Issue No. 239

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 239 | Oct 11, 2023

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CLD consolidation. As mentioned last week, the set of teams vying to build commercial replacements for the ISS is currently in flux. Until recently there were five main efforts: Starlab (Nanoracks, its owner Voyager Space, and more recently Airbus who is replacing Lockheed Martin) with a $160M NASA contract; Orbital Reef (Blue Origin, with Sierra Space, Amazon, Boeing, Redwire) with a $130M contract; Northrop Grumman (with Dynetics) with a $125.6M contract; Vast (privately funded); and, Axiom Space ($140M for an upcoming ISS module, with plans to later detach it to form Axiom Station, plus $228M+ for spacesuits). Northrop Grumman has now announced that they are no longer working on their own commercial space station and are instead joining the Starlab team—NASA is apparently supportive of this move. And we learned last week that Blue Origin is likely pulling out of Orbital Reef, leaving the future of that effort deeply uncertain. Blue appears to be refocusing on their NASA lunar lander contract and “a closely held in-space mobility project.” Five station efforts now appear to be three.

Axiom Station, Vast Haven, and Starlab are all still in active development, while Orbital Reef looks to be teetering on the edge of collapse and Northrop has canceled their plans for a commercial station, instead joining the Starlab team.

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IAC Round up. The 74th International Astronautical Congress, held this year in Baku, offered up a slate of announcements, with various amounts of aspirational fairy tales mixed in.

Protoflight takes off. Launching atop a ULA Atlas V, Amazon’s Protoflight mission delivered the first two Project Kuiper prototype satellites to orbit (here’s a supercut of the launch from ULA, complete with sweet guitar licks). Reminiscent of Tintin A & B launched to test Starlink back in 2018, it remains to be seen if Amazon, without SpaceX’s vertical integration of launch, can scale the constellation to compete with the now-established Starlink network. KuiperSat-1 & 2 will test Amazon’s system from end to end, including their (eventually) low-cost user terminals, which are expected to cost <$400 to produce (cf. after several years in production Starlink’s Dishy now costs the company less than its retail price of $599). Project Kuiper is targeting the launch of its first production satellites in the first half of 2024 and beta customer service by the end of next year. (Related: next up for ULA is its very first Vulcan launch, still hoped for before EOY.)

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News in brief. Japan’s SLIM lander flew by the Moon and will remain in a long, looping orbit to preserve fuel ahead of its LOI in a couple months Ingenuity broke its altitude record again (24 m this time) on its 61st flight Similar to its predecessor, Russian satellite Luch (Olymp) 2 is maneuvering (spying) close to other GEO satellitesVirgin Galactic sent more tourists to suborbital space Stoke Space raised a $100m Series B —and revealed that their small, reusable rocket, which recently performed a hop test, will be called Nova NASA expanded their Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition program by selecting 7 companies to compete for $476M in EO contracts for Earth science research Rocket Lab completed cryogenic testing of the second stage tank of their Neutron rocket (and then popped it) China launched more reconnaissance satellites Germany introduced a new national space strategy that will use a “competition-oriented model” when procuring launches, making way for next generation European vehicles, many of which are being developed in Germany Japan is looking into reusable rockets to eventually replace their not-yet operational H3 Pale Blue raised $7.5M for water vapor thrusters (we appreciate the name) Spanish startup PLD Space launched their Muira-1 rocket into suborbital space, fulfilling all technical objectives (despite not reaching their initial planned altitude) and executing Europe’s first fully private rocket launch to space.

Vamos MUIRA! Spanish startup PLD Space’s first suborbital Muira-1 rocket was launched from El Arenosillo military facility in Huelva, Spain.


Titan (right; 5,150 km across and 4.3 million km distant), Mimas (center bottom; 396 km across and 3 million km distant), and Rhea (left; 1,527 km across and 2.6 million km distant) as imaged by Cassini on July 15th, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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