Issue No. 188

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 188 | Oct 5, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

SpaceX to save Hubble? At SpaceX’s request, NASA and SpaceX signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement to cooperate on a six-month study of the feasibility for a Polaris Program mission to boost Hubble’s orbit. Without a boost, the thrusterless telescope is expected to re-enter and burn up around 2037—now at ~535 km, it has lost about 30 km since the final Shuttle visit 13 years ago. It seems Jared Isaacman’s nascent commercial space program is looking for useful things to do, and this certainly qualifies. Their first mission, Polaris Dawn, is scheduled for NET March 2023 and includes plans for the first commercial spacewalk. If NASA decides to move forward with the reboost, other companies will also likely get to bid (perhaps unless Polaris decides to do it for free). Related: NASA originally envisioned periodically boosting Hubble with an uncrewed Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle as an augment to the Shuttle program.

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Firefly reaches orbit. After its dramatic launch failure a year ago, and a last-second T-0 launch abort (after ignition) a few days ago, Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket has now reached orbit. The 3am launch from Vandenberg was visible up and down the California coast. Onboard were educational and tech demonstration cubesats and an open source PicoBus deployer (source) from Libra Space Foundation which carries tiny PocketQube satellites from them (satellite tracking), FOSSA Systems (IoT), and AMSAT-EA (amateur radio). The Alpha small-lift launch vehicle is the first rocket powered by a tap-off cycle to reach orbit and is also the first in a bevy of new rockets in the 1,000 kg to LEO / 745 kg to SSO class, with Terran 1, Miura 5, and RS-1 all on the way. Its most direct current competitors are the Long March 6 and JAXA’s Epsilon, leaving it with little immediate Western commercial competition. Firefly’s next vehicle, currently named MLV, is a Falcon 9 competitor with a capacity of 13 tons to LEO. Congratulations Firefly!

Alpha streaks retrograde from Vandenburg. Photo credit Jack Beyer.

Tanager to expand Carbon Mapper. Planet announced their next offering, a hyperspectral constellation named Tanager (named after a colorful family of birds native throughout the Americas). The new constellation will offer 400 spectral bands at 30 meters/pixel resolution from SSO. This constellation helps meet Planets’ commitment earlier this year to contribute data to Carbon Mapper, a recently launched non-profit that seeks to spot large point-source emitters of methane and CO2. Large emitters account for 40% of emissions in areas like the Permian Basin (paper), and existing data is often too low resolution for the identification of specific point sources. The first two Tanager sats will launch next year with a JPL-designed hyperspectral imager on-board. More will follow in a second phase which will allow quicker revisit times. While point-source methane and CO2 data will be freely available via Carbon Mapper, Planet intends to merge the full 400-band dataset with its visible imagery and sell it through the company's data portal. (Related: Planet also intends to provide data from these new sats and the existing constellations to map every renewable resource installation, worldwide).

A methane plume detected by AVIRIS-NG—an aircraft-mounted precursor to Planet’s JPL-designed spectrometer—points to a leaking gas line in an oil field in California. This data led to the operator confirming and subsequently repairing the leak. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

News in brief. Hurricane Ian forced NASA and SpaceX to delay Crew-5, now launching NET noon today The FCC adopted the new LEO deorbit rule requiring LEO satellite deorbit within 5 years after operations stop—although the House Science Committee is questioning the FCC’s ability to do so Three cosmonauts returned safely from the ISS Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is the first European woman to command the ISS The UK Space Agency awarded small active debris removal demo contracts to ClearSpace and Astroscale China started construction of the world’s largest steerable radio telescope—at 110 meters across, it is 10% larger than the Green Bank Telescope Ingenuity took its 33rd flight on Mars India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, launched in 2013 and designed to last 6 mos. in Martian orbit, has finally lost contact Astrobotic received ESA’s first contracted commercial lunar payload delivery, a landing sensor called LandCam-X NASA’s SOFIA, the venerable infrared telescope-on-a-747 that first detected water on the sunlit side of the Moon, took her final flight—Dr. Nadia Drake shared some fond memories NASA released the first photos from Juno’s recent Europa flyby.

A photo from Juno’s recent 352 km Europa flyby, the closest in 20 years. Processed by Björn Jónsson.



Below is one of LICIACube’s first images of the DART impact. Phil Metzger shared insights into the surprising ejecta streamers which don’t look at all like those from granular impact experiments, but do look like ones from the Hayabusa 2 impact. If ‘statistical granular collapse’ and how it might explain planet formation sounds interesting to you, it’s worth a read. Related: Sky & Telescope has gathered a bunch of ground-based collision imagery and Universe Today has new collision animations from both Hubble and the JWST.

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