Issue No. 198

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 198 | Dec 14, 2022

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Orion is back home! The first flight of the long-delayed next-generation crew capsule appears to have performed nominally and even to have exceeded expectations in some cases. Throughout the 25-day mission, NASA and its partners at ESA performed numerous hardware tests, trying various off-nominal configurations to observe how the spacecraft would handle things like thermal endurance, propellent slosh, and excessive thruster firings. The European Service Module delivered 15% more power than planned (although overall propulsion performance was limited by its required use of a refurbished Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System engine), while the heat shield and other systems also performed at or above pre-flight expectations. Orion’s trip treated us to lots of lovely photos, including a view of the Moon eclipsing the Earth. (Related: Supercuts from NASA of Artemis I's launch and Orion’s time around the Moon which are worth watching). After a last powered flyby of the Moon, the new capsule slingshotted towards Earth (reaching 11.1 km/s) where it successfully performed a “skip entry,” in which it skimmed through the atmosphere to an altitude of ~61 km before rolling over and aerodynamically climbing back out to the edge of space at 99 km—this maneuver will reduce astronaut g-forces from ~6.8 g down to just 4 g. It also provides significantly more precision for landing, with Artemis I splashing down within 3.9 km of its target. The flight wasn’t completely flawless, however, with a few anomalies cropping up along the way. These included star trackers that got dazzled by thruster plumes, a temporary communications loss, and damage to the launch tower (along with a number of other minor issues). Artemis II, a 4-person crewed mission around the Moon in an Orion capsule, is next up, currently scheduled for 2024, but likely to slide to 2025. (Meanwhile: NASA has asked Boeing to figure out a manufacturing plan to support an SLS flight rate increase to 1.5 flights per year, and possibly to as much as twice annually.) 

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ispace heads to the Moon. The Moon business is heating up. Launching early Sunday morning on a Falcon 9 (after atypical Falcon 9 launch delays), ispace’s first lunar lander—HAKUTO-R—is on its way to the Moon on a four-month, low-energy, low-fuel trajectory. The ambitious commercial mission—dubbed M1 and insured by the first “Lunar Insurance” policy—carries a battery demonstration, a super cute 250-gram, tennis-ball-sized rover from JAXA (that transforms to roll around, natch), Canadian imaging & navigation experiments, and the UAE’s 10-kilogram Rashid rover (which itself has a microscope, thermal imaging camera, a plasma-analyzing Langmuir probe, and three high-resolution cameras provided by the French space agency). This mission may also attempt to gather a token amount of regolith to symbolically sell to NASA for $5000 in an attempt to establish lunar property rights precedent. If this mission is successful, it will be the first successful private landing on the Moon (and only the fourth organization to do so), and a compelling, if delayed, outcome of the Google Lunar X Prize which helped spur its initial development between 2013 and 2018. (There’s also a real space race here— due to HAKUTO-R’s leisurely voyage, it’s possible either Intuitive Machines or Astrobotic could launch and land before HAKUTO-R gets to the Moon, stealing ispace’s thunder.) Related: Also launched onboard the same Falcon 9 was Lunar Flashlight, a 6U CubeSat which will use near-infrared lasers and an onboard spectrometer to map ice in permanently shadowed lunar regions, flying only 15 km above the lunar south pole—the craft was initially scheduled for Artemis 1, but it wasn’t ready by integration time.

The small Rashid rover, UAE’s first, will spend 8-10 Earth days exploring within radio contact of HAKUTO-R, analyzing lunar geology, dust, and the local space environment.

News in brief. Two new Chinese rockets reached orbit this week—Expace’s Kuaizhou on their second attempt and China Rocket Co.’s sea-launched Jielong-3 (we’ll talk about these more next week) A Chinese Long March 4C also took two secretive satellites to orbit NASA has lost contact with the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite, launched in 2019 on a nominal two-year mission Relativity Space’s Terran 1 is at the pad Virgin Orbit’s first launch from the UK was supposed to be today, but has now slipped into early 2023 SpaceX, maker of Starlink, launched 40 OneWeb communication satellites NASA formally committed to the planetary defense NEO Surveyor mission at a cost of $1.2 billion Hanwha Aerospace will be paid $212M to develop launch vehicles for South Korea’s "Space Pioneer" indigenous space program New Zealand-based Dawn Aerospace raised $20M—the company develops satellite thrusters… and is working on an orbital space plane Blue Origin—again teaming with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and supported by Draper, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics—is bidding on NASA’s second crewed Moon lander option, the Sustaining Lunar Development program Also bidding again is Dynetics, now in partnership with Northrop Grumman, who has switched teams Collins Aerospace received a $97M NASA contract for ISS space suit development The UN voted on a draft resolution against direct ascent ASAT tests155 nations voted in favor, nine voted against (including China, Iran, and Russia), and nine abstained (including India) Ingenuity flew for its 35th time on Mars, hitting a new height record of 14 meters—the robotic helicopter is now something like 573 days over its nominal 30-day technology demonstration period Yusaku Maezawa announced the crew for dearMoon, his eventual Starship flight around the Moon—Everyday Astronaut Tim Dodd is among them.



If the celestial sphere were mapped to the Earth's surface, astronomy would get a LOT easier; you'd just need a magnifying glass.XKCD #1276

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