¶Rocket Lab catch and release. On Monday, Rocket Lab came within a whisker of becoming the second private company to successfully recover an orbital class booster (video). Unlike SpaceX, Rocket Lab is avoiding the complexity and slow support equipment turn around cadence of ship-based propulsive landings by accepting a small additional mass for recovery hardware and tackling the logistical difficulty of a mid-air catch. The catching aircraft, a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter modified with an auxiliary fuel tank for longer flight times, is capable of carrying 19 people, or one small rocket booster (dry mass ~1 ton, well below its ~8-ton max payload minus the capacity used to carry extra fuel). The company’s 19th mission, aptly named “There and Back Again,” launched successfully, deployed its payload of 34 smallsats, and the booster re-entered for a catch attempt 240 km off the coast of New Zealand. A drogue chute on the first stage deployed at 13 km in altitude, followed by the main parachute at 6 km, reducing the necessary catch speed to ~10 m/s for a long catch hook attached to the bottom of the S-92. Unfortunately, the team was not comfortable with how the booster was flying after the successful catch so they released it from the helicopter to splash down into the Pacific Ocean, where it was fished out by a support vessel. Despite the unplanned release, this is a huge milestone in Rocket Lab’s quest for reusability, which the company says is required to provide a launch cadence that meets burgeoning industry needs. Meanwhile, the 34 sat payload contained three small, low-profile GNC prototypes for E-Space—the startup proposing to launch a hundred thousand “sustainable” satellites (cf. Issue 156)—as well as satellites from Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, Unseenlabs, and Swarm Technologies.
¶GNSS Radio Occultation. We covered Radio Occultation (RO) weather monitoring back in Issue 111 when we discussed NOAA starting to purchase this data from GeoOptics and Spire. When a radio signal passes through a planet’s atmosphere, it refracts (bends) proportional to the air’s temperature, pressure, and moisture content. RO takes advantage of this effect, measuring the Doppler shift of a received signal (usually from a GNSS source like GPS satellites) as the satellite falls over the horizon of the Earth into eclipse. RO was originally used by Mariner IV to detect the existence of the Martian atmosphere in 1965. More recently, NOAA’s 6-satellite RO constellation COSMIC was able to improve typhoon path prediction by 24%—its successor, COSMIC-2, launched in 2019. Now startups like GeoOptics, PlanetIQ, and Spire are enabling large-scale gathering of RO data, selling it to NOAA and others. And you can join the party: Android users can join ESA’s CAMALIOT project by using their smartphones’ GPS receivers for RO data gathering and ionospheric tracking. ESA hopes the dataset will allow machine learning models to predict atmospheric water vapor trends, ionospheric behavior relevant to space weather prediction, and possibly provide GNSS accuracy improvements. Older Android phones will work, but newer ones with dual-frequency receivers will provide better data. Help analyze the atmosphere with your cell phone!
¶News in not-so-brief. We’re trying a list format this week. Let us know what you think.
- Crew-4 launched to the ISS with experiments including a tissue chip investigation of immune aging in space, a low-cost biosensor, and an experiment to grow an artificial retinal implant—SpaceX has now sent 26 people to space in under two years.
- China launched two commercial EO satellites on a Long March 2C and five on the sea-launched, solid-fueled Long March 11 via their always fun yeet-and-ignite method.
- Russian cosmonauts performed a spacewalk to complete the setup of the ISS’s new European robotic arm.
- In addition to its rocket catch, Rocket Lab announced that it has broken ground on its Neutron production facility adjacent to NASA’s Wallops Island launch site and home to Rocket Lab’s eventual second Electron launchpad.
- A Falcon 9 launched 53 Starlink sats 21 days after having launched Ax-1, the fastest turnaround to date.
- Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) won DLR’s second micro-launcher competition and an €11M prize—the German government will now be an anchor customer for the first launches of the RFA One orbital rocket, with a first flight sometime around the end of this year—Isar Aerospace won in 2021.
- A modified, single-core Angara 1.2 launched for the first time from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome with the small MKA-R military radar satellite—Angara has been under development for 25 years.
- Sierra Space has started assembly of the first Dream Chaser spaceplane.
- NASA has been trying to drop the expensive SOFIA plane-mounted telescope for years, with congress continuing to fund it—now DLR and NASA have officially announced that operation end next year.
- The LHC at CERN is back in operation after three years of maintenance and upgrades—its proton beam just reached a record-breaking 6.8 TeV per beam.
- Meanwhile, the billion dollar Facility for Rare Isotope Beams in Michigan was just inaugurated, allowing study of element formation in stars and supernovae.
- China will build a communication satellite network around the Moon, much like ESA and NASA (likely via public-private partnerships).
- The Event Horizon Telescope (which captured the first image of a black hole) is set to announce (presumably similar) images of our own galaxy’s black hole.
- The FAA again (this is the 4th time) delayed SpaceX’s Starship environmental review to NET May 31
- Three startups working on solid rocket motors raised funding in one week: X-Bow Systems, Adranos, and Firehawk.
- On its 26th flight on Mars, Ingenuity investigated Perseverance’s crashed backshell and parachute (pictured below; recall it flying off after safely delivering the rover to the surface). 🪂
- A mesolithic landslide of gargantuan proportions, a 10-25 m tsunami, and the vanished world of Doggerland under the North Sea.
- A number of space industry companies are collaborating on humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
- How Starship is welded.
- All five canonical nucleobases which comprise DNA and RNA have now been identified in meteorites (paper). We’d already found adenine, guanine, and uracil, but have now also detected cytosine and thymine. While DNA and RNA probably don’t form out of these bases in meteorites, “we now have evidence that the complete set of nucleobases used in life today could have been available on Earth when life emerged.” 🧬
- 46 years ago today, the LAGEOS-1 satellite launched on a Delta 2000 into a stable, medium Earth orbit. The LAGEOS series of satellites are dense 60-cm-diameter spheres covered in fused silica retroreflectors that look like huge golf balls. They have no electronics, but due to their density and regular orbits, they provide precise positional references. Travel times of laser pulses sent from Earth can be measured to determine the separation of ground stations with high accuracy, for purposes such as tracking continental drift and measuring the Earth’s geoid. LAGEOS-1 carries a plaque in its interior designed by Carl Sagan showing the positions of the Earth’s continents 268 million years ago, now, and in 8.4 million years when LAGEOS is expected to finally re-enter.
- Bill Nelson admits cost-plus contracts have been a “plague” on NASA. 😲
- Webb is in full focus, ready for instrument commissioning. The test images are striking, each one practically a Hubble Deep Field. “With the completion of telescope alignment and half a lifetime’s worth of effort, my role on the James Webb Space Telescope mission has come to an end,” said Scott Acton, Webb wavefront sensing and controls scientist, Ball Aerospace. “These images have profoundly changed the way I see the universe. We are surrounded by a symphony of creation; there are galaxies everywhere! It is my hope that everyone in the world can see them.”
On April 2nd, from the surface of Mars, Perseverance took this absolutely sublime video of Phobos transiting the Sun. You should definitely experience it (before the Martian moon reaches its Roche limit and breaks apart… in about 20 million years).