Issue No. 240

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 240 | Oct 18, 2023

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Psyche. Discovered in 1852, 16 Psyche is the largest metallic asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter (and the 16th asteroid discovered). Psyche and other M-type asteroids are hypothesized to be fragments of ancient metallic protoplanetary cores—as material in the early solar system accreted, dense elements differentiated and sank into the cores of protoplanets while lighter materials stayed near their surfaces. Metallic asteroids may represent fragments of these bodies’ cores which later broke apart as protoplanetary bodies collided. Psyche (the eponymous spacecraft) is a NASA Discovery-class mission to Psyche (the asteroid) and a collaboration between the agency, Arizona State University, JPL, and Maxar. (We’ve written about it before, including a guest contribution in Issue 138 from mission team member David Oh.) The spacecraft is built on a modified GEO commsat bus and packs the largest solar panels ever deployed on a deep-space craft, which will power its electric SPT-140 Hall effect thrusters. Launched on the very metal Friday the 13th (on top of the first Falcon Heavy purchased for a NASA science mission; launch video) the craft will arrive at Psyche in mid-2029 and conduct its primary research through late 2031—here’s a solid mission overview from Scott Manley. Along its way, Psyche (the spacecraft) will do a gravity assist with Mars and test DSOC, an experimental laser communications device that will shoot lasers back to Earth to be received by Superconducting Nanowire Single Photon Detectors (cf. Issue № 238). The craft will analyze its 279×232×189 km target with gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers, multispectral cameras (derived from those used on Perseverance), and magnetometers, as well as map the asteroid’s gravitational field through changes in the Doppler shift of its comms signal. The mission was delayed from its summer 2022 launch by the readiness of flight software developed by JPL (cf. Issue № 174), an additional week by last-minute cold-gas thruster adjustments required by updated temperature predictions, and a final day due to wretched Florida weather—but a flawless launch, separation, initial communications, spacecraft orientation, and solar panel deployment put the struggles of spacecraft development, as well as Earth, in the rearview mirror. 

Psyche (the spacecraft) just after separation from its Falcon Heavy upper stage as it begins its six-year flight to Psyche (the asteroid).

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Short Papers

M87’s blackhole precessing, indicating its spin.

Up next for CSS SZ-17, a next-gen crew craft, and a major expansion.
  • Around October 26, Shenzhou-17 (SZ-17) is planned for launch to the Tiangong Chinese Space Station (CSS) on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia. This will be the 12th crewed flight and the 17th flight overall for the Shenzhou ‘Divine Vessel’ program since its first launch back in 1999. SZ-17 and its three-member Taikonaut crew, who are typically selected from the People's Liberation Army Astronaut Corps and revealed publicly just a day before departure, are expected to dock with the station’s Tianhe forward port about 6.5 hours after launch and remain aboard for six months (the station’s longest yet). SZ-16’s commander Jing Haipeng, engineer Zhu Yangzhu, and civilian astronaut Gui Haichao will acquaint the new crew with the station for ~4 days before returning to Earth, completing their 5-month mission. The SZ-17 team will carry on China’s 36-year project of in-space seed breeding, perform spacewalks for hardware installations, and conduct the 5th ‘Tiangong Class’ of the student educational series.
  • Intended to replace the fully expendable, 3-module, 8,100-kg Shenzhou craft is the upcoming, partially reusable, 2-module Xinyidai Zairen Feichuan (XZF) ‘new generation crewed spaceship’. The XZF low-Earth orbit variant will have a mass of about 14,000 kg and transport 4-7 people back and forth to CSS, while the larger 26,000-kg ship (originally 21,600 kg) will carry a crew of three into cislunar space. Its first test flights are planned for 2027-28 in pursuit of a crewed lunar landing by 2030.
  • In the meantime, CSS is expected to be permanently occupied with rotating crews including the addition of civilian and international visitors for at least a decade. The currently T-shaped, three-module station will be expanded into an X shape with the launch of a new module that was constructed as a backup for the CSS core module, Tianhe. This additional engineering module with six docking ports is being reconfigured into a multipurpose module to allow for the permanent attachment of two more ~20-ton modules (bringing the station’s attached module count to six), an increased number of visiting and experimental spacecraft (including inflatable habitats), and additional internal and external research platforms. 

Tiangong, the Chinese Space Station, and its related spacecraft - circa 2021. Credits: China Manned Space Agency, CAST, CGTN  

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News in brief. The ISS experienced another coolant leak, this time on a radiator circuit that is part of the Russian Nauka module—the crew and station are safe, and there is a spacewalk planned later this month to investigate the root cause Proteus Space raised $4.2M Seed to develop custom smallsats using AI Intelsat signed an agreement with Relativity Space for multiple launches aboard Terran R Propulsion issues are plaguing 4 GEO satellites, adding more losses to a tough year for space insurers ($1B in claims, twice projected premiums) Viasat is not replacing ViaSat-3, despite losing 90% throughput due to antenna issues Auriga Space raised $5M for their proposed electromagnetic launch system Italian space company Argotec (who produced the AIAA SmallSat Mission of the Year LICIACube) is opening a facility in the US Startup PierSight raised $600K to develop low cost ocean monitoring SAR satellites China launched another military weather satellite Azerbaijan joined China’s International Lunar Research Station project SpaceX filed for a 29,988 satellite W-band network—likely around 71-86 GHz which offers higher data rates but suffers more atmospheric attenuation—this filing is presumably part of SpaceX’s original 42,000 satellite proposed constellation and would quadruple the number of active satellites that humanity has in orbit Astrobotic completed their first customer test campaign of the suborbital Xodiac VTVL vehicle acquired from Masten Space Systems Vega launched its last rideshare mission of the year (with ESTCube-2 and others onboard - see Issue 235) even as Vega C is delayed until late 2024.

The last Vega mission of the year launching from French Guiana. 


A mosaic showing Shackleton Crater with Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery on the outside of the crater and data from ShadowCam inside its rim. NASA’s ShadowCam is carried by South Korea’s KARI orbiter, launched in August 2022. It is 200x more light-sensitive than LROC and captures its images using both lunar reflected light and Earthshine.

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