Issue No. 166

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 166 | Apr 27, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

Planet hits 30 cm. The day before Earth Day, Planet Labs announced Pelican, their next generation of taskable Earth observation satellites with significant upgrades over the current SkySat model and complementing their continuously-observing Dove fleet. The two most important improvements are their increased spatial resolution (30 cm) and temporal resolution (12-30 revisits per day, depending on latitude). Once licensed by the FCC and launched in 2023, this next-gen constellation will bring the newspace startup level with Maxar on spatial resolution. Maxar has been providing 30 cm imagery since 2014 with WorldView-3 (WorldView-4 had a gyroscope failure and was deorbited last year) and also sells an interpolated 15 cm product based on their data. (Maxar could decrease their orbital altitude to attain a 25 cm max resolution, although this is unlikely given WorldView-3’s age and lack of an active successor.) Planet’s constellation of these 32 new Pelican satellites will also feature Ka-band inter-satellite links for faster downlinking to ground stations via partner comsat networks, on-board computing to pre-process and prioritize data to be returned to the ground, and Hall effect thrusters for better maneuverability and station keeping. Meanwhile, Maxar has plans to launch their own next-gen constellation of six WorldView Legion satellites later this year (possibly spilling into next year), providing higher revisit rates and continuing their 30 cm data capture. The US government (via NOAA) regulates the maximum spatial resolution available from commercial sources and most recently increased it to 25 cm/pixel in 2014—it’s probably time for another update to that regulation. In that vein, NOAA recently granted an exploratory license for Albedo to capture 10 cm imagery under the agency’s new Tier 3 classification (coverage can be limited at the request of defense agencies for locations and events). Meanwhile, as we learned from the previous US president, US military state-of-the-art imagery currently sits close to the 6 cm diffraction limit for a 250 km orbit at ~7 cm/pixel.

A Pelican, in flight.

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NASA should go to Uranus. NASEM’s planetary science decadal report just came out. The 780-page report’s primary (non-binding) recommendation is that NASA continue to focus on their in-development Mars Sample Return missions with ESA. After that, the highest priority flagship missions for development should be to Uranus and Enceladus. The proposed Uranus mission would be an orbiter with a releasable atmospheric descent probe to explore the tilted planet, only visited once in 1986 by Voyager 2—we know disproportionally little about our solar system’s ice giants. The Enceladus mission would be an “orbilander” that would first orbit and later land on the tiny, icy, tantalizingly-life-friendly Saturnian moon. (Enceladus also periodically blasts water from its subsurface ocean into space, contributing to the formation of one of Saturn’s rings.) The report also addressed diversity in planetary science, suggested continued prioritization of NEO Surveyor, and recommended, among others, a mission to explore a 50-100 m NEO, a Mars lander to look for biosignatures, and a robotic lunar rover to traverse 2,000 km across the Moon’s south pole basin while collecting 100 kg of samples for Artemis missions to return. Next up: Heliophysics.

CAPSTONE. Launching on a Rocket Lab Electron in the late spring, and delivered by Rocket Lab’s Photon bus/upper stage, the CAPSTONE mission will spend three months on a fuel-efficient ballistic lunar transfer past the Moon and then back into lunar orbit, where it will try the previously-untested lunar near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). The spacecraft is approximately a 12U cubesat, with a radio tower stuck on the top. The elliptical NRHO, with its “location at a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon, offers stability for long-term missions like Gateway and requires minimal energy to maintain. CAPSTONE’s orbit also establishes a location that is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond.” Here’s a visualization of the orbit. In addition to testing out this novel orbit that is planned for use with Gateway, CAPSTONE will demonstrate spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation services with Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The 12U-ish CAPSTONE orbiting the Moon in a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

News in brief. Ax-1 returned to Earth after an extended stay at the station (17 days total, instead of the planned 10-day trip) due to extensive bad weather in the landing zone—we wonder who footed the bill for the extra station timeAfter just a 36-hour turnaround, Crew-4 should have launched to the station today, with Crew-3 returning early next weekNASA awarded $278M to 6 LEO broadband communications operators (including Starlink and Kuiper) to ensure that their networks will support NASA’s needs, eventually replacing the aging TDRS systemStarlink also signed up its first major airline partner with Hawaiian Airlines to offer free WiFi on flights starting NET next year once the service is approved for mobile use (charter jet service JSX also announced upcoming support) Astranis won a multiple-award indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract worth up to $950m with the US Air ForceCapella Space raised a $97M Series CAstrobotic unveiled their Peregrine lunar CLPS lander, heading to the Moon late this year with 11 NASA instrumentsispace, also heading to the Moon late this year, is negotiating the first insurance package for a commercial lunar landerNASA says SLS will get another full Wet Dress Rehearsal, now most likely launching NET AugustA Falcon 9 launched 53 Starlink satellites from Cape CanaveralNASA will re-attempt full deployment and latching of Lucy’s partially-open solar arrayRocket Lab’s mid-air catch attempt might happen as soon as tomorrow Perseverance is headed to the western edge of Jezero Crater to explore a massive fan-shaped delta system where an ancient Martian river dumped into the crater lake.

A NASA/JPL illustration of ancient Jezero Crater as it may have looked billions of years ago with a river inlet and outflow on either side.

  • Epsilon3 is looking for a Sales Lead, a Product Manager, and Software Engineers with experience in JavaScript and React to work on their testing and operations procedure management software for the space industry.
  • Capella Space has a whole bunch of positions open—unsurprising given their Series C funding. Of particular note are a remote Data Scientist position, Head of Analytics & Machine Learning (SF/Boulder/remote), and sales positions in Australia, Asia, and the Middle East.
Captured with a 70-mm Hasselblad camera on December 21, 1968, this is the first full-disk image of our planet taken by a human being (probably by William Anders).

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