Issue No. 175

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 175 | Jul 6, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

CAPSTONE is on its way. On Monday, after a successful launch on June 28th, Rocket Lab announced that NASA’s tiny 25 kg 12U CAPSTONE cubesat had separated from Rocket Lab’s upgraded high-energy Lunar Photon bus and had been injected into an efficientballistic lunar transfer” that will have it arrive at the Moon in 3-4 months. CAPSTONE (discussed previously in Issue 166) is testing a highly-elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) which will eventually be used by Gateway. This special lunar orbit allows for easy (low delta-v) inclination changes—letting the future station switch between trajectories compatible with both equatorial and polar crewed landings. CAPSTONE is led by Advanced Space and will test its CAPS system for peer-to-peer communications with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, practicing communications and navigation without the use of Earth-based assets. While the mission initially made contact with NASA's Deep Space Network, it now appears to be experiencing some communications issues with the DSN. This is (technically) the first Artemis mission as well as Rocket Lab’s first deep-space mission. In other firsts for the growing fully-integrated launch company: Lunar Photon used their new Hyper Curie engine; this was the first mission with software from acquisition Advanced Solutions Inc.; and, Electron’s second stage deorbited immediately after separation, minimizing debris potential. This success sets the stage for Mars and Venus deep-space missions from Rocket Lab and as well as for more Artemis missions—first and foremost the launch of Artemis I the next time SLS emerges from the VAB. (Apparently, Lunar Photon still has propellant left and Rocket Lab is considering what fun things it could do.)

Lunar Photon with the 12U CAPSTONE on top, just before mating with Electron’s upper stage.

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A Mars sample return race. Recent hints dropped by Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of the Tianwen-1 Mars mission, presented an accelerated timeline for China’s upcoming Mars sample return mission, called Tianwen-3. In 2028, a lander with an ascent vehicle would launch on a Long March 5, with an Earth return orbiter launching around the same time on a Long March 3B. Samples from the lander’s site would be delivered to Earth in 2031, which would be 2 years (one transfer window) ahead of the under-development NASA/ESA mission. For that mission, ESA and NASA are now considering the possibility of using the long-delayed ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover to retrieve Perseverance’s samples—in this scenario NASA would be in charge of the ExoMars lander that was previously to be provided by Russia. (Tianwen-2, if you’re wondering, will be an asteroid sampling mission.) Related: The Tianwen-1 orbiter has finished its primary mission, having fully imaged the surface of Mars, and will deorbit later this year using aerobraking (a first for CNSA), in a test of the technique that will be required by Tianwen-3.

Vega-C is all set. Arianespace’s next rocket, designed to keep Europe relevant in the medium-lift market, will launch as soon as tomorrow (7/7). Vega-C boasts 50% more payload to SSO (2,200 kg vs 1,500 kg) and a larger fairing than Vega. Increased performance is enabled by a new first stage featuring the P120C solid rocket engine, which will also be used as strap-on boosters for Ariane 6, decreasing its eventual cost due to larger production volumes. Vega-C, which shares its third stage with the original Vega, will eventually get a brand new cryogenic upper stage and will become Vega-E (c. 2026). Vega-C is not reusable, although ESA’s Space Rider reusable robotic orbital laboratory, possibly launching next year, has been designed to fly with the new rocket. Related: Avio, one of Italy’s largest space contractors and maker of Vega, received a €340 m contract to develop high thrust “green” methalox engines for next-generation launchers past Vega-E.

News in brief. Chinese CASIC-subsidiary ExPace closed a $237M Series B after the return to flight of its Kuaizhou-1A solid-fueled rocketStarship Booster 7 was lifted onto the orbital launch stand last week with the launch tower’s “chopstix” for the first time and has begun a static fire test campaign—Ship 24 has now rolled out to the launch site as wellApparently, ​​Axiom and Collins were the only bidders for NASA’s spacesuit contractAn Indian PSLV carried three satellites into LEO (DS-EO, NeuSAR, Scoob-1), India’s second launch this yearVirgin Orbit also had their second launch of 2022 (and their first night launch), delivering seven USSF satellites to LEOA Falcon 9 launched the SES-22 TV broadcast satelliteISRO’s first crewed mission won’t happen before 2024French smallsat launch startup Venture Orbital Systems landed a €10M Series A for their Zephyr launch vehicleRelativity Space and OneWeb signed a multi-launch agreement for the Terran RThe FCC granted approval for Starlink use on moving vehicles (airplanes, freighters, moving RVs, etc)An Atlas V launched two USSF satellites to GEO (one is missile tracking, the other appears to be a collection of experimental payloads)ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno released pictures of the second BE-4 engine that will power the maiden voyage of Vulcan, still hopefully launching sometime later this yearA Cygnus successfully boosted the orbital altitude of the ISS, giving NASA an option if Russia were to leave the station—however, Cygnus does not currently have an available launch vehicle due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Antares’ first stage manufactured in Ukraine and the Atlas-V, which uses the Russian RD-180 engine, fully booked through its end-of-life.

The second BE-4 flight engine was delivered by Blue Origin for ULA’s Vulcan.

Speaking of new maps, Chinese researchers released the results of a 10-year effort to create an incredibly detailed geologic map of the Moon. The new map has a resolution of 1:2,500,000 (the USGS’s lunar map is 1:5,000,000), and the 206 MB JPEG can be downloaded and scrolled around.

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