Issue No. 245

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 245 | Nov 22, 2023

🚀 🌍 🛰

Starship flies higher. Seven long months after Starship’s first integrated flight test in April, Ship 25 launched atop Booster 9 on a second test flight, again targeting a ballistic trajectory with a planned splashdown north of Hawai’i (video). This time, all 33 Raptor 2 engines on Booster 9 completed a full first-stage burn, producing a 300-meter-long exhaust plume and roughly twice the thrust of any other object flown by humanity (video). The 121-meter monster rocket also completed what appeared to be a successful hot stage separation, with B9 shutting down all but three of its Raptors (which were throttled to 50%) followed by S25’s six engines starting up to push the ship away from the booster. Hot staging reduces gravity losses and keeps the upper stage continuously under thrust for fuel settling. After stage separation, B9 completed a somewhat vigorous flip and, perhaps due to propellant slosh or damage, had trouble relighting its Raptor engines. (Engines that ingest tank pressurization gas instead of propellant generally end up functioning quite destructively.) After several “high energy” events at the aft end of Booster 9, an explosion originating from its common bulkhead rapidly disassembled the booster. After separation, Starship’s upper stage burned until seconds before entering its planned coast phase—climbing to an altitude of 148 km and over 6.7 km/s, reaching space and very nearly hitting orbital velocity. However, S25 appeared to trigger its automated flight termination system during terminal guidance, possibly due to a leak in its oxygen tank—debris from the explosion were caught on NOAA radar extending past Puerto Rico. The thermal protection system (TPS) made up of 18,000 tiles, appeared to lose a significant number of tiles during the launch, especially ones that were glued on near weld points, making the ship unlikely to have survived reentry even if the flight had made it that far. S28’s TPS tiles are said to have an improved adhesion process that has been tested with a suction cup plus force meter to verify attachment. One additional clear success was the performance of SpaceX’s much improved “stage zero”—the water deluge system appeared undamaged and very little other damage and debris have been spotted by ever-vigilant tank watchers. Due to a complete loss of both stages, the FAA will conduct another mishap investigation, although many hope it will be significantly more streamlined due to the improved FTS functionality and better performance of the launch system—in particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service may not be involved this time. The always-optimistic Musk suggests a next test flight for Starship in 3-4 weeks, and with plenty of hardware waiting in the wings (S28 and B10 are likely up next), the timeline will probably be determined yet again by the mishap investigation and mitigation process. NASA seems keen to get on with it though as the agency believes its lunar lander mission may take up to 20 Starship launches (for on-orbit fueling, while the again-overly-optimistic-Elon has suggested just 4).

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Have you heard of this 🚀? National support for commercial space, particularly in the USA, China, the EU, and India has led to an explosion in the number of space startups in recent years. Some of the companies will undoubtedly not fulfill their ambitions, as illustrated by the rise and fall of Canadian Arrow (1999-2013), Armadillo Aerospace (2000-2013), Masten Space Systems (2004-2022), Virgin Orbit (2017-2023), and seemingly Astra. Some contemporary launch companies making headlines are Space Pioneer (China; first startup to reach orbit on its first attempt), LandSpace (China; world’s first successful methalox orbital rocket), Galactic Energy (China; raised $200M in 2021 and had 9 sequential successful launches of the Ceres-1 rocket), Skyroot Aerospace (India’s first commercial rocket), and UK/EU-based RFA, PLD Space, and Skyrora. Let’s talk about a few lesser-known companies. Taiwanese TiSPACE conducted launches of a 10-meter-tall, two-stage, hybrid-propellant suborbital rocket under its affiliated company ATSpace based in Australia. TiSPACE and ATSpace have been quiet throughout 2023 after three failed launch attempts occurred in 2021-22. SpaceForest of Poland flew its Perun single-stage launch vehicle to a 22 km altitude in June 2023 and is hoping to begin commercial launches of ≤50 kg payloads to an apogee of 150 km by the end of 2023 (starting to feel unlikely). Equatorial Space Systems, headquartered in Singapore, raised $1.5M in March 2023 for the development of its Dorado sounding rocket. Dorado will be fitted with a hybrid engine utilizing chilled nitrous oxide and a patent-pending solid fuel formula known as HRF-1. Test flights are expected to occur in mid-2024. South Korea’s Perigee Aerospace is working towards the first launch of its two-stage, orbital, methalox BlueWhale 1 from Jeju Island. The Blue Whale 0.1 – 0.3 sounding rocket tests concluded in 2022. Russian SR Rockets, one of four subsidiaries of SR Space (formerly known as Success Rockets), is planning to test-fire its RDU-1 engine in the fall of 2023. If all goes well, the launch of its 253-kg, suborbital Nebo rocket will follow soon after. The company also has an agreement with China's Chamber of Commerce and Industry to potentially launch from Wenchang, Hainan Island. And there are so many more launch companies in various stages of development.

News in brief. Project Kuiper’s Protoflight mission has been declared a successFirefly Aerospace closed another tranche of their Series C, bringing them to $300M raised to date at a $1.5B valuation—their Alpha rocket is stacked on the pad ahead of its fourth launch Lockheed and Boeing are evaluating three potential buyers for ULA (a PE firm, Blue Origin, and an unnamed aerospace firm) Psyche tested 2 of its 4 thrusters, marking the first use of Hall-effect thrusters beyond cislunar space China launched the first of their next-gen Haiyang ocean-monitoring satellites Saber Astronautics won a $1.2M USSF contract to develop their cislunar navigation suite Sierra Space reduced its workforce even as they head into the first Dream Chaser flight—the layoff accounted for 8% of the company’s workforce and coincided with Sierra also moving 150 employees with security clearances from its parent corp to work on classified projects Propulsion startup Ursa Major will start 3D printing solid rocket motors Apple is extending its free satellite emergency SOS for another year The CAPSTONE cubesat has now maintained its unique, Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit for a year ESA’s Juice spacecraft conducted an extended 43-minute burn (which used 10% of its fuel and achieved ~200 m/s delta-v) to align it for a 2024 Earth-Moon flyby on its way to Jupiter.

An animation from ESA showing how Juice’s Nov 17 burn lines up the spacecraft for its Earth-Moon flyby in August 2024.

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  • Some delightfully in-depth coverage of a toolbag lost during a November 2nd space walk. The bag is losing altitude as it tumbles and is therefore slowly moving ahead of the ISS. The bag has a magnitude +6 brightness and has been caught by some amateurs with binoculars. It should burn up harmlessly on reentry sometime next spring.
  • If you’d like to catch the ISS when it’s passing over (or the just mentioned errant toolbag), make sure you have NASA’s new Spot the Station app.
  • NASA recruited volunteers to track Artemis-1 on its 25-day journey around the Moon and back to Earth by interpreting changes in radio signals from Orion. Many volunteers were successful, and NASA plans to apply lessons learned from this exercise to future tracking.
JWST recently snapped this image pointing toward the core of the Milky Way. This image alone contains over 500,000 stars. 🤩
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and S. Crowe (University of Virginia)

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