Issue No. 178

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 178 | Jul 27, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

Relativity and Impulse are aiming for Mars. This week, Relativity Space and Impulse Space announced that they’re teaming up for the first commercial mission to Mars (video) and (ostensibly) launching as soon as the 2024 Mars launch window. Relativity Space will provide the launch on the first flight of their Terran-R fully-reusable launch vehicle, while Impulse Space will be responsible for building the cruise stage, a hypersonic aeroshell copied from Mars InSight (to reuse NASA’s engineering efforts), and a retropropulsivly-landing Martian lander. We’re all for ambitious commercial deep space missions and this is definitely that: Relativity has never launched a rocket (but they have $1 billion+ in funding, and the 3D printed Terran 1 is slated to launch later this year), and Impulse has never flown a satellite, deep space vehicle, aeroshell, or lander (although founder Tom Mueller has most certainly built an engine as founding employee and later CTO of Propulsion at SpaceX). But here’s hoping that they can pull it off (and maybe that it isn’t actually on the literal first launch of Terran-R). About the mission, Mueller said, "If it wasn't challenging, I wouldn't be doing it."

Relativity Space’s lander descending after having separated from its hypersonic aeroshell on Mars.

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Commercial deep space. Given the above announcement, let’s do a quick review of other upcoming commercial deep space missions.

Wentian arrives. China launched their Wentian research lab module on Sunday on a Long March 5B, the second of three modules that will form the completed Tiangong space station. Where the 23-ton booster will land this time is again unknown—hopefully the Indian Ocean like the last time, and not New York City. Wentian will provide the budding station with a fallback for critical control systems, add an additional robotic arm, make the station habitable full-time, and take over airlock duty for EVAs from the Tianhe core module. With its four fully-unfurled solar arrays totaling 30 meters of panels, Wentian also substantially increases the station’s power budget. The module’s primary purpose, however, is to provide dedicated lab space for the station’s science mission. Taikonauts successfully opened the hatch to the new module on Monday, seven hours after docking (video). Mengtian—a second laboratory and cabin module like Wentian, which will increase the maximum permanent crew capacity to six—is planned for launch in Q4, followed by the co-orbiting Xuntian Space Telescope.

Tiangong’s new configuration after the addition of Wentian (left).

Russia out of ISS in 2024? Roscosmos’ new CEO Yuri Borisov announced that the decision has been made that Russia will withdraw from operations of the station after 2024 and will begin constructing their own station. Skepticism about whether this is any more real than similar threats from Borisov’s just-dismissed predecessor came from multiple past ISS crew members (1, 2). Meanwhile, NASA itself says that it hasn’t been made aware of any such decision, and is actively coordinating operations of the station through 2030 with partner agencies (ESA, CSA, JAXA, and Roscosmos).  Presumably we’ll know more soon.

News in brief. Artemis I’s first launch has been scheduled—after 18 years in development, the SLS is going to roll back to the pad on Aug. 18th and hopefully launch for the Moon on Aug 29, Sept 2nd, or Sept 5thThe second mission of Rocket Lab’s new responsive launch program—unveiled earlier this month with two NRO missions and a claim of 24 hrs from payload arrival to launch—was delayed due to NRO doing a last minute payload software update Eutelsat and OneWeb are in talks to mergeESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Oleg Artemye installed the European Robotic Arm on the ISS’s Nauka module via spacewalkSpaceX’s 32nd launch of the year delivered 46 Starlink sats to LEO from Vandenberg and broke their annual launch record… and then they launched 53 more a few days later for good measureSpire (our newest sponsor!) announced the addition of atmospheric-moisture-measuring microwave sounders to their future satellites for weather forecastingIsar Aerospace will begin launching from the CNES Guiana Space Center in 2024, the first private company to do so (initial launches will still be from Andøya, Norway)A number of other companies are also applying to launch from the Guiana Space Center ● Astrobotic’s CLPS delivery of VIPER to the Moon has been delayed by NASA until 2024 for further testing—the company’s first CLPS lunar mission is still scheduled for later this yearThe SDA awarded two contracts for 14 missile tracking satellites each ($700M to L3Harris and $617M to Northrop Grumman)NASA bought a Falcon Heavy launch for the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope in 2026 for $255 m (oddly, the Europa Clipper Falcon Heavy launch only cost NASA $178 m almost exactly one year ago).
Jason Major shared this fantastic image of Mars reprocessed from data taken in Feb 2022 by the UAE Hope orbiter. Valles Marineris is near the center of the image (also recently imaged by ESA’s Mars Express).

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