Issue No. 165

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 165 | Apr 20, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

Ax-1. Commanded by Spanish-American Michael López-Alegría on his fifth trip to the ISS, and accompanied by pilot Larry Connor (US) and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe (Israel) and Mark Pathy (Canada), Ax-1 has conducted the first all-commercial crewed mission to the station. Delayed by weather, the team will soon depart the ISS and will splash down off the coast of Florida after spending about 10 days in space and a bit more than a week on the ISS. Axiom makes claims that the mission was conducting significant scientific research, but in reality, as a pathfinding mission for future commercial ISS crews, it did its job with or without experiments conducted by crew members who paid ~$55 million each to snag a spot on the manifest. That said, the crew planned to spend roughly 100 hours (~1/10th of their total time in space, including sleeping) on the science portion of the mission, mostly working on experiments from organizations and charities they already knew. The mission also delivered or conducted a number of additional investigations, including a self-assembling structure called TESSERAE, tumor research from UCSD, a Japanese photocatalytic filter for removing station airborne odors, and biomedical before/after data collection and analysis on each crew member in partnership with Caltech and MIT. These latter experiments are ostensibly in preparation for Axiom’s own ISS module, and eventually, free-flying space station. With Ax-1 almost in the books, SpaceX and Axiom are looking ahead to Ax-2 through Ax-4 over the next several years. Meanwhile, Crew-4 is scheduled to head to the ISS this weekend.

The first all commercial crew on the ISS answering questions from Houston-area students.  Left to right: Connor, López-Alegría, Pathy, and Stibbe.

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SLS Wet Dress Rehearsal update. After three attempts, each ending in an abort—unexpectedly high lox temperatures, a helium check valve failure on the SLS’s second stage, and a hydrogen leak on the mobile platform’s service mast umbilical— NASA is now rolling the fully stacked SLS back to the VAB to fix some of these issues and upgrade the mobile launcher’s gaseous nitrogen (GN2) supply. What was optimistically supposed to be a two-day test took three weeks, and Artemis I is probably not launching before the end of the summer (although NASA said Monday that they are currently hoping to make a beginning of July launch window). We definitely want to see Artemis I go well (especially for those 10 plucky little rideshare science missions), and these growing pains are better worked out now than on a future crewed mission, but the whole thing just feels kind of arduous. NASA outlined three options for scenarios once SLS makes it back to the VAB in about a week(!): 1) Quick turnaround—address just the fixes that can't be done on the pad (ex., the failed ICPS helium check valve); 2) Longer stay—fix everything and upgrade the GN2 supply hardware; or, 3) Cancel the WDR as planned and conduct it when SLS rolls out to the pad again for launch.

The Great Solar Eclipse of 2024. Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but it pays to start planning early. Where will you be in approximately two years? Andrew had the chance to watch 2017’s total solar eclipse from Idaho and was blown away by how visceral the experience was, complete with a storm of moths that materialized out of nowhere as if through transient solar abiogenesis. For those of us in North America, the next (and last until 2044) opportunity for a total solar eclipse is on April 8th, 2024. You don’t want to miss this! Getting into the path of totality (and trust us, while everyone in the contiguous U.S. will be able to see a partial eclipse, a total solar eclipse is totally different) means positioning yourself inside of a 200 km wide corridor that sweeps from Mazatlán, Mexico to central Newfoundland, Canada, passing through Texas (including San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Dallas, and Fort Worth) and the central US (Little Rock, Indianapolis), northern Ohio (Dayton, Cleveland), upstate New York (Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse), right next to Toronto and across part of Montréal, and across much of Vermont and Maine along the way. The absolute best locality for experiencing maximum duration will be near Nazas, Durango, Mexico where the Moon in perigee will offer eclipse totality for a whopping 4m 28s (or slightly further east in Torreón which has the minimal projected cloud cover), but the variation in length is quite small. You will need solar viewing safety glasses (reputable vendors) and planning to avoid the next Great American Traffic Jam. Obviously, the weather is the primary factor, so having a few different viewing location options may be wise depending on how committed you are. The #1 place to start, and a deep, deep rabbit hole, is Jay Anderson’s with average weather models and maps.


News in brief. NASA will include a test payload (presumably full of accelerometers) in SpinLaunch’s next suborbital yeet attempt ESA officially ended all cooperation with Russia on Luna-25, Luna-26, and Luna-27, three lunar missions that Russia has been developing for decades and now claims they will do on their own Momentus booked space on SpaceX Transporters 6-9 on top of their planned inclusion on Transporter-5 Astranis booked their own Falcon 9 to launch four small GEO sats in 2023 French startup Gama raised a small €2M seed round to develop boom-less solar sails China’s Shenzhou 13 capsule returned to Earth with 3 crew who spent six months on Tiangong, a record for the space program A Falcon 9 launched an NRO mission which maaaybe one or more naval SIGINT satellites Spanish PLD Space completed the first static fire test of their Miura 1 demonstrator ULA is buying 116 RL10C-X engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne for their Vulcan rockets’ Centaur upper stages South Korea hired SpaceX to launch five military (spy) satellites between 2023 and 2025 The US announced a self-imposed ban on direct-ascent ASAT tests and hopes other countries will follow (a small, but important, step in the right direction!) JWST’s coldest sensor, MIRI, has reached its target temperature of 6.4 degrees above absolute zero—MIRI is both passively cooled via JWST’s sunshade and actively cooled with an advanced cryocooler—the next step is calibration. 🥶


Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) recently captured this focus-stacked image of a delicate formation of water-precipitated minerals on Mars.

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