Issue No. 210

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 210 | Mar 15, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

The Starship Startups. A macro-trend gaining traction is newspace startups formed on the assumption of Starship’s success, a world in which a whole new scale of in-space systems will be possible and cost-effective (cf. Casey Handmer’s 2021 admonishment of NASA for not planning for this future). SpaceX is targeting a cost per kilogram of $50-$500 for Starship, representing a one- or two-order-of-magnitude reduction from Falcon’s current industry-leading $2,300/kg (for expendable launches on FH) to $5,500/kg (for F9 rideshare payloads). Other in-development reusable launch systems are targeting low costs as well (Terran-R, Neutron, and others), which only makes this low-launch cost future more likely, although not everyone sees it panning out. To take full advantage of this potential industry sea-change and leverage first mover advantage, startups must start development today to be ready when Starship becomes commercially operational. (No prediction from us on when that will be, but the program now feels unlikely to fail completely… as some suggested when it was first announced.) The most recent of this new breed of startups to emerge from stealth mode is K2 Space, building large-scale satellite busses that are specifically designed for a “post-Starship future”—they’re developing large busses in the style of development popularized by cubesats (COTS components, standardized sizes, etc.) but optimizing for low cost to orbit and economies of scale. As part of their reveal, K2 announced Mega-class (1 ton of customer payload at ~$15M) and (future) Giga-class (15 tons at ~$30M) busses which they believe will support large power budgets (20kW+) and markedly lower development costs compared to traditional bespoke GEO sats or high-budget/complexity deep space missions. K2 has raised an $8.5M seed round led by First Round Capital and Republic Capital. Other startups that are betting on this Starship-enabled future are likely K2 competitor Apex Space, Impulse Space (vacuum-optimized propulsion and cislunar fuel service), Varda (high-value in-space manufacturing and re-entry), Vast (artificial-gravity commercial space stations), perhaps Solestial (thin, flexible nextgen in-space PV), Ethos (lunar water mining for propellant), AstroForge (betting that water will decrease in value while space-sourced metal values will stay high, due to Starship’s payload capabilities), and other still-stealth startups we know and love. (Related: Some satellite parts suppliers are also betting on this future—where economies of scale will mean many thousands of a part are produced instead of the mostly hand-made tens to hundreds of similar parts produced today.)

Launch cost since the beginning of orbital spaceflight. Note the approximately-log scale. Credit: Visual Capitalist

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Magnetars. Magnetars are ridiculously extreme objects. These highly magnetized neutron stars—objects only ~20 km in diameter—have magnetic fields that may reach up to 1015 Gauss, a quadrillion (thousand trillion) times our Sun’s pitiful 1 Gauss. The energy density of just these magnetic fields (via E=mc2) is 10,000x the mass density of lead. Magnetars are a likely source of Fast Radio Bursts and can also emit giant gamma-ray flares—one flare, GRB 200415A, was seen to emit the same amount of energy as our Sun does over 100,000 years, but in only 0.016 s. We don’t really know how these flares form, but if they involve large mass motions, they could also produce gravitational waves, something LIGO and other gravitational wave observatories are watching for (paper). Near a magnetar, “X-ray photons readily split in two or merge. The vacuum itself is polarized, becoming strongly birefringent, like a calcite crystal. Atoms are deformed into long cylinders thinner than the quantum-relativistic de Broglie wavelength of an electron (pdf),” resulting in a breakdown of anything resembling what we think of as chemistry. It’s believed that their magnetic fields decay relatively quickly over about 10,000 years, so magnetars are a transient state. We know of about 30 magnetars so far. Oh, and they may also have volcanoes (sort of… paper).

Spitzer took this IR image of Magnetar SGR 1900+14 with a surrounding ring of gas 7 light-years across (related paper). The magnetar itself is not visible in IR.

News in brief. The Whitehouse’s NASA budget request is $27.2B (up 7% from last year, pdf), including full funding for Artemis II and III and $949M for Martian sample return developmentMeanwhile, the Pentagon requested $33.3B for space systems aloneAnnounced in 2021, Spain’s national space agency is now official, with €700M in funding and a $45M fund for small launch startups (of which PLD Space is most well-known)—it is the last major European economic nation to launch its own agencyThe ISS performed a dodge maneuver to avoid a Satellogic EO satCrew-5 returned safely to Earth and CRS-27 headed to the ISSNASA turned IBEX off and back on again to re-establish command capabilityThe US Space Force selected four companies to use launch pads at Cape Canaveral: ABL Space, Stoke Space, Phantom Space, and Vaya SpaceStarfish Space raised a $14M round for their Otter satellite servicing vehicle (cf. Issue 194)New Zealand-based Argo Navis Aerospace raised $1M for its K-200 sounding rocketJapanese small SAR sat startup iQPS raised ~$7.5MA Falcon 9 took 40 OneWeb sats to orbit—the company now has 582 sats in orbit, with its final 36 scheduled to launch on an Indian GSLV shortlyFlorida-based startup Lonestar raised $5M for… *checks notes* data centers for off-site backup on the MoonRocket Lab scrubbed their launch of a batch of Capella SAR sats from its Wallops Island launch facility due to high-altitude windsRelativity Space scrubbed launch attempts of Terran 1 last Wednesday (fuel temperature) and Saturday (winds, a boat down range, software, and finally low fuel pressure).

"Confirmed, we have to scrub." "Ugh, okay. I'll get the bucket and sponge." XKCD #2746

On March 1, Juno flew within 51,500 km of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io. In May, Juno will skim the moon again, this time at only 35,000 km.

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