Issue No. 158

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 158 | Mar 2, 2022

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Ukraine. This has been a hard week, watching Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine, the first full-scale invasion of a European country since World War II over 75 years ago. Having friends and co-workers who live in Ukraine or have family there has left us feeling helpless and distracted—everything else just seems less important. We really don’t want the focus to be on the aerospace impacts of the invasion when people are very literally displaced and dying, but since space is the topic of this newsletter and aerospace is unfortunately intimately tied to war, we’ll call out several news developments and possible future effects:

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Plato. Taking a brief break from doomscrolling, let’s look ahead to an interesting mission planned for later this decade. ESA’s Plato mission, slated for launch near the end of 2026, is a next-generation terrestrial exoplanet hunter with 26 cameras. Its widefield cameras will carry out long (months to years), high-precision, uninterrupted photometric monitoring of 200,000+ bright stars. Monitoring observations will look for planetary transits (including by exoplanets in stars’ habitable zones) and perform asteroseismology to gauge stellar parameters and ages. Like JWST (and Roman Space Telescope), Plato will orbit at the Sun-Earth L2. The mission recently passed its Critical Milestone Review, with its next major milestone as a Critical Design Review in 2023.

Plato’s 26 widefield cameras being integrated into their payload module.
News in brief. For SpaceX’s eighth launch of 2022, the company delivered 50 more Starlink satellites to orbitAn Electron rocket launched Japanese Synspective’s StriX-β SAR satellite from Rocket Lab’s newly completed second New Zealand launch padRocket Lab is also continuing its move into satellite manufacturing, having just won a $143M contract to produce 17 Globalstar communications satellitesFinally, Rocket Lab also announced that it will build and launch Neutron from a new complex located at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, where it built an Electron launch pad in 2020 (launches have been delayed by AFTS certification)Virgin Galactic’s recent earnings report showed $1 billion in losses over the last two years 🤔JWST’s alignment continues, bringing those test stars into focusAn Atlas V launched NOAA’s GOES-T, the 3rd GOES-R geostationary satellite (cf. Issue No. 111) for imagery and atmospheric measurements, lightning mapping, and space weather observation over the US, Mexico, and Central AmericaNorth Korea tested reconnaissance satellite hardware on a ballistic missile, unnecessarily adding tension to the worldThe US Space Development Agency announced $1.6B of contracts for their Transport Layer Tranche 1 resilient military communications satellite network—Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and York Space will each build 42 satsA Long March-8 Y2 carrier rocket launched 22 commercial satellites, a record for a single Chinese rocketIngenuity flew for a twentieth time on MarsNASA bought three more crewed ISS flights from SpaceX.

Judy Schmidt combined the recently-released MeerKAT radio telescope mosaic (white overlay) with data from Spitzer & WISE to show 1,000 mysterious twisted strands of gas at the Milky Way’s center. Here’s her annotated version. Some of these thin, magnetized filaments are 150 light-years long. They show up at radio wavelengths and are thought to be caused by electrons gyrating along magnetic field lines at close to the speed of light.

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