¶Starship update. Standing in front of the immense, 120m tall, robotically-stacked(!) Ship 20 and Booster 4, Musk delivered a presentation that lacked many new details. However, SpaceX’s quest to build a fully reusable, 100 ton-to-orbit launch system appears to be approaching reality. Musk reiterated his claim that Starship will cost <$10M/launch in a few years—bringing the Falcon 9’s ~$2,800/kg to LEO down to <$100/kg. To illustrate this monumental change in capacity, Musk pointed out that in a single year, a Starship launching three times per week could put as much mass into orbit as has been launched by the entire world to date (~15,500 tons). Raptor 2 (pictured below) was also a focus, with the engine's cost and complexity now at roughly half of Raptor 1’s. If the team at SpaceX can get the engine’s 330 bar, gigawatt-producing combustion chamber to stop melting itself, the new version of the engine will deliver 230 t of thrust (+45 t from v1) and should be sufficiently heat hardened to fly without thermal shielding during re-entry. They are targeting production of one Raptor 2 per day in the coming months, which would allow SpaceX to pump out a full launch stack every 42 days—Booster’s engine count has increased to 33 and Ship is gaining 3 additional vacuum engines. While the S20B4 stack may not be the hardware that will conduct an orbital flight test, Musk did suggest that hardware would be flight ready around March, when he thinks that the FAA will issue findings on its environmental impact assessment (cf. Issue No. 139). If the FAA’s assessment is not favorable, Starship production and testing could transition to Kennedy Space Center, which is already planned to host most future Starship launches. (Related: Jared Isaacman, of Inspiration4, is booking three SpaceX crewed flights in what he’s calling his Polaris program. The first, Polaris Dawn, is scheduled to launch before the end of this year on Crew Dragon and will feature SpaceX’s first EVA through a terrifying-sounding depressurization and then repressurization of the capsule. Isaacman’s program will culminate with the first crewed Starship flight.)
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¶The upcoming bevy of lunar rovers. Over the next five years, a bevy of diverse mobile explorers from many countries will head for the Moon.
- Astrobotic’s first lunar lander in late 2022, part of NASA’s CLPS program, will deploy a small army of <2 kg explorers. These are Japan’s single-axis Yaoki rover (0.5 kg), UK’s Asagumo walking robot (1.3 kg), Carnegie Mellon University’s Iris rover (1.8 kg), and Mexico’s five COLMENA microbots (60 g each).
- Also late this year, ispace Japan’s first lunar mission will deploy two rovers. One is JAXA’s tennis-ball-sized 250-gram spherical rover, which will split in half to use its two hemispheres as wheels. The other is UAE’s 10-kilogram Rashid rover, which will sport two high-resolution cameras from France’s CNES. Then in 2024, ispace’s second mission will feature their own micro-rover.
- Intuitive Machines’ second CLPS mission (late 2022/early 2023) will deploy two mobile explorers to the lunar south pole—the Lunar Outpost rover to test 4G/LTE on the Moon, and the Micro-Nova hopper to take high-resolution images of the surface as it hops.
- Masten’s first lander in 2023, again part of CLPS, will deploy Astrobotic’s suitcase-size autonomous MoonRanger rover to search for signs of water ice below the polar surface.
- NASA’s VIPER rover will explore permanently shadowed lunar regions in late 2023, and use a drill and three instruments to determine the exact nature and accessibility of water ice deposits to help plan future sustainable crewed missions. Other nations are planning similar south pole missions, with the Japanese-Indian LUPEX rover launching post-2023, and China’s Chang’e 7 launching in 2024 with a rover and hopper to map resources.
- A rover on Intuitive Machines’ third CLPS mission (2024) will explore the magnetic swirl of Reiner Gamma to help us better understand the Moon’s past magnetic field as well as the effects of the solar wind and micrometeorites on planetary bodies. The mission also carries four small NASA CADRE autonomous mapping rovers.
- Canada will choose either MDA or Canadensys to build a rugged lunar rover for a 2025 south polar mission onboard a NASA-funded CLPS lander.
- Australia’s first lunar mission (NET 2026) will be a micro-rover, again on the south pole, deployed by yet another CLPS lander. This rover will retrieve lunar soil for the lander, where a NASA instrument will practice extracting oxygen from it.
- The Artemis Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV), NET 2027, will be far more capable than the Apollo LRV, allowing astronauts to explore 20 km across the Moon’s rugged south polar terrain, including permanently shadowed regions. Unlike Apollo, the LTV will be used across multiple missions for at least 10 years. While we wait for NASA to solicit LTV proposals later this year, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have already revealed their concepts.
– Contributed by Jatan Mehta, an independent space writer.
A concept for the Northrop Grumman-led crewed and cargo lunar rovers for NASA’s Artemis astronauts. Credit: Northrop Grumman
¶Can 100,000 satellites be sustainable? Greg Wyler, founder of satellite telecom O3B and later OneWeb, has announced E-Space, a company dedicated to the “sustainable” use of LEO by, paradoxically, launching 100,000 satellites. The company starts with a massive $50M “seed” investment from Prime Movers Lab. The claim is that their proposed constellation of “secure communication satellites” will be multipurpose, reducing the need for other constellations, and that its spacecraft will have small cross sections and will be designed to absorb impact without fragmentation to reduce the risk of a cascading Kessler syndrome. E-Space is behind the September filing by Rwanda for a constellation of 300,000 satellites, in what feels like a rush to acquire orbital slots before sane regulations for the actually sustainable use of orbit are put into place. (This announcement comes even as NASA is pressuring the FCC to question SpaceX’s second-generation 30,000 Starlink satellite constellation proposal.)
¶News in brief. Astra’s first launch from Florida unfortunately didn’t go as planned—some sort of staging issue resulted in fairings that didn’t deploy which led to the loss of the second stage and the four CubeSats onboard (University of Alabama’s BAMA-1, New Mexico State University’s INCA, UC Berkeley’s QubeSat, and NASA JSC’s R5-S1) ● Laurie Leshin is the first female director of JPL ● After a long break due to weather, Ingenuity flew for a 19th time on Mars ● A Soyuz launched the classified Neitron payload in the first Russian launch of 2022, followed up a few days later by a second Soyuz launch which delivered 34 OneWeb satellites to orbit ● India’s ISRO returned to flight (their last launch was in August) with the launch of PSLV-C52 carrying the agricultural radar-imaging EOS-04 and two ride-sharing sats ● The final tally of Starlink satellites lost due to atmospheric drag from the unexpected solar flare is 38 ● Oh, and that rocket stage that’s going to hit the Moon in March is probably from the 2014 Chinese Chang'e 5-T1 launch, not a SpaceX Falcon 9 ● The first initial calibration photos from JWST have arrived... but IXPE’s first photo is way cooler, see below.
- Here’s a timelapse of SpaceX's first robotic chopsticks-based Starship stacking operation. The entire operation in the timelapse took about 2 hours. SLS, for comparison, began stacking in November 2020 and was completed October 21, 2021 (this is not strictly a fair comparison, but is stark nonetheless).
- How the Soviets Put a Lander on Venus.
- The UAE Mars Hope team published a very pretty 88-page “atlas” with photos of the red planet.
- There was a flurry of Chinese commercial launch vehicle investment in the second half of 2021.
- Approximately 15 supernovae exploded over the last ~14 million years to form the Local Bubble, a region of space around our solar system where the interstellar medium (ISM) is less dense than average. These explosions happened when the Sun was far away, but about 5 million years ago our star coasted into the bubble, and we are now near its center. The bubble is surrounded by star forming Giant Molecular Clouds—dense regions formed as the supernovae’s shockwaves collapsed. Many well known stars lie on the bubble’s edge, such as the red supergiant Antares, the 15th brightest star in the sky. “Remarkably, we find that every well-known molecular cloud within ~200 pc of the Sun lies on the surface of the Local Bubble” (paper). The author’s explanatory video is worth a quick 1 min watch.
- LauncherOne’s User Service Guide (pdf) is very readable.
- After having added observatories in South Africa and Chile to a pair in Hawai’i, the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) is now the first survey that can search the entire night sky every 24 hours for near-Earth objects that could pose an impact hazard. “To date, the ATLAS system has discovered more than 700 near-Earth asteroids and 66 comets, along with detection of 2019 MO and 2018 LA, two very small asteroids that actually impacted Earth.” ☄️