Issue No. 160

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 160 | Mar 16, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

Another round of NIAC awards. Another round of NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awards landed a few weeks ago, continuing NASA’s support of some interesting and speculative early-stage studies and technology evaluations. This time there were 12 new Phase I projects ($175,000 awarded over 9 months) and five Phase II follow-up awards ($600,000 over two years). Phase II awards (most of which we’ve previously mentioned when they won a Phase I award): designs for an aircraft to fly above the clouds of Venus, inspired by manta rays (BREEZE); high-expansion-ratio deployable structure mechanical metamaterials for building massive structures in orbit (HERDS); a hybrid ​​radioisotope battery (APPLE); robots with extendable booms to explore Martian caves (ReachBot); and, tiny swimming robots for exploring ocean worlds (SWIM). Of the new Phase I awards, here are our favorites:

Starship saves humanity with impactors released along the path of a meteor, using its own velocity against it in the Phase I NIAC PI - Terminal Defense for Humanity award.

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Venturi Astrolab FLEXes. Coming out of stealth mode, startup Venturi Astrolab announced their Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) lunar rover. The 500 kg rover can carry up to 1,500 kg of box-shaped cargo that it straddles and then lifts gantry-style—Astrolab hopes that this cargo form-factor will become a standard similar to shipping containers or ISS cargo transfer bags. FLEX can drive autonomously, piloted by two onboard astronauts, or by remote control. “We want the hardware to be super robust so that they can essentially drive it like they stole it and not have to worry about it.” An Earth-adjusted (e.g. beefier) prototype rover is currently being tested near Death Valley, not too far from the company’s Hawthorne headquarters. The rover could be delivered to the lunar surface via an Astrobotic Griffin lander (although Astrobotic pegs Griffin’s payload capability at 475 kg, meaning some bits might have to be shipped separately). The timing isn’t coincidental, NASA will be soliciting Lunar Terrain Vehicle proposals in the near future and both Lockheed and Northrop have announced their own concepts. Astrolab has developed its rover in partnership with electric vehicle developer Venturi, who will also provide flight components. The company’s long-term hope is that they can operate FLEX using a “rover-as-a-service” business model as opposed to selling rovers outright, although this perhaps envisions a larger number of potential customers near a rover’s location than is actually likely any time soon. Watch their 4K intro video for lots of action shots of their full-size prototype rolling around the desert on its flexible airless tires.
Michelle Lin and ex-astronaut/company advisor Chris Hadfield taking a spin on FLEX. The vehicle conveniently carries a spare tire.
News in brief. Russian saber-rattling about abandoning the ISS continued on social mediaThe SLS rocket for Artemis I is scheduled to be rolled out of the VAB for the first time starting tomorrow for wet dress rehearsals at pad 39B over the next few’s SPAC merger was terminated, citing "market conditions” even as SatixFy proposed an $813M SPAC merger of their ownThe US Omnibus spending bill allocated $700M more to NASA than in 2021 (although $760M less than requested), with Congress providing $113M more than requested for SLS, $185M less than requested for Earth science, and adding a specific unrequested allocation of $110M for nuclear thermal propulsion development—meanwhile, HLS received its requested $1.19B along with a mandate to explain ‘how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition in the HLS program within the resources provided by this Act and included in the fiscal year 2023 budget request.’ Slingshot Aerospace closed a $25m fundraising round for shared orbital collision-avoidance softwareCamden County, GA voters rejected a proposed spaceport—it’s been in planning since 2012Hermeus, a startup developer of a hypersonic passenger aircraft, raised $100M Series BIngenuity flew for its 21st time on Mars(… are we somehow getting bored of hearing about a drone helicopter flying on a planet with just 1% of the atmospheric pressure of Earth?)China announced intentions to open its space station to commercial activityQuickly returning to the game, Astra announced a multi-launch partnership deal with Spaceflight Inc. and successfully launched Astra-1 on rocket LV0009 as the first of those missions from their Kodiak, Alaska launch site—it carried a payload for NearSpace Launch, the S4 CROSSOVER, Portland State Aerospace Society’s OreSat0, and at least one classified payload.
LV-0009 launches into the Kodiak morning sky. Credit: Brady Kenniston / Astra
XKCD #2579

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