Issue No. 229

A warm welcome to our new assistant editor Sarajane! Sarajane works on GNC flight software for CubeSats and has been an avid OI reader for four years; we’re so delighted to have her join us!


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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 229 | Aug 2, 2023

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DRACO funding. NASA and DARPA announced that they’re collaborating to fund a demonstration mission for the DRACO nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) program, providing Lockheed Martin with $499M to develop a nuclear-powered demonstrator spacecraft NET 2026. BWX Technologies will develop the onboard fission reactor, which incorporates multiple safety features and will not be turned on until entering high orbit. It will be powered with 100 kg of low-enriched (HALEU) uranium. In NTP, a nuclear reactor heats a propellant (usually hydrogen) which is then expelled to produce thrust. Tapping the atom could produce systems with 3-4.5x the theoretical maximum Isp of old-fashioned rockets which use chemical energy (although this first attempt is shooting for about 2x the Isp). This makes NTP key to proposed fast Mars transits and fast-response cislunar capabilities. Related: The NASA NIAC program also recently (minorly) funded research into a hybrid NTP and nuclear electric propulsion system proposed for 100-day Mars transits.   

DRACO testing in a high (~700 to 2,000 km) orbit.

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Tipping Point awards. NASA’s Tipping Point program granted support to 11 companies for long-term lunar exploration technologies, including surface power systems, 3D printing, and ISRU, totaling $150M. Our favorites:

Other recipients include Astrobotic (power transfer via tethers), Big Metal Additive (3D printing of structures, including space habitats), Freedom Photonics (direct diode LIDAR), Lockheed Martin (in-space component joining and inspection technologies), Protoinnovations (modular rover software), Psionic (LIDAR-based landing guidance), and Varda (testing a conformal phenolic ablator).

Redwire’s “Grader, Compactor, and Microwave Emitter” to build solid surfaces from lunar regolith. Credit: Redwire

Robotics in Space. Robotics completing mission-critical functions in space has become the bread and butter of the industry. Yet, robotic deployment of solar arrays (still surprisingly very difficult), attaching to other spacecraft, or unfurling sun shields are all a struggle and look little like frequently-envisioned fully autonomous operations on the surface of celestial bodies or visions of robotic spacecraft repairing each other in deep space. Near Earth or (in the future near the Moon), the answer may be improved telerobotics. Last week, ESA astronaut Frank Rubio, while aboard the ISS, completed a complex telerobotics test with multiple real-world simulated tasks: unloading a sample lodged in a gripper, removing a stuck retaining pin, and placing a highly sensitive instrument on the (simulated) lunar surface. These are some of the most sophisticated telerobotic tests performed from space. Telerobotics however still requires the operator to be proximal to the robot for real-time feedback. Deep space missions require a whole other level of autonomy. Asteroid missions like OSIRIS-REx (returning late next month!), while successful, have shown the glacial pace to which current deep space operations are limited. Future deep space crewed missions will require significantly autonomous medical robots (even on missions that include more highly trained medical officers) for assisted and unassisted procedures (paper). Meanwhile, the disappointing failure of Insight’s ‘mole’—over a period of 2 years—showcased our limitations in troubleshooting missions that don’t go according to plan (and not for a lack of trying!). But we are making progress. Driving Perseverance on Mars (drive video; explainer) is potentially the best example of cutting-edge technology used in deep space, attaining a whopping top speed of 0.16 kph—5x faster than Curiosity (!) due to simultaneous driving and planning. Another example is Honeybee Robotics (acquired last year by Blue Origin), which shipped an advanced robotic mining instrument to JAXA for its upcoming MMX mission to explore Phobos—the tool is capable of autonomously extracting samples within 5 seconds of landing. Related: Research on in-space manipulation will hopefully lead to low-propulsion/energy-efficient robotic arms with more degrees of freedom on future spacecraft (paper), possibly to snag space debris or perform maintenance

Perseverance doing some planning, whilst driving.

News in brief. Four rockets launched from China: Galactic Energy’s sixth solid-fueled Ceres 1, an Expace Kuaizhou 1A (with four meteorological sats), and two Long March 2Ds carrying GalaxySpace comsats and three Chinese military spy sats—this brings China to 31 launches this year (h/t Rocket Report) Boeing’s Starliner has now sustained private losses of over $1.1B due to overruns and delays Spire won a €16M ESA contract to design a satellite constellation that will track aircraft in real-time using RF signal triangulation instead of GPS/GNSS The ISS briefly lost communication with ground control due to a power outage at Johnson Space Center and had to use its backup control systems for the first time After an extended battle with the FTC, L3Harris finalized its acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne European thermal imagery startup Constellr secured $7 million in funding for their first HiVE satellite Argentina signed the Artemis Accords to become the 28th country to join After multiple scrubs, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launched Echostar’s Jupiter-3, the world’s heaviest commercial communications satellite SpaceX performed a dramatic Super Heavy deluge system test (video 1, video 2) The US House rejected a satellite spectrum licensing reform bill after House Science Committee leadership did not want to grant the FCC authority to regulate space debris/traffic management, since, in their opinion, doing so would divert from its primary responsibility of spectrum allocation Luxembourg-based signals intelligence / radio geolocation company Kleos Space filed for bankruptcyJuno completed its second of three planned flybys of Io (this time at just 22,000 km).

Io in the visible spectrum with an infrared overlay showing active volcanism on the planet. (Captured during its Perijove 51 flyby at 64,000 km.)

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This gorgeous precision pointing device has no friction points, instead relying on many small deflecting vanes (its honeycomb sections) to precisely rotate a component attached to the center mounting points. It is 3D printed as a single part. (Video of it in action.)

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