Issue No. 232

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 232 | Aug 23, 2023

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Luna 25 lost. Luna 25, Russia’s first post-Soviet lunar lander, suffered an anomaly during an orbit-lowering maneuver and crashed into the Moon over the weekend. “According to the results of the preliminary analysis, due to the deviation of the actual parameters of the impulse from the calculated ones, the device switched to an off-design orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface.” This deviation occurred due to the craft’s main engine burning for 127 seconds instead of 84, moving its perilune below the surface of the Moon. Responding to the anomaly wasn’t helped by the fact that Roscosmos no longer has access to a global deep space network due to ongoing sanctions from the country’s invasion of Ukraine and had to wait for the Moon to be over Russia to communicate with the craft. Before the loss of the vehicle, Luna 25 was beginning to return science data, including neutron and gamma spectrometry readings. This failure, of what some feel was the Russian space agency’s last grasp at relevance, will almost certainly impact the timeline, funding, and even existence of Luna 26 (polar orbiter; scheduled for 2027) and Luna 27 (lander; targeting 2028).

Luna 25’s first image of the lunar surface.

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SLIM. JAXA’s SLIM lander, Japan’s first lunar surface mission, is scheduled to launch on the 26th. The small (190 kg dry mass) spacecraft’s launch was delayed from May due to its H-2A launch vehicle having an upper-stage engine similar to the one on the failed March H3 launch. Once it reaches lunar orbit, SLIM will attempt to demonstrate a precise lunar touchdown, targeting an accuracy of ~100 meters. The craft will land on the ejecta from the 300-meter-wide equatorial Shioli crater using optical navigation and then study the material’s geological origin with the craft’s spectroscopic camera. Along for the ride will be Lunar Excursion Vehicle 2 (LEV-2), a tiny, ball-shaped rover with a diameter of only 8 cm and a mass of 250 g. Depending on the outcome of Chandrayaan 3’s landing attempt today, Japan could become either the fourth or fifth nation to complete a soft landing on the Moon. Here is SLIM’s informative press kit. Also on SLIM’s H-2A rocket will be the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, a telescope that will study the composition and evolution of celestial objects using X-ray spectroscopy.

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STEREO-A lapped us. A pair of spacecraft, together named STEREO, launched almost 17 years ago in October 2006. STEREO-A orbits slightly closer to the Sun than the Earth, giving it a faster orbital velocity. STEREO-B meanwhile orbits slightly further out. The duo have accomplished several goals, including providing the first stereoscopic view of the Sun (make sure you have your cardboard red/cyan 3D glasses handy) and, in 2011, reaching a 180-degree phase separation and viewing the Sun from both sides at once for the first time. In 2014, contact with STEREO-B was lost, but STEREO-A soldiers on, and finally lapped us a few weeks ago on August 12th, passing below the Earth’s orbit. While doing so, it collaborated with Earth observatories to capture new stereoscopic views of our star.

A composite view from both of the STEREO craft and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showing almost the entire Sun as it appeared on January 31, 2011. Credits: NASA/Goddard/STEREO

Starship Flight 2 inches closer. SpaceX has filed a final mishap investigation report with the FAA regarding Starships’s first, fiery launch attempt back in April. Mishap reports identify corrective actions that must be incorporated before receiving a license to launch again. Modifications to the report and its included corrective actions could be required by the agency before it is accepted (expect particular scrutiny of the flight termination system, which unacceptably took 40+ seconds to successfully terminate the flight). Based on recent tweets and mariner warnings, once licensed, the next launch is nominally NET August 31st, but will likely be pushed back more than once. After April’s attempt, Musk suggested that the next launch would come in a “few months” and while a September launch would only barely qualify for this, it does represent a strong improvement compared to his past timeline predictions. This launch will feature an attempted hot-staged separation (as is common on Russian rockets), including new vented interstage hardware and heat shielding (which could deliver upwards of a 10% performance gain). But perhaps the most critical of the 1,000+ hardware changes for this flight is the addition of a steel-plate deluge system aimed at dampening vibrations, protecting the rebuilt concrete launch pad, and converting engine exhaust energy into steam. Musk is estimating that this flight has a ~50% likelihood of reaching orbital velocity and will be considered a success if the massive rocket completes stage separation.

Booster 9 getting its new hot-staging vented interstage and heatshield installed in the SpaceX Mega Bay.

News in brief. India conducted drogue parachute tests for the crew module of its domestically-developed Gaganyaan mission, which aims to take 3 humans to 400 km LEO for 3 days NET 2025 Rocket Lab secured a double launch deal for NASA’s arctic-atmospheric climate analysis PREFIRE mission And, they stepped in to launch a SAR imaging satellite for Japanese company iQPS that was originally set to launch with (bankrupt) Virgin Orbit Intuitive Machines announced a manifest date of November 15-20th for its first lunar mission, while also posting a $13.2M loss on $18M in revenue An impressive high-gain antenna was installed on Europa Clipper—the mission is scheduled for launch in October 2024 BAE Systems, a British aerospace and defense multinational, bought Ball Aerospace for $5.6B Seattle-based Integrate Space raised $3.4M and won a $1.25M USSF contract for their program-management software Momentus won an SDA contract to tailor their orbital service vehicle for DOD missions—but also reduced their workforce by 30% Axiom Space, maker of a station that will bud off from the ISS (and spacesuits, and tourist flights), raised a $350M Series C Chandrayaan-3 separated from its propulsion module, underwent two deboosting operations, and established two-way communications with the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter ahead of its descent to the lunar south pole… which hopefully already happened this morning.

The dark side of the moon, as captured by Chandrayaan-3’s Lunar Hazard Detection and Avoidance Camera (LHDAC) on August 19th. This camera will guide the Vikram lander to a hopefully safe landing site during its descent.

  • Ashlee Vance’s new book “When the Heavens Went on Sale” follows the rise of the newspace industry, focusing mostly on Planet Labs and a collection of commercial launch companies. Ashlee had remarkable access to the founders and key employees of SpaceX, Planet Labs, Rocket Lab, Firefly, and especially Astra. He saw them at their best, and worst, over five years of embedded journalism, and paints a picture of the new space age as a Wild West of passionate (and often self-involved) characters, long hours, and feats of both quality (and sometimes less quality) engineering. Ashlee’s biography of Elon Musk is also an interesting read.
  • Relatedly, a recent interview with Chris Kemp of Astra on their current status (including their recently increased focus on satellite propulsion and a 25% personnel reduction).
  • NASA announced the third installment of its TechRise Student Challenge. Teams of students from grades 6-12 have the opportunity to submit experiments to fly on Astrobotic’s Xodiac VTOL lunar lander testbed or a high-altitude weather balloon. The award comes with $1,500 to build the experiment. Submissions are due by October 20th.
  • Neptune’s clouds have been oddly disappearing recently, and after studying 30 years of data, have been shown to correlate with the 11-year solar cycle (which is surprising given that Neptune receives very little sunlight, about 0.1% of what Earth receives).
  • A fun animation of Jupiter with its orbiting entourage.
  • We estimate that our galaxy is home to 20 times more rogue planets than stars – trillions of worlds wandering alone.” Through microlensing events, NASA’s upcoming Roman Space Telescope could find up to 400 such Earth-mass rogue planets.

This radio image of Saturn taken by VLA in 2015 shows contrast-enhanced emissions from latitudinal bands in the planet’s atmosphere. Atmospheric ammonia blocks these radio wavelengths, so brighter features indicate ammonia-depleted areas and a deeper view into the atmosphere. The bright northern band shows where a 2010 megastorm depleted ammonia. We’re learning that Saturn, like Jupiter, can have storms with atmospheric impacts lasting centuries (paper).

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