¶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.
¶Commercial deep space. Given the above announcement, let’s do a quick review of other upcoming commercial deep space missions.
- Rocket Lab is working on a privately-funded Venus fly-by and life-detecting descent probe, targeting 2023.
- Rocket Lab also has a NASA contract to launch two small Mars orbiters based on their Photon bus NET 2024.
- Japanese startup ispace’s M1 lunar lander could launch as soon as November, with its follow-on sibling M2 in 2024. It’s impressive how well ispace is doing at finding commercial customers.
- There are 8 upcoming NASA CLPS missions to the Moon from Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic, Firefly, Draper (just announced, and ambitiously heading to the lunar farside), and Masten Space (if they don’t go bankrupt). More are on the way, including a likely fourth Intuitive Machines mission with at least one commercial customer already lined up.
- SpaceX’s dearMoon crewed lunar round trip Starship flight. (Related: Jared Isaacman’s Polaris program will attempt to take humans to a higher Earth orbit than ever before, starting this fall, on a Crew Dragon.)
- Beresheet2, the private Israeli 2024 Moon lander mission and sequel to the unsuccessful Beresheet OG.
- And of course, asteroid mining startups of varying degrees of credibility: AstroForge, Karman+, Origin Space (which has launched a small space telescope), and a few others.
¶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 5th ● The 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 merge ● ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Oleg Artemye installed the European Robotic Arm on the ISS’s Nauka module via spacewalk ● SpaceX’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 measure ● Spire (our newest sponsor!) announced the addition of atmospheric-moisture-measuring microwave sounders to their future satellites for weather forecasting ● Isar 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 year ● The 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).|
- Speaking of commercial Mars missions… In 2016, SpaceX announced that an uncrewed Crew Dragon (“Red Dragon”) would head to the surface of Mars NET 2018. This was canceled the next year.
- Northrop Grumman recently test-fired the solid rocket booster design for SLS’s future Block 2 configuration, to be debuted sometime in the 2030s, perhaps on Artemis IX. NASA Space Flight has an analysis.
- The larger micrometeoroid that hit the JWST in May caused damage to one of the mirror sections and a very slight decrease in image quality. Alone, this isn’t an issue, but it was more damage than was expected by micrometeoroid models, and so is worrying if it means that either the telescope is more susceptible to damage than anticipated, or the debris environment is unexpectedly harsh. Section 4.7 of a recently released paper goes into more detail. “Pre-launch projections, informed by micrometeoroid population models and experimental studies and numerical simulations of impacts to beryllium mirrors, predicted that on average each segment would receive a cumulative total of 16 nm added WFE over six years. The May impact resulted in one segment receiving more than 10 times that average in a single event.”
- One of JWST’s early images shows a galaxy, GLASS-z13, which may have formed only 300 million years after the Big Bang (preprint paper), a record observation.
- Will NASA rename the James Webb Space Telescope? A space expert explains the Lavender Scare controversy.
- Just two weeks after the first release of imagery, JWST is reshaping astronomy.
- Satellite images show how much Lake Mead has receded since 2000. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the US, sitting on the border of Nevada and Arizona.
- We think this design probably just needs a few more boosters. 🚀🚀🚀🚀😂