Issue No. 217

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 217 | May 10, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

A China space news update. The Chinese space program has been delivering mission successes recently. These include a lunar sample return mission, a Mars lander and rover (which is now, unfortunately, dormant, but did gather data that recently led to the detection of water in sand dunes at low latitudes), a continuously-crewed modern space station, and a burgeoning commercial space industry and launch cadence (that writeup from China Space Monitor reviews all the recent commercial launches), to name just a few. In the last couple of weeks, there have been a flurry of announcements and updates. The ambition (and soft power projection) in these is palpable. While many may be changed or delayed, with so many recent successes, these are all worth taking seriously. 

Not China’s reusable spaceplane which recently landed after 276 days in orbit. Instead, this is a gorgeous photo of the X-37B since China doesn’t tend to share a lot of photos.

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ULA to use LOFTID-like heatshield. After the launch and first successful re-entry of an inflatable heatshield last November (cf. Issue 194), ULA has now disclosed more information about its intentions to use the technology as part of its latent plans to recover used Blue Origin-developed BE-4 engines from Vulcan launches (video). Inflatable heatshields have been around for some time, first conceived for interplanetary missions in the 60s and 70s, but never tested, with those planetary missions opting instead for disk-gap-band supersonic parachutes. China has also experimented with inflatable re-entry vehicles, although the country’s 2020 attempt, on board a Long March 5B, was deemed a failure. Slightly farther back, Russia developed the IRDT for Mars 96, which never made it to the Red Planet, and a follow-on orbital demonstrator survived re-entry, but failed to fully inflate. Back to ULA’s plans: BE-4 engines, detached from the Vulcan’s tank section after stage separation and weighing in at >22 tons, will hit a max speed of 5.4 km/sec as the 10 m diameter deployable heat shield soaks up the engines’ kinetic energy before a parachute system eventually lands them gently in the North Atlantic. LOFTID, at 6 meters in diameter, was already the largest blunt body vehicle to ever survive re-entry, at a blistering 8 km/sec (mission gallery). Initial results show full mission success. For comparison, the max velocity of a Falcon 9 booster landing is “just” 2.9 km/sec. Reusing BE-4 engines could save ULA upwards of $16 m per flight, and significantly increase their launch cadence since engine production is often a limiting factor due to their innate complexity. Next steps for ULA will be the finalization of their more complex inflatable heatshield designs and the beginning of a test campaign in 2024.
LOFTID, at port in Hawai’i after being fished out of the Pacific.
News in brief. India released a new space policy encouraging commercial efforts around rocketry, satellites, and space resourcesTwo NASA TROPICS satellites, left stranded by Astra’s cancellation of Rocket 3, went to orbit on a Rocket Lab ElectronThe Czech Republic joined the Artemis AccordsWith SpaceX’s 27th Falcon 9 launch of 2023 (30th launch if you include two Falcon Heavys and Starship, making that a launch every 4.2 days), the company passed 4,000 Starlink sats currently in orbit (4,340 total launched), and also crossed 1.5M subscribersNASA is starting a consortium for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) technologiesRelatedly, a pair of Lockheed Martin geostationary CubeSats tested proximity and in-orbit servicing operations last November Exolaunch deployed the first 16U cube sat to geostationary orbit. 
ESA has shared the first public image, taken on March 18th, from their next-generation geostationary weather satellite, the Meteosat Third Generation Imager-1 (MTG-I1), which launched in December 2022. The image shows Europe and Africa in unprecedented full-disk detail. MTG-I1 is the first of six satellites that will provide short-term and early detection of extreme weather events over the next 20 years.

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