Issue No. 199

Orbital Index will be taking next week off for the holidays. We’ll see you bright and early in the New Year!

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 199 | Dec 21, 2022

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PANIC! At The Station. Possibly due to a micrometeoroid or debris strike, the Soyuz MS-22 capsule docked to the ISS has suffered an external radiator coolant leak. This caused the abort of a spacewalk (with astronauts already depressurized in the airlock) and led to the cancellation of a second EVA. The coolant leak potentially threatens the module’s ability to serve as a reentry lifeboat—flight computers cooled by the radiator climbed to 40° C initially before stabilizing at ~30°. Inspection with a camera on the station’s robotic arm is ongoing. If it is determined to be unsafe for a crewed return trip, cosmonauts Prokopyev and Petelin along with NASA astronaut Rubio would be effectively trapped until a replacement could be launched. That replacement, the Soyuz MS-23 capsule, is apparently being accelerated for a potential uncrewed launch and would be remotely piloted to the ISS. This is possibly the most significant “emergency” situation in the 20+ year history of the ISS. (ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's leaking helmet was probably the most life-or-death situation, and an ammonia coolant pump leak in 2013 had some similarities, but didn’t have the same potential to strand astronauts on the station with no way home.)


Coolant leaking from Soyuz MS-22 (video).


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SWOT. Launched on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg, the $1.2B Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, from NASA and France’s CNES (along with some support from the Canadian and UK space agencies) took flight. The craft will deploy a pair of Ka-band radar antennas at each end of a 10-meter-long boom. SWOT will use these Ka-band antennas as a microwave radar interferometer to measure the height and surface area of over 95% of our planet’s freshwater with centimeter accuracy, including rivers and something like 6 million small lakes. It will also study ocean eddies and circulation patterns much smaller (<20 km across) than previously able to be detected—among other things, this will help monitor how oceans absorb heat. (SWOT was one of three Falcon 9 missions that SpaceX launched within a 34-hour window—a new record—bringing the company to just one shy of its 60-launch stretch goal for the year… with two launches left on this year’s manifest.)


Electrodeless Plasma Thrusters get a big bump. A prototype of a new design for an electrodeless plasma thruster has been shown to increase conversion efficiency to 30% using argon propellant, a 50% jump from previous designs, many of which used much heavier and more expensive xenon (paper). Electrodeless plasma thrusters emit ions at very high velocities by creating plasma within a vessel using an RF antenna and then accelerating these free ions through a “magnetic nozzle.” In traditional electric propulsion designs, an electrode must be exposed directly to plasma (often as a grid) making it the lifetime-limiting component. However, electrodeless designs have historically lost significant amounts of thrust to contact with the physical walls of the plasma vessel. This new design creates a “cusp” magnetic field just inside the walls, preventing plasma from touching them and allowing the thruster to convert more power to thrust.


The prototype Magnetic Nozzle (red lines) directing ions out the “downstream” end of the plasma vessel (to the right) without cusp fields can be seen in (a). The addition of (b) -10 and (c) -15 amp cusp fields show the isolation of the plasma from the backplate on the left side of the plasma vessel.


Chinese orbital launches.

  • Expace’s solid-fueled Kuaizhou-11 rocket, capable of 1,000 kg to SSO, reached orbit for the first time, two years after a failed first attempt. Expace is a commercial spinoff from the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. Kuaizhou–11’s odd shape uses tail rudders and nose thrusters for a somewhat novel approach to attitude control (video).
  • Another Chinese commercial spinoff, China Rocket Co., launched its Jielong-3 four-stage solid rocket to orbit from a mobile sea platform with 14 commercial smallsats on board. The vehicle can carry 1,500 kg of payload to SSO.
  • What would have been the world’s first methane-fueled orbital rocket unfortunately failed to reach orbit after a second-stage anomaly (leaked video). Landspace’s methane and liquid oxygen-fueled Zhuque-2 launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. Zhuque-2 is the first Chinese, commercially developed liquid-fueled rocket and is designed to deliver ~4,000 kg to SSO. The company, one of the most well-funded Chinese space startups, is also developing a restartable (and thus re-usable) version of their 80-ton-thrust TQ-12 engine. Many more methalox rockets are under development, including Starship, Vulcan, New Glenn, Neutron, Terran 1/R, and Chinese competitor iSpace’s Hyperbola-2. Landspace’s simpler, solid-fueled Zhuque-1 also failed to reach orbit four years ago.

Jielong-3’s four-stage solid rocket launching from a mobile sea platform.

News in brief. Arianespace launched their third (and final) Ariane 5 flight of 2022 with meteorological and telecom satellites onboardNigeria and Rwanda joined the Artemis Accords, the first countries in Africa to do soHaving taken its last observation flight, SOFIA will soon move to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, ArizonaThe UK invested small amounts (totaling $3.3m) into a bunch of very early stage space startupsSouth Korea’s first lunar orbiter, Danuri (KPLO), successfully entered lunar orbit with its first insertion maneuverThe UAE (working with Boeing) is in talks to provide an airlock for Gateway for lunar space walks (which would have quite a view)—Russia agreed in 2017 to provide the airlock but later reneged Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are cooperating on space technologyAfter avionics issues on Dec 8th, ABL’s first launch of their RS1 rocket has slipped to January 9thPlanet mentioned its acquisition of  Salo Sciences during its latest earnings announcement, continuing its strategic move toward adding value downstream to data captured by their ever-growing constellation of EO sats HALO Space successfully completed its first testflight with a full-sized prototype space tourism capsule—the capsule took off from Hyderabad, India, flew to 37 km using a helium balloon, and landed with a steerable parafoil.
HALO’s tourist capsule, taking off.
Images of the 21 samples collected by Perseverance on Mars so far and their source locations. These will hopefully be picked up and delivered to Earth by the joint NASA and ESA Mars Sample Return mission.
(Ed: We’re not sure why it’s called sample “return” — presumably these samples have never been to Earth before. Perhaps “Mars Sample Retriever” would have been better, and would definitely have lent itself to an exceptionally cute logo.)

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