¶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.
- The country’s ambitious, in-the-works Mars sample return mission, which involves two launch vehicles and four spacecraft, now may also include an Ingenuity-inspired helicopter. If it makes their NET 2028 estimate, the mission will beat NASA and ESA to the first Martian sample return.
- Chang'e-6, the first lunar farside sample return mission, and Queqiao 2, a commsat with a 4.2-meter wide parabolic antenna in a lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO), are both now NET 2024. The DRO has been tested by Chang’e 5’s service module for a while now, and Queqiao 2 is the first of multiple lunar communication and navigation satellites that China has planned. These missions will be followed by Chang'e-7’s orbiter, lander, hopping probe, and rover, landing on the lunar south pole to look for water.
- A crewed lunar landing program that is trying to place people on the Moon by 2030, who would then staff their growing plans for an International Lunar Research Station (potential member countries currently seem to include China, Russia, Argentina, Pakistan, the UAE, South Africa, and Brazil).
- They’ve also been working on a cluster of interferometric telescopes (paper) which would orbit at L2 and search for habitable exoplanets. And, are seriously pursuing space-based solar power, reusable rockets, spaceplanes, a space telescope that will co-orbit with Tiangong, multiple new launch vehicles, an asteroid and comet sample return, and Jupiter, Uranus, and interstellar missions. Phew.
| 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.|
The Orbital Index is made possible through generous sponsorship by:
| ¶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 resources ● Two NASA TROPICS satellites, left stranded by Astra’s cancellation of Rocket 3, went to orbit on a Rocket Lab Electron ● The Czech Republic joined the Artemis Accords ● With 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 subscribers ● NASA is starting a consortium for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) technologies ● Relatedly, 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. |
- China recently tested their first on-orbit demonstration of a free-piston Stirling engine (FPSE). These high-efficiency, zero-maintenance heat engines, when coupled with radioisotopes, are one of the few potential electricity sources for deep space missions. If you want to read more about how free-piston Stirling engines, driven by long-duration nuclear reactors, might be the only technology humans currently possess that is capable of interstellar travel, we recommend The Star Drive (with the significant bias that William Beale, the inventor of the FPSE, was a mentor to both of us growing up.)
- Relatedly, Plutonium availability is constraining plans for NASA’s future planetary missions.
- So long Aeolus, and thanks for all the wind data.
- Nuview is a startup working on the first commercial space-based lidar constellation.
- Tim Fernholz looks at the controversy (and significant delay threatened by lawsuits) around the Starship launch site, the recent test launch, and local environmental impacts.
- NASA measured Mars Odyssey’s fuel reserves by seeing how long its tanks took to heat up.
- 110,000 MRO images were combined to make the new 5.7 terapixel Global CTX Mosaic of Mars, the highest-resolution global image of the Red Planet.
- The water integrator was a room-sized, analog computer built in the Soviet Union in 1936 to solve inhomogeneous differential equations. Its careful manipulation of water represented stored numbers, and the rate of flow between carefully-measured chambers represented mathematical operations.
| 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.|