Issue No. 216

Aaaand, we’re back! It’s been a busy two weeks. Let’s jump right into it.

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 216 | May 3, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Starship's integrated flight test a qualified success. While the mainstream media have largely portrayed the flight as a failure, due in part to the admittedly very KSP-style somersaulting and flamey ending, in SpaceX’s “hardware-rich” iterative design process, clearing the launch tower (primary goal), crossing Max-Q, and flying to an altitude of 39 km before a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” was a success for the largest rocket ever launched (recap and video). Despite the overall success, concrete slabs and debris unexpectedly launched alongside Starship, some flying as high as the top of BN7, and a huge crater (aka “DIY flame trench”) was blasted out below the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM). Launch debris rained down on Boca Chica, South Padre Island, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (starting a fire, but seemingly causing no significant wildlife deaths). This level of pad disintegration was clearly unexpected, potentially affecting first-stage raptors and leading to pad and ground support equipment damage (although Musk described it as ‘quite small’ in a recent talk—the summary is worth reading). A water-cooled steel plate and deluge system are being built to mitigate future pad damage. Throughout the flight, six Raptor engines were lost, a hydraulic power unit exploded, and multiple engines’ thermal shielding was compromised—improvements in Raptor reliability, better sound/vibration control, and a move to electric gimbaling will be needed for future flights, all of which are already in progress. The final stages of the flight appeared semi-uncontrolled, but some suggest it may have also been part of an attempted booster flip maneuver after which SN24 would have separated, flipped back, and continued its ascent. That separation was clearly never achieved, perhaps due to being off-course or experiencing lower-than-expected thrust from multiple engine-outs (each missing engine accounts for 3% of the booster’s thrust). Starship’s flight termination system (FTS) was triggered late in the flight, blowing holes in both stages’ tanks, but the vehicle didn’t explode for an additional 40 seconds (but still within its marine and aviation exclusion zones), which will require an FAA review, significant FTS upgrades, and re-certification before another flight. This launch definitely did not fail to deliver on SpaceX’s promise of “excitement guaranteed,” and we’re looking forward to a next launch in 2-3 months of “Elon time” alongside the  FFA FTS recertification timeline—color us surprised if it occurs before August. That said, with NASA’s next crewed Moon landing and SpaceX’s future plans both riding on this vehicle, there is a lot of momentum.

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HAKUTO-R doesn’t quite make it. The small lander from private Japanese company ispace failed to complete a soft touchdown on the lunar surface (official status update). Had the landing been successful, ispace would have become the first commercial entity to land on the Moon—as of now, only the US, China, and Russia have accomplished this feat. As always, our friend Jatan has a detailed write-up in his most recent issue of Moon Monday. The lander lost communication at 10 meters above the surface, just seconds before landing. But, with propellant levels lower than expected and descent velocity increasing, a loss of propellant is the likely cause of failure. Fortunately, the company had insurance on the lander, a world first—we’re curious to see how that pays out. Unfortunately, also lost was the UAE’s Rashid rover (Rashid 2 was promptly announced), JAXA’s cute miniature ball-shaped rover, and a number of other payloads. Engineers are currently analyzing telemetry to establish a root cause. Missions M2 and M3 are in development, with planned launches in 2024 and 2025, and we hope the company can survive financially to get there. Meanwhile, Astrobotic (now delayed by Vulcan’s issues) and Intuitive Machines (which has launches scheduled for June and November) are looking like the main contenders for the first commercial lunar landing.

A lunar Earthrise with a solar eclipse crossing our planet, captured by HAKUYO-R while in lunar orbit at around 100 km from the Moon’s surface.

Astranis’s first satellite. With the launch of a Falcon Heavy, Astranis’s first commercial satellite, Arcturus, is taking NewSpace to GEO. While pretty much everyone else is working on low-latency, proliferated LEO constellations, Astranis, founded in 2018, has instead focused on low-cost, small GEO birds. Arcturus’s customer is Pacific Dataport, an ISP in Alaska, which will now have a dedicated persistent overhead communications satellite. Astranis also recently received a contract for two more GEO satellites, this time dedicated to Mexican broadband comms. Unsurprisingly, the US military is interested in low-cost and rapidly deployable GEO sats as well. They’re also interested in Astranis’s maneuverability, allowing a satellite to reposition up to 30 times during its operating life and providing responsive, overhead communications where needed. Based on Pier 70 in SF, the company says they can make 24 satellites per year. The company recently raised $200M in equity and debt.

News in brief. NASA, JAXA, CSA, and ESA confirmed ISS support through 2030, with Russia confirming at least through 2028—this is good news for the ISSAstra Space will use Ursa Major’s Hadley as Rocket 4’s upper stage engineRocket Lab is adapting Electron to act as a hypersonics test bed for a ‘confidential customer’—again, there’s always money in the military-industrial complexVirgin Galactic performed its first glide test since 2021JUICE’s ice-penetrating radar antenna is having trouble with deploymentAST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite successfully handled a voice call from an unmodified smartphoneAn Indian PSLV launched with Singapore’s first SAR satelliteEvolution Space’s suborbital sounding rocket reached the edge of space (and Sweden’s hit Norway)Thermal imaging startup Hydrosat raised a $20M Series ALasercomm company Mynaric raised €80.6M in combined debt and equityAstranis’s Arcturus shared its SpaceX Falcon Heavy with Viasat-3 and an IoT cubesat from Gravity Space (here’s a cool video of the plasma trail from one of its re-entering fairings) SpaceX also launched a pair of O3b mPower comsats on a Falcon 9Virgin Orbit (currently in bankruptcy) determined that their Jan 9th launch failure was due to a filter in the fuel tank outlet which dislodged and traveled into the engine.

UAE’s Hope Mars mission captured this stunning image of Deimos and Mars, the first high-resolution images of the moonlet’s far side. Data suggests that its composition is similar to that of Mars, supporting simultaneous formation instead of an asteroid capture origin as previously assumed. More images from the mission are available here.

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