Issue No. 211

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 211 | Mar 22, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Volcanoes on Venus. For the first time, we’ve observed the long-hypothesized active volcanism of Venus (cue the fanfare, but not too much). This finding, by a University of Alaska Fairbanks geophysicist and JPL radar scientist, comes from new analysis of 30-year-old data collected by Magellan during its observation of Venus from 1990-1994 (paper). (Magellan was the first interplanetary mission launched from the Shuttle, using the Inertial Upper Stage.) The mission used SAR to pierce the planet’s dense cloud cover, making three passes over the towering Maat Mons volcano during a 24-month period. The location where active volcanism was observed, on the edge of Maat Mons, shows a large change to the surface during an 8-month gap between images (see below). The change is ascribed to an eruption or magma flow—no alternative process is known that could create this kind of dramatic change to the surface in such a short amount of time. Magellan’s SAR instrument imaged in both right-looking and left-looking configurations, rotating its orientation back and forth between the two as needed, and mapped 98% of the surface with a spatial resolution of ~100 m/pixel. However, this reorientation makes the comparison between multiple captures of the same location difficult (due to their orientation and the way SAR shows height). In fact, this discovery was apparently originally made by Herrick while manually looking over data during boring zoom calls (take that computer vision!). Active volcanism, especially if it is as common as some expect, could help explain why Venus and Earth evolved so differently despite having many similar qualities, resulting in a planet whose surface is 65% lava plains (and 90% basalt). Unfortunately, we won’t find out more for a while because NASA blunderingly took the same moment to announce an almost complete halt to funding for VERITAS, its next planned mission to Venus. With this funding cut, the mission is delayed until NET 2031, which will have knock-on impacts to both DAVINCI and ESA’s EnVision which had planned to rely on data gathered by VERITAS—this development is disappointing and perplexing, given that delays to Psyche were the announced reason, but funding over and above that mission’s budget was pulled from VERITAS.

Changes to the surface of the slopes of the Maat Mons volcano. Credit: Robert Herrick and Scott Hensley.

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A radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. Our Moon is tidally locked, and so the far side of the Moon perpetually points away from our planet and its humans yammering all over the radio spectrum. This makes it a great place to put a radio telescope, especially during the times when its far side is pointed away from the Sun and into deep space. Chang’e 4, the first mission to land on the Moon’s far side, has a radio instrument called LFS (complete with three perpendicular 5-meter antennae, pdf), but it operates during the lunar day and focuses on solar radio bursts and the lunar ionosphere, not fainter-than-the-Sun radio emissions like those from exoplanets or neutral hydrogen atoms formed during the early universe before the first stars (pdf). To start leveraging this potential, NASA, the U.S. DOE, and UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory are co-developing LuSEE-Night, an instrument to operate on the far side of the Moon during the -280°F (-173°C) lunar night. The payload will be delivered via a brand new $112M CLPS award to Firefly Aerospace (the company’s second mission for their Blue Ghost lander) which will also deliver Lunar Pathfinder to lunar orbit. A partner payload to LuSEE-Night, LuSEE-Lite (pdf), is planned to fly on an earlier CLPS lander and will operate during the day like Chang’e 4. Also under development is DAPPER which would observe radio emissions from the Universe’s Dark Ages and Cosmic Dawn using extendable antennae from lunar orbit while behind the Moon. Further afield, the proposed Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) would be a robotically-assembled 1 km-diameter wire-mesh antenna in a 3-5 km-diameter lunar crater. Even larger would be the proposed 10-km FARSIDE telescope.

Radio frequency interference (RFI) at 100 kHz on the lunar far side vs the nearside; -90 dB is a billion times reduction. Higher lunar altitudes are in white/red and lower are in purple.

New lunar space suits. NASA and Axiom revealed new AxEMU Artemis III lunar spacesuits, which have better insulation, cooling, and greatly improved range of motion compared to Apollo-era suits. They also have an HD helmet cam and support donning via a rear hatch instead of being assembled around the astronaut. Axiom was also just approved for a third private astronaut mission to the ISS and will launch Ax-2 to the station later this spring.


Axiom’s new lunar space suit, albeit covered in an ‘artistic’ cloth layer that won’t be used on the Moon but is currently concealing proprietary design elements (on the Moon it’ll be boring/reflective white so that we don’t cook our astronauts).

News in brief. The last Ariane 5 launch has now been scheduled for June 21 Innospace, potentially S Korea’s first private small satellite launch company, launched their suborbital single stage hybrid HANBIT rocket from the Alcântara Space Center in Brazil Varda Space won a $60M Air Force contract to test the company’s re-entry vehicle as a hypersonic test-bed—there’s always money in the military-industrial complex SpaceX launched the final two satellites for SES, allowing SES to claim ~$4 billion in C-band clearing proceeds Rocket Lab sent two Capella Space SAR sats to orbit from the company’s Wallops Island launch facility China launched a classified Gaofen-13 EO satellite on a Long March 3B and a classified Shiyan-19 test satellite on a Long March 11—somehow it seems every Chinese satellite is used for “land resource surveys” and “disaster prevention” China also launched an Egyptian (probably actually) agricultural EO satellite on a Long March 2C NASA started assembly of their VIPER robotic lunar rover (surprisingly, the agency’s first) Relativity scrubbed yet another launch attempt, this time due to a “a corner case in the stage separation automation,” but “scrubs not RUDs” is an exceptionally reasonable tactic before your first orbital launch Virgin Orbit halted operations and placed almost all employees on furlough as the company seeks additional funding Quadsat, a Danish company which uses drones to test ground antennas, raised a $9.6M Series A The UK Space Agency provided £2.9M to Rolls-Royce for their small lunar nuclear reactor project A SpaceX cargo Dragon took 2,852 kg of cargo to the ISS in its 27th cargo mission—experiments around antimicrobial surfaces, new station carbon dioxide scrubbers, and an in-space laser power beaming demonstration (inside a 1.7 m tube) were on board The IPCC released its AR6 Synthesis Report, yet again confirming the grave need for global climate action to preserve a climate that remains globally livable and supports the ecosystems we love for our planet’s children—many key insights were derived from Earth Observation data as they have been since the dawn of climate science, and include the value of large scale renewable investment, protection of mature forests, and electrification.


“I was born in 1980 and have already experienced more warming than my parents had by this time in their life. My kids’ future could have even steeper warming, and the extent of this change depends largely on climate action (or inaction) now and in [the] next decade.” – Man who created this infographic.


  • Starlink RV has been renamed Roam and now offers an unlimited roaming option that covers a user’s entire continent ($150/mo) or the globe ($200/mo), can be used fixed ($599 hardware) or in-motion ($2,500 hardware, assumedly similar to their airplane hardware), and can be paused/unpaused at any time.
  • The Secrets of Rocket Design Revealed, by Tory Bruno (CEO of ULA).
  • A pretty view of Earth from the upper stage of the Falcon 9 that launched SES 18 & 19.
  • Tracking the Chinese Balloon from Space. Earth Observation allows for a look back through time for events that happened in the past but weren’t known to be happening at the time.
  • Eric Berger at Ars writes about the drastic changes wrought by SpaceX in the launch industry over the past ten years—at the same time creating an exciting time for rocket engineers and a boring time for RUD enthusiasts. The company’s main competition in the last decade has launched a combined 3 rockets this calendar year while SpaceX has launched one every 4.1 days for a running total of 14.
  • NASA’s proposed budget includes $180M to start development on a large orbital tug to help safely dispose of the ISS at the end of the decade— the agency anticipates spending upwards of $1B on the tug project. It strikes us that, while deorbiting the ISS poorly would be a disaster, $1B is a “lot of money”—on the order of the amount of money NASA is planning on spending to support the initial development of entire new commercial space stations.
  • Dr. Brian May, lead guitarist for the band Queen and now an astrophysicist, was officially knighted last week. (Is his full honorific now “Sir Dr. Brian ‘Seventh Best Rock Guitarist Ever, and pretty great astrophysicist too’ May”?)

The M80 globular cluster contains several hundred thousand stars and is located 28,000 lightyears away. Hubble just captured a new image of the cluster which hosts a large number of “blue stragglers,” young massive stars that formed after most other stars in the region.

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