Issue No. 241

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 241 | Oct 25, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Gaganyaan Crew Escape Test TV-D1. Last weekend, ISRO launched a full-scale test article of its in-development Gaganyaan crew capsule on a low altitude, suborbital TV-D1 mission to test the capsule’s abort system (video). Gaganyaan will eventually carry three ISRO astronauts to LEO—now likely in 2025. For this test, the single-stage test vehicle flew the module to 17 km where it triggered the abort system at Mach 1.2, pulling the capsule away from the rocket. Drogue parachutes deployed as it fell past 16.7 km, transitioning to the main parachutes once it dropped below 2.5 km. Splash-down velocity was <10 m/s and appeared to complete a fully successful first test. This demonstration comes amidst a series of successes for ISRO and was undergirded by a new, ambitious charge from India’s prime minister to launch the ‘Bharatiya Antariksha Station’ by 2035 (Indian Space Station—the ISS will probably be decommissioned by then so we hopefully won’t have two ISSes) and a crewed mission ‘to the Moon’ by 2040. These plans will require a significant number of technology advances (including ISRO's partially reusable NGLV rocket) along with the budget to enable them. Jatan Mehta suggests in Moon Monday that Gateway may provide a path of least resistance for India, which signed on to the Artemis Accords earlier this year, assuming it makes good on its previously shared plans to contribute to the station similar to JAXA, ESA, and CSA. (Related: The announcement of a more realistic launch date for LUPEX—previously covered in Issue No. 235—might be up next for the agency, should it gain approval and budget like its mission partner JAXA.)

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Navigating with pulsars. Precise navigation is a critical challenge for deep space missions. Typically, missions use a combination of star and celestial body trackers, inertial sensing, dead reckoning, and radio ranging with Earth. Measuring differences in the arrival time of pulsar signals presents another method of locating oneself in the solar system. This method requires carefully cataloged databases of these fortuitously-aligned, rapidly spinning neutron stars (paper). The ATNF Pulsar Catalog, maintained by the Australia Telescope National Facility, is one of the most prominent pulsar databases, compiling data from radio telescopes worldwide. In 2016, an experimental Chinese satellite called XPNAV-1 launched and was able to detect the Crab pulsar’s X-ray signal (paper). A similar NASA project, SEXTANT, launched in 2017 to the ISS and demonstrated a 7 km locational accuracy. Proposals exist for pulsar navigation methods that could approach ~30 m precision (paper). Other studies have even looked at pulsars as a jamming and GPS-free way of locating aircraft on Earth

The basic geometric principle of pulsar-based navigation (paper) in relation to the Solar System Barycenter (SSB).

News in brief. Urban Sky closed a $9.75M Series A to scale their Earth imaging operations via reusable stratospheric balloons Ingenuity set a new ground speed record (10 m/s for 121 s) on its 62nd flight Singapore-based startup Qosmosys announced a staggering $100M seed round (new industry record) to develop and launch their ZeusX lunar lander in the next four years Two payloads on Vega VV23 likely failed to deploy and burned up still attached to the rocket’s upper stage, including ANSER-Leader and ESTCube-2, built in part by our friend Andris 🙁 AnySignal, an LA-based startup building space radios for comms and intelligence, raised a $5M seed round Indian rocket startup Agnikul raised $27M ahead of their first test flight The University of California system and NASA Ames plan to invest $2B into building Berkeley Space Center (which will be near NASA Ames, not in Berkeley) K2 Space raised $7M to continue developing their mass-unconstrained satellite buses Varda Space Industries signed an agreement to land the reentry capsule (for their second mission) in Australia after being denied reentry approval for their first mission by the FAA Canada allocated $739M for EO, specifically the Radarsat+ program that is purportedly crucial for Canada’s climate strategyPakistan and Belarus joined China’s International Lunar Research StationNASA conducted the first hot-fire test of a new RS-25E engine that will eventually be produced for use on SLS for Artemis V and later missions Starlink now has over 5,000 active satellites in orbit SatVu’s HOTSAT-1 satellite provided its first high-resolution thermal imagery.

High-resolution thermal imagery captured by SatVu’s HOTSAT-1 of Las Vegas, showcasing urban heat islands 

  • Voyager 1 & 2 have been voyaging for a hot minute (46 years to be precise), but even so, maintenance via software updates continues to be an ongoing process. The spacecraft’s thrusters continue to build up propellant residue from decades of attitude control firings, prompting software updates so burns can be carefully planned for less frequency and longer durations (by letting the craft drift farther from their correct pointing before each correction). Additionally, Voyager 1 experienced some attitude data issues last year, so a software patch was uploaded to Voyager 2 (it will take 18 hours to arrive, but this is still the less risky, closer spacecraft), and if all goes well, the same patch will be applied to the more distant Voyager 1. 
  • If you’re a grad student interested in research related to astrophysics and astronomy… apply to write for Astronotes!
  • Apparently, everyone is into asteroids these days, again.
  • More indictments of SLS’s cost, this time from NASA’s Inspector General (pdf). “Our analysis shows a single SLS Block 1B will cost at least $2.5 billion to produce—not including Systems Engineering and Integration costs—and NASA’s aspirational goal to achieve a cost savings of 50 percent is highly unrealistic.” That is, frankly, insane. That’s something like 40 Falcon 9 launches. A single engine on the SLS (the vehicle has four) costs roughly what NASA paid for an entire Falcon Heavy. Even NASA’s own Inspector General is now suggesting that the Agency should be considering commercial heavy-lift options instead.
  • ULA's Centaur AV-104 upper stage from the KuiperSat launch was disposed of by sending it to solar orbit.
  • CNBC’s Investing in Space newsletter shared an analysis of the space SPAC companies and their original revenue projections for 2023 vs where they are today… and it’s not pretty.
  • Stellar Jobs and Rocket Crew have merged to form Space Crew. The merger creates the (probably) largest job board specifically focused on enabling and growing the space industry. 
  • Cody’s Lab recently tested a sodium metal and water rocket. (We appreciate his integration of the thrust by cutting out the graph and weighing it.)
  • NASA’s Eyes project visualizes spacecraft throughout the solar system with high-quality live telemetry. Here are links to view a couple of our favorite recent missions: Starling-1 and Psyche (already >5 million km from Earth).

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NOAA’s GOES satellites (GOES-E below) captured the October 14th annular (“Ring of Fire”) eclipse as the Moon’s shadow crossed North and South America. Credit: NOAA

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