceX squarely in competition with Viasat, Intelsat, and Telesat, all of which they have also supported as a launch provider—we wonder if SpaceX will continue to be chosen as launch partner when they are also a direct competitor. Lastly, the company had to adjust the orbits of some of its satellites due to debris from the Russian ASAT test.

Neutron v0.2 comes into focus. Rocket Lab’s well-produced video announcement brought us the latest on the company’s second rocket (the whole 10-minute glitzy video is worth watching). This second revision to their upcoming medium lift rocket, which is targeted at the smallsat constellation deployment market, did away with the Falcon 9 (F9) + stainless steel SpaceX-inspired design direction. Neutron is now stubby and made out of carbon fiber, with integral landing legs for simplified return-to-launch-site (RTLS) reusability. At 40 m tall, 7 m in diameter, and packing seven of Rocket Lab’s new methalox Archimedes engines, the rocket will be able to lift 8 tons to LEO (F9 can deliver 16.8 tons when using the extra complexity of a drone ship landing and ~11 tons in a RTLS configuration) or 15 tons when fully expended (given the rarity of expendable F9 launches carrying 22.8 tons, we doubt this will be common). The Archimedes engine will use a simple gas generator cycle and be slightly more efficient than the Merlin 1D, partially due to the use of methane as a propellant. Perhaps the most striking design feature is the integrated four-piece fairing with a second stage that is hung inside the rocket—suspending the stage allows it to hang in tension instead of having to structurally support its own fully-fueled weight—allowing it to be exceptionally light and efficient. While the announcement contained quite a few more digs at SpaceX than were strictly necessary (particularly given F9’s 10+ year head start), and a slightly absurd tagline of “a 2050 Rocket, built today,” Neutron is very exciting as a vehicle likely to deliver on high reusability. We fully expect this design to evolve—the only date mentioned was a 2022 first test fire of Archimedes, making a launch seem unlikely before 2024. (Related: Rocket Lab also announced that they would attempt to catch their next returning Electron booster with a helicopter in early 2022.)


Neutron, deploying its lightweight upper stage with integrated demogorgon quartered-fairing design. Credit: Rocket Lab

News in brief. Astra is flexing its “responsive” launch capabilities with a first launch from Cape Canaveral scheduled for next month—it will be conducted from the infrequently-used SLC-46; the pad’s last launch was an Orion abort test in 2019 Spanish startup PLD Space showed off their reusable Miura 1 suborbital rocket ahead of a launch next year—its larger, orbital sibling Miura 5 is targeting 2024 The first meeting of the National Space Council under Biden focused on Earth observation data for climate change and global cooperation around space debris and military activity, and released the United States Space Priorities Framework—the Pentagon, meanwhile, called for a global halt to ASAT weapons testing Indian startup Skyroot Aerospace test fired Dhawan-1, the country’s first privately-developed, fully cryogenic rocket engine, which will power the in-development Vikram-2 launch vehicle SpaceX has started Starship launchpad construction at KSC Arianespace launched two Galileo navigation satellites on a Soyuz ST-B from Guiana Space Center The U.S. DOD’s geostationary Space Test Program Satellite 6 launched with NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) payload to become NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end optical communication relay—it will relay infrared laser signals from the ISS and other satellites to the ground at 1.2 gigabits/sec DARPA announced a new program and CFP to explore biomanufacturing in space NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completed its 10th close approach to the Sun—it continues to be humanity’s fastest object yet at 163,017 m/s (0.0005 c, or 30% of the escape velocity of the Milky Way)—while being pelted by hypervelocity dust Northrop Grumman also won a whopping $3.19 billion NASA contract to build six more SLS boosters through 2031, including experimental booster upgrades for Artemis IX Hubble is back to full science operations A Soyuz, carrying two space tourists, including Yusaku Maezawa of the still-upcoming Starship dearMoon mission, heads to the ISS today.


In October, Hubble completed its annual photography tour of our gas giant planets in order to track their atmospheres over time (We mentioned the program, Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy, last week).

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