Issue No. 250

Happy New Year! In today’s issue we review our favorite space events of 2023… then look forward to a tantalizing year of space missions in 2024 to LEO, the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and beyond. 🥂🥂🥂

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 250 | Jan 3, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Space highlights of 2023.

SpaceX lost its life-leading B1058 rocket booster after a record 19th flight and landing last week when it toppled over on its drone ship in rough seas. Newer Falcon 9 boosters feature self-leveling legs that would likely have avoided this outcome. Credit: John Kraus (ed., apologies in advance for all SpaceX photos this week, sometimes you just don’t have much choice… and are saving some fun ones for next week.)

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What we’re looking forward to in 2024.

  • We’re expecting a bunch of commercial lunar landing attempts this year as NASA’s CLPS program starts to deliver—Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission 1 is now targeting a launch on the 8th (aboard ULA’s first Vulcan launch), with Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 in mid-Feb (IM-2 and Lunar Trailblazer are also scheduled for later this year), and, finally, Firefly’s Blue Ghost is targeting a lunar landing in Q3/Q4. We’ll be lucky if we see VIPER on another Astrobotic mission in late 2024.
  • Before any of these arrive, however, JAXA’s SLIM lander which arrived in lunar orbit on Christmas will attempt a landing mid-month.
  • China will continue to crank out cislunar missions, starting with the 1.2 metric ton Queqiao-2 lunar orbiter (scheduled to launch in March) and then the Chang’e 6 lunar farside sample return NET May. China will also launch the Einstein Probe in collaboration with ESA to observe cataclysmic events in X-ray (such as tidal disruption events). China is also likely to begin launching at least one communications megaconstellation.
  • ESA will launch its Hera mission (including a main spacecraft and two CubeSats) to survey DART’s impact on the Didymos-Dimorphos system with higher precision.
  • NASA is planning for a busy fall with Europa Clipper scheduled for October, Artemis II—the first crewed mission outside Earth’s Orbit in 50 years—in November (although we suspect it’ll slip to 2025), and the EscaPADE Mars mission launching on the first New Glenn rocket, currently scheduled for August (but undoubtedly slipping to the fall at best).
  • ISRO is planning to launch two Gaganyaan human spaceflight test missions this year (including one with a humanoid robot aboard) ahead of a planned crewed launch in 2025.
  • South Korea may finally launch its space agency KASA.
  • April 8th will feature a total solar eclipse with the path of totality traveling from Mexico across the US Midwest and finally through Eastern Canada. Also, look for increasing solar activity as we head into the maximum of Solar Cycle 25.
  • Trends: Continued and growing focuses on space debris (here’s a recent photo of damage to Canadarm2 caused by a 1mm debris collision in 2021), commercial down-mass offerings, commercial cislunar missions, space situational awareness, and more widely available hyperspectral EO imagery.
  • First launches of Ariane 6, Vulcan, the uncrewed cargo version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane, and maybe New Glenn
  • For SpaceX, Starship seems likely to make orbit with initial deployment attempts of Starlink v2 satellites soon after. The company plans to conduct a total of around 144 launches in 2024, with an eye toward the rollout of Starlink direct-to-mobile service. Another first for the company will be Polaris Dawn, the first commercial spacewalk, which is scheduled for April.
  • And so many more unexpected events, announced missions, commercial endeavors, scientific discoveries, and weird papers! (Please send your favorite stuff our way in 2024, we’ll probably write about it!)
News in brief. Ingenuity traveled 702 m for 131 s on its 68th flight… and then flew 705 m for 135 s on its 69th (its longest distance so far) India had the first launch of the new year, sending the X-ray Polarimeter Satellite (XPoSat) into LEO to study black holesAfter a one-year hiatus, Blue Origin successfully launched New Shepard and recovered its booster iSpace delivered a payload to orbit, its first successful payload delivery since 2019 on the sixth launch of Hyperbola-1 iSpace also completed their second successful hop test of the methalox Hyperbola-2Y, reaching 343 m in altitude, translating 50 m, and touching down with high accuracy—the reusable Hyperbola-3 is targeting launch in 2025 (here’s an overview of the Chinese reusable rocket race) Speaking of which, Galactic Energy raised $154M for their reusable, medium-lift, kerolox Pallas-1 rocket Orbital Matter closed a €1M Seed to develop a 3D-printer-equipped spacecraft HawkEye 360 acquired Maxar’s RF Solutions business unit The SaxaVord Spaceport on the Scottish island of Unst in the Shetland Islands was approved to launch rockets in 2024, the first fully licensed orbital spaceport in Western Europe Rocket Lab won a $515M contract to build 18 satellites for a US government entity, likely the Space Development Agency Firefly launched its Alpha rocket for the fourth time but a malfunction with the upper stage placed its payload (a Lockheed Martin Electrical Steerable Antenna tech demo) in the wrong orbit with a low perigee, so it will likely renter soon China launched 4 weather satellites and a pair of Beidou satellites… but again dropped a booster full of highly toxic hypergols on someone’s house (reddish smoke looks like nitrogen tetroxide, while yellowish may be UDMH) Japanese EO company Axelspace raised a $44M Series D to expand their microsat constellation After weeks of delays, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launched the US Space Force’s secretive, uncrewed, and autonomous X-37B spaceplane (this is the 7th time the X-37B has launched, but its first time on a Falcon Heavy, leading to speculation about what high orbit it could be heading to).

Falcon Heavy transiting the Moon during its launch of the Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane (also check out the video version). That photo took some planning! Credit: John Kraus .

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Booster 10 was festively transported to the Boca Chica launch facility ahead of a third orbital flight test (OFT-3 or more recently just “Flight 3”) which could happen as soon as later this week. Both the Booster and Ship were then static fired successfully just before the new year (video). Credit: SpaceX

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