Issue No. 238

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 238 | Oct 4, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Dream Chaser and Orbital Reef. Sierra Space has been in the news multiple times recently. In no particular order: 

  • The company raised a Series B (odd to call it that, given its history as a public company spin-out working on a 10-year-old project, but Series B is what it has been dubbed) for a whopping $290M. This new investment valued Sierra at $5.3B and brings the company’s total capital raised (in its current incarnation) to $1.7B.
  • The future of Orbital Reef, Sierra’s joint venture with Blue Origin, is deeply in question with both companies focused on other projects (Dream Chaser for Sierra and New Glenn and HLS2 for Blue). Orbital Reef hasn’t released any updates in months, and rumors of a possible break up (here and here), despite $130M in funding from NASA, are swirling. Recent leadership changes at Blue may be impacting this partnership, while on the Sierra side, the company’s latest funding being from Japanese partnerships may affect future project dynamics.
  • A little while back, NASA signed an unfunded Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities 2 (CCSC-2) agreement with the company to leverage NASA’s technical expertise for both Sierra’s in-development, crew-capable version of its currently-cargo-only “mini-shuttle” Dream Chaser vehicle and its LIFE space station module. (While called a “mini-shuttle”, Dream Chaser’s lifting body design inherits from HL-20 vs. the Shuttle.) CCSC-2 contracts were also signed in June with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Vast, Special Aerospace Services, and ThinkOrbital. (Northrop may also be out of the commercial space station business, based on recent reports.)
  • The cargo version of Dream Chaser continues to inch toward a 2024 launch atop the second ULA Vulcan rocket. It heads to NASA Glenn in Ohio next for thermal vacuum, vibration, and acoustic testing. NASASpaceflight recently dove into the craft’s Thermal Protection System (TPS), which improves on the Shuttle’s TPS in many ways but still has individually unique tiles and will require waterproofing (possibly with dimethylethoxysilane). The craft will provide 1.75 tons of downmass with less than 1.5G of deceleration—useful for delicate experiments and on-orbit produced materials, such as organs—a capability lacking since the last Shuttle flights over a decade ago.

Dream Chaser’s white and black tiles can survive temperatures as high as 1,420° C for multiple reentry cycles while helping the craft balance heating in the vacuum of space (unlike the Shuttle which used a variety of black tiles with white thermal blanketing to save on weight).

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ILLUMA-T, DSOC, and laser comms. Launching in a Dragon trunk later this year as part of CRS-29, ILLUMA-T will create NASA’s first demonstration of a production-usable, end-to-end laser communications system. Once it is installed on the outside of the Japanese Kibō module, the laser terminal will beam signals from the station to LCRD (a GEO laser relay launched in 2021) and finally to a ground station in California or Hawai’i. ILLUMA-T’s infrared lasers will transmit data at 1.2 Gbps, adding a connection that is twice as fast as the station’s existing 600 Mbps radio link (LCRD also has an additional 622 Mbps Ka-band downlink). Laser comms are even more important for deep space missions where downlink constraints often force teams to throw away or deprioritize scientific data. The soon-to-launch Psyche mission is packing DSOC, a vibration-isolated deep space near-infrared laser communications link to demonstrate high-data-rate downlinking from the craft to NASA’s main optical ground station in California—over a distance of as much as 400 million km. Exact target downlink speeds haven’t been shared widely but could eventually be in the 10x to 100x range compared to state-of-the-radio-art downlinks which top out at around 4-6 Mbps from Mars (this NASA laser comms update presentation suggests a max of 267 Mbps for the DSOC terminal hardware aboard Psyche at distances <0.25 AU, but it will manage ~1-2 Mbps at mission distances approaching 2.7 AU). Similarly, LLCD set records for cislunar two-way laser comms all the way back in 2013, hitting 622 Mbps downlink with a 20 Mbps uplink. Meanwhile, closer to Earth, Starlink v2 Mini satellites just received upgraded laser crosslinks capable of up to 100 Gbps. ESA has also been investing in laser comms through its two EDRS relay satellites in GEO, which use 1.8 Gbps laser links along with a 300 Mbps Ka-band link to acquire data from satellites in lower orbits (most notably Copernicus Sentinel sats) and then downlink that data via a traditional 300 Mbps Ka-band connection.

Psyche’s DSOC in 2021 before installation into its box-like housing on the spacecraft.

News in brief. The Soyuz M-23 capsule landed, returning NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, who all spent 371 days in space together—Rubio broke the longest mission record for a NASA astronaut, while Prokopyev and Petelin now hold the sixth/seventh mission length records for Russian cosmonauts Italian startup Siderus Space closed a €5.1M seed+ round to flight test EOS, their small single-stage-to-orbit rocket The FCC fined Dish TV (a scant $150k) for leaving a GEO sat in the wrong orbit, a first for the agency The FAA closed the New Shepard mishap investigation from a failed launch last September, but Blue Origin still needs FAA launch approval before NS returns to service Starship is also still waiting on FAA launch approval, despite being fully stacked again (although it will require at least one more restacking prior to launch to arm its improved FTS) Eutelsat completed their merger with OneWeb, valuing the latter at $3.4 billionChina plans to launch their Chang’e-6 lunar far side sample return mission in 2024, with a lunar relay orbiter launching a couple of months prior Astroscale was awarded a $25.5M contract from the US Space Force to develop an on-orbit refueling vehicle—they are also ready to launch their ADRAS-J inspector craft, but Rocket Lab’s recent launch failure has delayed the launch Iran launched a reconnaissance satellite into LEO And so did China Starpath Robotics closed a $2.5M preseed round to design mining machines that extract water from lunar regolith and process it into liquid oxygen SpaceX won their first Pentagon contract for Starshield, the $70M contract has the company providing end-to-end service for one year running on top of Starlink hardware NASA’s Parker Solar Probe again broke its own records for proximity to the Sun (7.26 million kilometers) and fastest human-made craft (635,266 km/hr).
"Parker Solar Probe’s Wide Field Imagery for Solar Probe (WISPR) camera observes as the spacecraft passes through a massive coronal mass ejection on Sept. 5, 2022.” 
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab

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JWST recently captured the Ring Nebula in unprecedented spatial and spectral detail. (Left: near-IR NIRCam image; Right: mid-IR MIRI image). Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow (University College London), N. Cox (ACRI-ST), R. Wesson (Cardiff University).

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