Issue No. 222

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 222 | Jun 14, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Transporter 8. SpaceX’s latest school bus to space launched on Monday evening, deploying 72 ridesharing payloads with 39 distinct separation events, including satellites from Spire, ICEYE, Satellogic, Launcher (now owned by Vast),, Orbital Sidekick, DARPA, and many others (video). This launch debuted a top section of the payload adapter that uses SpaceX's new plate-based rideshare architecture, supporting standalone small cubesat deployment without the need for the third-party secondary payload adapters required by their traditional ring architecture (still present for the bottom portion of the payload stack, pictured below). Some payload highlights from T8 include Starfish’s Otter Pup, deployed from Launcher's Orbiter SN3 space tug, which will re-dock with the tug as part of its rendezvous, proximity ops, and docking (RPOD) demonstration mission; AFR from Azista BST Aerospace, the first satellite off the assembly line from the Indian company’s new 2-satellite-per-week factory in Ahmedabad; Varda’s Winnebago-1 space manufacturing and re-entry capsule built on top of the first Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft bus to fly on Falcon 9; and, a dozen ¼U SpaceBEEs from SpaceX subsidiary Swarm. Notably, hyperspectral imaging is a recurring theme—it’s clearly gaining momentum in the EO industry with the number of sats featuring multi- or hyper-spectral instruments eclipsing those with SAR on the last couple Transporter missions. T8 marked the 40th SpaceX mission of 2023 and 200th all-time landing of an orbital booster (out of 239 launches), and they released an animation of Falcon’s launch timeline to celebrate.

Transporter 8 payloads pictured just before encapsulation in their payload fairings. Credit SpaceX, with annotations by NASA Spaceflight.

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"This rumpled fabric at the corner looks like evidence of ongoing tectonic activity."
XKCD #2773

The moons of Pluto. Pluto and its companion Charon form an interesting dwarf double planet orbital system. The two Kuiper belt objects—with Charon at slightly over half the diameter of Pluto (and ~12% of the mass)—create a binary system with the barycenter (center of mass) outside the radius of both objects; the pair co-orbit this point on a line in open space between them. This duo is collectively orbited by an additional four confirmed moons: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. The Pluto-Charon system provides a close-at-hand example case for circumbinary stellar systems, in which a planet orbits both stars in a binary star system. (Related: a circumbinary exoplanet was just discovered—with an accompanying host of Tatooine references.) N-body systems like Pluto-Charon are difficult to model—a recent paper compares an n-body numerical approach to a semi-analytic method published in 2006 for the system. Its less massive moons (Styx and Kerberos) show significant discrepancies between the two methods, suggesting a large impact on their orbits from the more massive moons. Fast Fourier Transforms (FFTs) were utilized in the analysis to isolate oscillation patterns in the moons’ orbits due to this inter-moon gravitational influence, revealing perturbations over long timescales that weren’t predicted in the 2006 method. (Also, following the theme of the  papers above, Charon may have had a subsurface ocean that caused cracking of the moon’s outer surface when it froze.)
An HST image of the Pluto-Charon system with orbits and object names annotated. Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI
News in brief. The Spaceport Company, which did some ocean-based test launches of sounding rockets from their floating spaceport recently, won a $1.5M DIU contractCAS Space launched their Lijian-1 solid-fueled rocket with 26 satellites on board (mostly classified, but including commercial birds for ADA Space and Spacety and an interferometric imaging SAR sat)Orbital rocket builder Firefly Aerospace bought orbital transport and rideshare integrator SpaceflightVulcan had a successful static fire (video)Cheops confirmed warm mini-Neptune exoplanets closely orbiting four stars in the Milky WayA Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket launched, carrying the flat panel, very-Starlink-like Longjiang-3 experimental commsat (pictured below).
Via a classic example of a gravitationally lensed Einstein ring, JWST found spectrographic evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon organic molecules in a galaxy 12 billion light-years away (paper). These are the oldest complex organic molecules we’ve seen. Below is a false-color image with the foreground lensing galaxy in blue (the bullseye’s center) and the more distant galaxy in red (around its edge)—the organic molecules are the orange blobs along the ring.
Credit: J. Spilker / S. Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA

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