Issue No. 193

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 193 | Nov 9, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

The quest for a fusion drive. As evidenced by… roughly speaking… every sci-fi series, fusion engines are the future of space propulsion. California startup Helicity Space is on a mission to develop such a drive today. Their approach is basically a deuterium-deuterium plasma thruster with a pulsed magneto-inertial fusion “afterburner” that compresses confined plasmoids in a double-helical magnetic system (a “plectoneme”… kind of like a helical z-pinch). While early versions of the Helicity Drive wouldn’t exceed the Lawson criterion (more energy out than in) and would require external (presumably solar) power, the energy added to the exhaust from fusion would increase the system’s exhaust velocity and ISP (giving somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 s isp, vs a maximum of ~400 for chemical rockets). The claim—which we’re somewhat skeptical of—is that this energy gain is easier to achieve than a sustained, contained, terrestrial fusion power system (recent presentation from their chief scientist). The required techniques of helical plasma jets (paper), magnetic reconnection heating (paper), and peristaltic magnetic compression (paper) have been demonstrated in the lab at varying scales. Notably, their all-star science and strategy advisory board includes Pete Worden, Air Force General and later Director of NASA's Ames Research Center, and Alan Stern, PI of the New Horizons mission to Pluto—here is Alan excitedly pitching the company and a proposed mission which would reach the interstellar medium in about 10 years. While this may not be the company that ultimately builds a fusion engine (it could be competitor Princeton Satellite Systems, a magnetic mirror approach like Realta Fusion’s, or something else), it does feel like humanity will build one eventually, and we’re glad engineers are seriously working on it today. They’ve raised about $5M based on aggressive timelines, so hopefully, we’ll know more soon.


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Rocket Lab Catch Attempt II. In a perhaps-fatefully named mission, Rocket Lab attempted to recover an Electron first-stage booster for the company's second time. “Catch Me if You Can” (video) delivered Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy (MATS), a Swedish research satellite, which will measure atmospheric waves in the mesosphere and lower thermosphere by imaging airglow from oxygen in the Earth’s limb. The satellite was remanifested from a Soyuz due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The primary payload delivery mission was successful, but the booster catch wasn’t even attempted. Booster telemetry cut out during reentry, precluding the booster-catching helicopter from entering the recovery zone according to Rocket Lab operating procedures. The previous attempt in April successfully nabbed the booster but had to quickly release it for safety reasons. It remains to be seen if Rocket Lab’s approach, envisioned as less complicated than a propulsive landing, will be successful and eventually become as pedestrian as a Falcon 9 landing—151 landings will do that to the best of us. Even if successful, Rocket Lab’s period of helicopter catches may be short-lived, as their Neutron successor to Electron will use a propulsive return to launch site (RTLS) recovery, much like the two Falcon Heavy boosters performed last week.
News in brief. China’s Long March 5B core stage, fortunately, made its uncontrolled reentry into the Pacific Ocean after forcing airspace closures across southern EuropeArtemis I rolled back out to the pad last Friday and is now scheduled for a November 14th launch attempt at 12:07 am, pending weather (including low-intensity hurricane Nicole approaching the east Florida coast)Blue Origin (finally) completed delivery of their first batch of BE-4 flight engines to ULA and they are now being installed onto the inaugural first stage of Vulcan CentaurArtemis IV now includes a lunar landing, like its predecessor Artemis IIIThe FCC announced that it will be opening an office dedicated to space regulation (statement)Constellr raised a $10M Seed for space-based agricultural water monitoring satellitesChina’s spaceplane released an unknown object in orbit after being up there for 90 days—perhaps it is an inspector craftChina also launched a communication satellite on a CZ-3B rocketAn Antares launched an ISS resupply mission—its Cygnus resupply spacecraft suffered a malfunction that prevented one of its solar arrays from deploying, but it likely has enough power to reach the ISSWeb3 and blockchain satellite technology startup Cryptosat raised $3M 🤔JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries completed a successful static fire of their first next-generation H3 rocket powered by what will be the world’s first expander bleed cycle rocket engine—it is now scheduled for launch sometime before the end of Q1 2023. 
The hydrolox LE-5B engine, developed to power JAXA’s new H3 rocket, opts for an “expander bleed cycle” which uses vaporized fuel instead of combustion gasses to drive the turbopumps. This simplifies the engine and makes it safer since the engine will spin down automatically in the case of a turbopump failure.

A minor G-1 solar storm opened a temporary ‘crack’ in the Earth’s magnetosphere on November 3rd, creating rare pink auroras due to solar wind interacting with more plentiful nitrogen in the lower (~100 km) atmosphere (the same night an unexplained blue aurora-like ribbon was spotted in the sky of northern Finland).

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