Issue No. 233

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 233 | Aug 30, 2023

🌍 🌖 🌎

Chandrayaan-3’s lander and rover are safely on the Moon. At 12:33 UTC on August 23rd, Chandrayaan-3’s Vikram lander completed a successful autonomous descent and landing to touch down near the Moon’s south pole, only ~350 m away from its target. Here’s the webcast and the ISRO team jubilantly celebrating the landing. August 23 will now be known as National Space Day in India. With this success, India became the fourth nation (after the US, Soviet Russia, and China) to soft-land on the Moon. (This is also ISRO’s first soft landing beyond Earth period, and humanity’s closest to the lunar south pole.) This mission had many redundancies and improvements over its failed predecessor, Chandrayaan-2, including more fuel, a laser Doppler velocimeter, two hazard cameras instead of one, faster processing, a larger search area in the landing and hazard avoidance system, and numerous other hardware and software improvements. Landing a bit after sunrise on a lunar day, the Vikram lander with its 4 science payloads and its onboard six-wheeled Pragyan rover with an additional two 2 payloads have 14 Earth days to do some serious science together. All payloads have now been switched on, including ChaSTE onboard the lander, which measures the change in temperature with depth—from ~50° C at the surface to -10° C over a depth of 8 cm in an initial test. Pragyan successfully rolled onto the lunar surface and navigated its first small crater. Congratulations India! 🇮🇳

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As a team at Orbital Index, we care deeply about the planet that we and our ~8 billion closest relatives inhabit. In the face of a rapidly changing climate that threatens Earth’s beauty, livability for future generations, and ultimately the existence of our species, we recognize the need to meet this climate crisis with a level of effort and dedication that we believe humanity is capable of but struggles to attain. We hope all of our readers will join us in working to tackle the biggest problem of our time and help humanity attain a sustainable future.

The Hottest Month. Last month was the hottest recorded month since record-keeping began in 1880. It averaged 1.18° C warmer than an average July between 1951-1980. This tracks with 2023, so far, looking to be the hottest year ever. This is due to CO2 levels continuing to rise (422 ppm), an El Niño, and the Tongan eruption (which launched huge amounts of water vapor into the stratosphere). The average global temperature has been 1.54° C above pre-industrial average levels this year. In the US, as an example, Phoenix, AZ had 31 days above 43.3° C (110° in a certain unit system this newsletter tends not to use), a record streak resulting in an increased number of heat-induced fatalities and water shortages—Phoenix continues to be in the midst of a now 15-year-long drought. This month ocean temps were 3° above normal in many locations, and water off Florida climbed above 38° C (100° in that same system). All signs point in the wrong direction in the near term, with next year looking even worse.

Retreating caps. With rising temperatures, the retreat of permafrost and polar sea ice continues. To match the hottest July on record, Antarctic sea ice reached an all-time low in July, endangering animal habitats (🐧😭) and contributing to sea-level rise, and has regained coverage more slowly than normal. While scientists are unsure of the exact dynamics driving the latest losses—Antarctic sea ice coverage surprisingly hit a recent high in 2014—climate change is in pole position to be the overarching cause. Arctic sea ice is fairing slightly better, and although declining quickly in July, is still above a record retreat set in 2012. Sea ice coverage is updated daily by the DoD DMSP-F18 weather satellite using an SSMIS 24-channel passive microwave radiometer flying in a polar sun-synchronous orbit. Permafrost is also increasing in temperature, and releasing water along with methane as it melts. With this thaw, additional vegetation growth may mitigate some of these emissions (and may also change the tundra’s albedo), but won’t stop increased runoff or the threat to infrastructure built on top of the assumption of permanently solid ground. (The irony of oil and gas pipelines in danger of sinking as the permafrost melts beneath them is not lost on us. Nor is the use of thermosyphons to freeze the melting ground underneath the Willow project’s drilling pads and other infrastructure.) 

Fire. Wildfires in Canada burned over 151,000 sq km in 2023, easily the largest on record, causing the worst air quality ever experienced across much of eastern North America. Fires on the Hawai’ian Islands—which have intensified in recent years due to both climate change making the islands’ dry regions even drier and declining agriculture providing ample fuel to create fire-conducive conditions—were sparked yet again by aging grid infrastructure that should have been shut down during a red flag warning. These negligently electrified transmission lines kindled the worst fire in the history of the islands on Maui, previously an almost unimaginable location for such devastation.

The Eagle Bluff wildfire is seen burning from Anarchist Mountain, outside of Osoyoos, B.C., Canada. Credit: Michelle Genberg/The Canadian Press

Satellite sleuthing via methane detection. Methane, a greenhouse gas 80x more potent than CO2 for the first 20 years after emission and likely responsible for as much as one-third of climate change, can’t be seen or smelled. It’s mostly released from point sources tied to agriculture and fossil fuels, as well as from changing ecological systems like melting permafrost, all of which are often in remote locations. Curbing methane release is crucial to slowing climate change and requires detecting methane leaks (via space and air-based sensors) and holding emitters accountable. This week, Orbital Sidekick utilized its hyperspectral satellite constellation GHOSt to detect methane plumes from oil well pads. And, data from JPL’s EMIT sensor on the ISS spotted 22 methane plumes released from the large Permian energy basin during an extreme heat wave in Texas. (EMIT has even managed to spot methane releases from Blue Origin's rocket test site in West Texas.) There are more methane sleuthing satellites on the horizon: GHGSat is adding 4 more satellites to their constellation that monitor facility leaks with ~25m spatial resolution today, and MethaneSat, set to launch in early 2024, is planning to observe state-sized areas to identify specific sources of methane from anywhere in the world (and will also freely release the data, where it can be post-processed by AI).

Plumes of methane as detected by Orbital Sidekick’s GHOSt constellation, whose instruments capture 472 bands of light across the EM spectrum. Onboard AI is then used to identify the methane and its concentration (yellow = high concentrations; purple = low).

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News in brief. Dutch startup Meteory raised a €550k pre-seed for satellite data-based environmental impact tracking SpaceX launched its 100th Starlink mission, then launched again to reach 5,000 Starlink satellites launched Satim raised $2M for AI-based object recognition in SAR imagery Planet completed their acquisition of Slovenian startup Sinergise Planet is also planning to release a global forest carbon dataset, priced at 10¢/hectare, that shows forest change and carbon capture at close to an individual tree level Hera, ESA’s asteroid mission for planetary defense, has completed assembly Exo-Space, an on-orbit computing and AI startup that initially received crowd funding on Space Ventures, was acquired by Sidus Space PE firm Trive Capital bought Hypergiant Industries North Korea tried to launch a spy satellite again, but failed (again) due to a third stage malfunction Australian space-based space situational awareness (SSA) startup HEO raised a $12M Series A Starship’s Super Heavy Booster 9 successfully ignited all 33 Raptor engines during its second static fire test SLIM’s launch was scrubbed due to upper level winds NASA’s SpaceX Crew-7 launched to the ISS Rocket Lab successfully reused a Rutherford engine for the first time on a launch for Capella Jim Burke, manager of the NASA Ranger missions which took the first closeup photos of the lunar surface, passed away at 97 used their pathfinder radar satellites to successfully characterize precipitation from space NASA released first light imagery (below) from its new TEMPO instrument which measures nitrogen dioxide pollution in the lower atmosphere hourly—nitrogen dioxide is mainly generated by vehicle exhaust, power generation, wildfires, and industrial activity. 🏭

NASA’s new TEMPO instrument measures nitrogen dioxide pollution in the lower atmosphere hourly. 


Randall Munroe graphs global average temperature vs. his life in XKCD #2500. Please see also XKCD #1732 which we would have included but didn’t want to crash your email client.

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