Issue No. 213

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 213 | Apr 5, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

China’s first liquid-fueled commercial rocket. Space Pioneer just became China’s first commercial firm to reach orbit with a liquid-fueled rocket, and the world's first to do so on a first attempt. The company’s launch vehicle, Tianlong 2, delivered a CubeSat to SSO. Space Pioneer has raised ~$430M. The 3.35-meter-diameter core Tianlong 2 can carry 2,000 kg to LEO or 1,500 kg to SSO. Its first-stage uses open-cycle kerolox engines developed by state-owned CASC, and some of the company’s investments have come through state-owned channels, so, as with most things in China, the “private” designation is quite fuzzy, but the company is using its own engines for the 2nd and 3rd stages. Space Pioneer’s next rocket, the much more ambitious Tianlong 3, will be similar, but with a reusable first stage and a payload capacity of 15 tons to LEO. Another Chinese firm, Landspace, was striving for the title of first liquid-fueled commercial Chinese rocket, but their launch failed last year (at the time, they were also attempting to become the world’s first methane-fueled rocket to achieve orbit, which is still potentially achievable; they’re planning another attempt this year).

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Soyuz 5 on Ice. In development since 2013, the Soyuz 5 project has been Roscosmos’ answer to the cost pressure induced by Falcon 9. The new, expendable system’s flights have been forecast to cost as low as $50 million per launch, undercutting F9’s price point at $67M (MSRP; discounts for reuse may exist but aren’t public). Soyuz 5 has historically referred to two different projects, both with the goal of replacing the venerable, yet aging, Soyuz 2 vehicle that was first introduced in 1966 (and modernized with digital guidance in the ‘00s). The first replacement effort started in 2013, based on the planned methalox RD-0162 or RD-0164 engines, and was envisioned with a modular design that would eventually support a next-gen crew capsule. This project was renamed Soyuz 7, and later, when another project was given the same name, adopted the endearing name “RN SPG” (although many places still refer to it as Soyuz 7, and it could eventually use this name again if it ever sees the light of day). What has become the new heir apparent of the Soyuz 5 moniker is a more traditional kerolox architecture built on top of the RD-171 engine. First launch predictions for the new architecture have ranged from an original target of 2021 to more recent timelines calling for a 2024 launch. However, Soyuz 5, at 4.1m in diameter, cannot be delivered to Russia’s preferred Vostochny launch site due to rail tunnel size limitations. Baikonur Cosmodrome, which supported rail access for similarly-sized Zenit hardware, is therefore the singular launch option. In recent years, Kazakhstan-Russian relations over Baikonur have become strained, with the Kazakh government stating that the ~$100M/year rent—locked in through 2050—isn’t sufficient. With the invasion of Ukraine and similar nationalistic “pseudo-state” commentary from Russia about Kazakhstan, it seems the Kazakh government has done some soul-searching and decided to press the issue. The in-country Roscosmos subsidiary recently had its assets frozen and all property including Soyuz 5 ground systems are being held under strict orders not to be removed from the country. (We’re amused by the image of Russia getting mad, rage-quitting the game, and attempting to take its launch pad home with it…) It’s unclear what this latest development means for the Soyuz 5 project in the long term, but invariably it will slow down the planned 2024 launch substantially.

Stable Diffusion’s take on Russia rage-quitting and taking its launch equipment home with it.

Artemis II Crew. NASA announced the four astronauts who will fly around the Moon on the 10-day Artemis II mission: Reid Wiseman (Commander; Navy pilot, ISS astronaut, and ex-head of the Astronaut Office), Victor Glover (Pilot; Navy test pilot, the first African American to stay on the ISS for an extended period), Christina Koch (Mission Specialist; Electrical Engineer, holds the record for longest continuous time in space by a woman), and Jeremy Hanson (Mission Specialist; fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying in exchange for Canada’s contribution of Canadarm3 to Gateway). Artemis II is currently scheduled for November 2024 and is slated to be the first time humans leave Earth’s orbit since 1972, as well as the farthest a crew has ever strayed from our planet. The SLS core stage for the mission was recently fully integrated and is now awaiting the installation of its monstrously expensive RS-25 engines.

Weird Papers. Back by popular request.


News in brief. The damaged Soyuz MS-22 returned successfully to Earth—the internal temperature would have been about 50°C (122°F) had astronauts been onboard China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced that it will start launching satellites as part of their Guowang (“national network”) 13,000 satellite LEO communication network later this yearStarfish Space won a $3M DIU contract for their Nautilus electrostatic adhesive docking and capture mechanismAfter a T-0 abort, and subsequent scrub, the first Falcon 9 launch of SDA’s Tranche 0 military communications and tracking satellite constellation went to orbit and landed nominally Starship is back at the launch site ahead of a potential orbital test after missing its (most recent) March launch goal Virgin Orbit’s rescue funding fell through and the company has ceased most operations, laying off 85% of the staff and filing for bankruptcy 😔Lockheed Martin announced a subsidiary called Crescent Space which will develop a lunar communications network called Parsec, starting with two 250kg spacecraft in lunar orbitAvio will receive $308M from the Italian government to develop a small, prototype launch vehicle and a methalox engineChina launched 4 GalaxySpace interferometric SAR sats and a Yaogan reconnaissance sat on a Long March 2DAn anomaly with Vulcan’s upper stage during qualification may delay the rocket’s first launch further (and therefore NASA and Astrobotics’s first CLPS lander)Planet acquired Slovenian EO data startup Sinergise Labs—here’s TerraWatch Space Insights' analysisSpace data-as-a-service startup Impact Observatory raised $5.9M.


  • Our item about Starship startups was featured last week in H+, an excellent newsletter about robotics, AI, and the future of humanity.
  • Yuri’s Night is next week, find a local event.
  • A science update is out from the New Horizons team, now eight years post-Pluto. It contains new findings on the formation of Arrokoth, Pluto’s axial tilt, and Pluto’s sublimated methane penitente, and shares the mission’s plans to continue observations of the outer heliosphere and take a look back at Uranus and Neptune from a never-before-seen angle (pdf). Having moved beyond the region where sunlight scatters off interplanetary dust (the zodiacal light), the probe can now view the Universe in a way that nothing from Earth can. “We’re going to be doing maps of the entire sky in the ultraviolet, and we’re going to be looking at selected regions in the optical, to try to understand those two background signals, which are already telling us from precursor observations that there’s at least one source of unknown light coming from extragalactic space or cosmologically,” Stern said. “And then, finally, we’re going to be also mapping the local interstellar medium in hydrogen light, to understand the cloud structures and other structures that have never been mapped before.
  • Maxar announced a global 30 cm basemap comprising 400,000 cloud-free, blended image strips. They also shared a short video of Landsat 8, in orbit, taken from one of their WorldView-3 satellites.

Curiosity caught crepuscular rays at Martian sunset on Feb. 2, 2023, the best view of sun rays on Mars yet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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