Issue No. 214

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 214 | Apr 12, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Starship’s impending Orbital Flight Test. Long-awaited, the Starship full stack orbital flight test (OFT), now being referred to by SpaceX as the “first integrated flight test,” is all but ready to launch (here’s some gorgeous drone footage of the stacked vehicle). This test comes nearly two years after the last successful high-altitude flight test of Starship SN15 (video). Musk announced last weekend that the vehicle is “ready for launch,” and all that stands between the company and a first launch attempt is FAA approval, which could come any time… or delay the launch further. The company may have canceled plans for a launch rehersal, opting to proceed with the launch as soon as licensing is granted. Current FAA documents point to a potential April 17th launch, with backup dates during the 18th-21st. Starship and Super Heavy will take off from Boca Chica, fueled with upwards of 4,600 tons of liquid methane and oxygen. After stage separation, Booster 7 will return for a soft landing off the Texas gulf coast. Ship 24 will continue its flight to orbital velocity (or close), then will test atmospheric reentry, potentially perform a simulated ‘chopsticks catch’ hover, and a soft landing in the Pacific north of Hawai’i. Depending on the landings' softness, SpaceX may recover one or both stages, allowing their teams to inspect them for required adjustments before the next flight test of the massive rocket. Meanwhile, the backlog of Starship prototypes grows with at least Ship 29 and Booster 12 in production.

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Astrolab + Starship. Adding to our recent discussion of startups building for a Starship world (c.f. Issue 210), Hawthorne-based Astrolab recently announced an agreement with SpaceX to fly the startup's upcoming lunar rover to the Moon on a lunar Starship NET 2026 (Mission 1 conops video). Astrolab says their Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover (first covered in Issue 160) can carry up to 1,500 kg of customer payloads, is optimized for south polar regions, boasts a robotic arm with six degrees of freedom, and will be able to “traverse up to a couple thousand kilometers in a given year,” making the company less picky about precise landing locations. Announcements related to the mission’s “several” customers so far are pending. This design can be upgraded to a crewed rover configuration which the company is testing and will pitch to NASA as an Artemis Lunar Terrain Vehicle capable of carrying two astronauts. This is an ambitious vision for a company of 20 people with as-yet-unannounced funding (but presumably in part via their joint venture with Venturi). We’re rooting for them. Related: Canada is evaluating spending $900M over 13 years on a “lunar utility vehicle” to support human exploration of the Moon.

TEMPO. An Intelsat 40e geostationary communications satellite launched on a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral last week. Onboard the advanced comms sat, as a hosted payload, is the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO), an instrument designed to observe air pollution hourly over North America in unprecedented detail (2x4.5 km per pixel, about 30x current capabilities). TEMPO is a UV-to-visible grating spectrometer, built by Ball Aerospace, which can detect ozone, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, aerosols, and other pollutants. TEMPO joins South Korea's GEMS, over Asia, and ESA’s forthcoming Sentinel-4, over Europe. TEMPO is an example of NASA’s move toward making use of hosted payloads when possible to reduce costs.

News in brief. The Netherlands, Austria and Italy joined the 13 countries who have now agreed not to perform direct ascent ASAT tests UAE-based Yahsat invested $17.5M in Astrocast, a LEO and IoT network operatorSpain officially has a space agency nowOutpost has won a $1.7M DoD contract to help fund the development and testing of its Ferry satellite which can return from orbitStoke Space announced a side business: a software tool for tracking hardware throughout its lifecycleTrue Anomaly, a military-industrial startup initially focused on proximity operations near “uncooperative” spacecraft, came out of stealth and closed a $17M Series AChina’s CAS demonstrated the vertical landing of a (small) hopper turbojet-powered prototype on a sea-based platformIngenuity recently made its 49th flight, setting a top speed record of 6.5 m/s and an altitude record of 16 m (flight log)India tested a reusable space plane prototype and also just completed testing of their human-rated L110-G Vikas Engine for the Gaganyaan human space flight programNZ-based Dawn Aerospace performed three test flights in three days of its own 4.5-meter-long rocket-powered Mk-II Aurora suborbital spaceplane, declaring it the “most rapidly reusable rocket-powered aircraft in operation.”

Dawn Aerospace’s 4.5m Mk-II Aurora suborbital spaceplane prototype showing off New Zealand.


JWST captured the ice giant Uranus with bright rings. Also visible in this zoomed-out view are six of its 27 known moons. Click for a closeup and annotations!

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