Issue No. 150

Happy New Year and happy issue No. 150! 2021 was a huge year for spaceflight, and honestly, 2022 is looking to be significantly larger still. In today’s issue, we review the past and impending highlights of 2021 and 2022. Here’s to another trip around our solitary (but pretty friendly) yellow dwarf star. 🌞

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 150 | Jan 5, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

Space highlights from 2021. Despite the continuing pandemic, 2021 was quite the year for space. UAE’s Hope, China’s Tianwen and Zhurong rover, and NASA’s Perseverance all dramatically arrived at Mars, the latter of which carried our favorite perky little helicopter that’s now flown 18 times. Megaconstellations and space debris proliferated, with an unfortunate Russian ASAT test and space stations dodging Starlink sats and debris. Branson and Bezos reached the edge of space, along with 22 other space tourists (including William Shatner), heralding the beginning of the age of space tourism. New companies to reach orbit included Virgin Orbit and Astra (after an unexpected powerslide), but not yet Firefly or SLS. Spinlaunch yeeted, Rocket Lab announced Neutron, and Russia shot a film on the ISS. SpaceX landed Starship SN10 💥 and didn’t explode SN15 🚀, Transporters 1 and 2, 17 Starlink missions, landed their 100th rocket, won the NASA contract to return humans to the Moon (despite Blue Origin’s best legal efforts), stacked Superheavy, and launched Inspiration4. In space science, OSIRIS-REX stole samples from Bennu and headed for Earth, Parker Solar Probe touched the Sun, and evidence emerged of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A in its habitable zone. NASA announced two new Venus missions (ESA announced one as well) and launched Lucy (mostly successfully), DART, and IXPE. China launched their Tiangong space station (and a whopping 48 Long March rockets), the long-awaited Nauka module docked (and took the ISS for a spin), and NASA selected companies to work on commercial space stations to eventually replace the ISS. The year ended with the launch and incredible promise of JWST and, given the 2020s decadal survey, even larger telescopes are on the horizon. Whew, that’s a lot of space… but wait until you see 2022.

China’s Zhurong rover, as viewed by a small, deployable selfie camera on the Martian surface. The Tianwen-1 orbiter just pulled the same trick this week, releasing a remote camera to capture itself over the Martian north pole.

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What to expect in 2022. Holy crap is there a lot of space stuff coming this year. If 2021 was the year of Mars, then 2022 will definitely be the year of the Moon, with as many as 9 missions headed to our dusty neighbor. Visitors will include Japan’s first lunar lander (NET April), the SLS-lofted Artemis I with 12-13 smallsats tagging along (March), CAPSTONE on a Rocket Lab Electron (March), the Chandrayaan-3 lander and rover attempting a softer landing this time (July), Roscosmos’ Luna 25 lander heading to the Moon’s south pole (July), South Korea’s first lunar orbiter (August), ispace’s Hakuto-R lander with UAE’s Rashid rover (October), and a CLIPS lander from Astrobotic plus potentially two from Intuitive Machines. In launch, expect Starship’s first orbital launch attempt sometime around March, as many as six Falcon Heavy launches (after taking a three-year break), Dream Chaser’s first cargo mission if Vulcan is ready (dependent on Blue producing flight quality BE-4 engines), Ariane 6 as a Falcon 9 competitor (originally planned to debut in 2020), India’s uncrewed Gaganyaan test flights (2nd half of ‘22), Starliner’s second uncrewed orbital test flight (May), and maybe New Glenn in late 2022. Crewed missions will include Axiom’s private ISS astronaut missions Ax-1 (February 21st) and possibly Ax-2, China’s plans to complete the Tiangong station (including two new modules and six launches), and maybe a crewed Starliner test flight. There will also be a bunch of science missions, including ESA’s JUICE mission heading to Jupiter (May); Psyche launching on a Falcon Heavy toward the belt—bringing Janus along for the first part of the ride (August); China’s ASO-S and India's Aditya-L1 solar observatories, firsts for both countries; the joint Russian-European ExoMars with ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover finally heading to Mars (September); DART slamming into Dimorphos (September); and, Juno skimming 355 km above Europa’s icy surface in a dramatic flyby (also September). Finally, in physics, the LHC’s 3rd observation run starts in October and all four operational gravitational-wave detectors (in Japan, Italy, and the US) will begin a new observing run in December. These are just some of 2022’s high-profile events, not to overshadow a continued cadence of likely 200 rocket launches (Wikipedia lists 37 possible maiden flights alone!) and huge numbers of smallsat deployments, expanding megaconstellations, and unfortunately probably continued debris hazards. It’s going to be quite a year!

Some Orbital Index favorites from 2021. Among lots of other things, this year we nerded out about cosmic rays with the energy of a tennis serve (and wondered if their ‘handedness’ could have been the cause of the chiral handedness of life); explained how SAR works; reviewed the field of reusable rockets; explored why fixed-price contracts are so important; contemplated the ownership of space debris; and, questioned SpaceX’s use of methane and their cultural challenges (while also loving Starship developments). We also enjoyed sharing guest contributed items covering NASA’s Psyche mission, sailing on solar protons, observing neutrinos, the Peregrine CLPS lander, the SatNOGS database, and precision mapping of the Earth’s gravitational field with GRACE. Thanks to Anna, Nlingli, Stephanie, Andris, Nikoletta, and David for expanding the newsletter’s viewpoint—let us know if you’d like to contribute in 2022!

News in brief. The FAA announced that it is pushing back its Starship environmental assessment (PEA) release date to February 28th—this is unlikely a major delay for SpaceX as there remain multiple partially-tested pieces of the orbital Starship systemIran launched their latest civilian rocket, a Simorgh SLV, carrying three payloads; it reached 470 km and was about 310 m/s short of achieving orbit (video)Ukrainian-born Max Polyakov is being forced to sell his 50% stake in Firefly, a company he has invested $200 M in—after previously being forced off the board—due to national security fears from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) amid rising Russian-Ukrainian tensionThe Biden administration announced plans to extend operation of the ISS from 2024 through 2030, as expected—Roscosmos’ involvement isn’t yet knownSpaceX raised an additional $337 M, bringing their 2021 capital infusions to a total of $1.85 BThe breakup of Chinese weather sat YunHai 1-02 last March was due to a space debris collision JWST completed tensioning all five layers of its sunshield after extending its aft momentum flap which helps balance-out sunshield solar radiation pressure (like a trim tab on a boat or plane), this means the craft has now passed 75% of its 344 single-point failures—also, Webb’s launch and course corrections were accurate enough that the telescope likely has enough fuel for “significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime”! 🎉

XKCD #2124

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