Issue No. 162

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 162 | Mar 30, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

What now for ExoMars? With the ESA and Roscosmos cooperation officially suspended, it remains to be seen how ESA delivers their Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars. The joint ExoMars exobiology mission would have consisted of the Kazachok lander and Rosalind Franklin rover, but failed parachute drop tests caused the duo to miss the 2020 Mars transfer window, and now, despite two years of refinements and a new parachute, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ended the collaboration. The Martian rover, Europe’s first, is named after Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who provided key contributions to our understanding of molecular biology and the structure of DNA. It carries a drill that will reach 1.7 m into the ground, an achievement when the deepest depth drilled on Mars so far is 7 cm (ignoring InSight’s Mole which arguably reached 43 cm). The rover also carries panoramic, high-resolution, and closeup cameras; infrared, Raman, and neutron spectrometers to study water-altered rocks, organic molecules, and water; ground-penetrating radar; a gas chromatograph to look for organic molecules and determine their chirality; and more. It’s an exobiology-studying beast. The Russian Kazachok lander would have carried the rover to the ground, but would also have been a research craft in its own right, carrying 13 scientific instruments to search for signs of past life and study its surrounding environment for at least an Earth year. The duo had planned to land in the Oxia Planum region of Mars, a 3.9 billion-year-old clay-rich area surrounded by ancient valley systems. Now, who knows. NASA has expressed interest in collaboration, and ESA is also evaluating other options—without Russian collaboration, a launch of the billion-dollar rover-without-a-lander is unlikely before 2026 or 2028. Related: Hidden inside Rosalind Franklin’s drill head is a cool little instrument called Ma_MISS. Peering through a transparent sapphire window and rotating with the drill, it illuminates the walls of the borehole and takes optical and spectrographic measurements of the subsurface composition and stratigraphy. (Transparent sapphire is almost as hard as diamond and is used heavily in high-end watches and Apple products.)

The tiny sapphire window through which Ma_MISS observes the subterranean world.

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Another NASA HLS contract… NASA announced its intention to solicit a second Human Landing System (HLS) lunar lander. The goal for the upcoming ‘Sustaining Lunar Development’ contract solicitation is to provide competitive pressure and capability redundancy for missions beyond Artemis III (which really just sounds like a remix and expansion of NASA’s LETS initiative announced with the HLS award last year) and to evolve into a lander for eventual crewed Mars missions (now c. 2040). The SLD solicitation will require more crew and cargo capabilities than the initial HLS requests, and it activates an “Option B” in the SpaceX HLS contract to add a second crewed mission with an upgraded lander, on top of the initial Artemis III demonstration in 2025. Like that existing HLS contract awarded to SpaceX last year, SLD will require both an uncrewed and a crewed demo flight and will use milestone-based payments. Blue Origin is ‘thrilled’, as we’re sure are Dynetics and others. Whether Congress will give NASA enough funds to actually pay for a second lander remains to be seen.

…with a matching budget request. Following on the heels of last week’s SLD solicitation announcement, the Whitehouse released its 2023 budget request. NASA’s requested budget was an 8% ($1.93B) increase from 2022’s approved budget, bringing the requested total to just shy of $26B. The request was packed with a number of details about NASA’s plans for the remainder of the decade: Mars Sample Return will be split into two landers and slip to a 2028 launch, Europa Clipper continues to run over budget (currently ~16% over its revised budget and 2.5x its original price tag of ~$2B), the International Mars Ice Mapper mission that NASA was supporting with management-only funding will be cut (although JAXA, ASI, and CSA may still choose to move forward with the mission), the NEO Surveyor telescope mission will be delayed until 2028, NASA will again try to kill the SOFIA flying telescope that congress keeps on funding, and commercial space station development could get $224M (up from $101M). Earth science will continue to regain agency focus with a $350M requested increase. HLS also had a requested increase in funding, with an additional $290M for the existing SpaceX Option A award, the Option B contract extension with SpaceX to develop lunar Starship into a sustainable Moon and Mars landing option, and the newly announced SLD second HLS contract discussed above (if anything, this seems like a fairly minimal increase when considering all three development projects).

North Korea successfully launches a new ICBM… or doesn’t, whatever. The isolated saber-rattling nation loudly proclaimed that its newest liquid-fueled ICBM, the Hwasong-17, successfully launched to an altitude of 6,200 km last week—which would make it the largest road-mobile, liquid-fueled ICBM in the world. However, image analysis of the state media coverage of the launch points to the Hwasong-17 having unsuccessfully launched earlier in March, and then a smaller Hwasong-15 having been launched last week as cover—it landed an uncomfortable 150 km off the coast of Japan. The availability of high resolution, short revisit, satellite data continues to inform the world of military developments (and failures) that in the past could be easily concealed. (Related: Kim Jong-Un took part in a bizarre pump-up launch video that was released by state media but looks like it was shot and edited by Kim’s uncle Larry on the family camcorder.)

The massive Hwasong-17 ICBM on its 11 axle transporter.

News in brief. Astronaut Mark Vande Hei claimed the record for the longest single spaceflight of a U.S. astronaut: expected to return home today after 355 days—cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov’s 437 days on the Mir between 1994 and 1995 still holds the crown, thoughFirefly Aerospace raised a $75M Series B for continued development of their Alpha and later Beta launch vehicles—they will attempt another orbital launch from Vandenberg AFB in MayA Soyuz launched a Meridian-M Russian communications satelliteUrsa Major, a startup exclusively focusing on rocket engines, has completed qualification and delivery of their Hadley engines, comparable to Rocket Lab’s small Rutherford enginePolaris received a contract from the German defense force to build a sub-scale demonstrator of its Aurora space planeUrsa Space (unrelated to Ursa Major) raised a $16M Series C for their EO data clearinghouse Singapore became the 18th country to sign the Artemis Accords ESA’s Solar Orbiter made its closest approach to the Sun so far, inside the orbit of Mercury.

The Sun in extreme ultraviolet, a mosaic of 25 images taken by Solar Orbiter from 75 million kilometers on March 7, 2022. This wavelength captures the Sun’s corona, which has a temperature of a million degrees Celsius. (The Earth is superimposed for scale in the upper right.)

ESA recently tested the subsurface radar antenna for their upcoming EnVision Venus mission by flying it around Spain on a hot air balloon.

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