Issue No. 254

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 254 | Jan 31, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Saying goodbye to Ingenuity. The little helicopter on Mars, which has flown 72 times over almost three years, is grounded. After contact was lost on January 18th during a short flight, imagery from the craft now reveals significant damage to at least one of its rotor blades, presumably from striking the ground during its emergency landing, and NASA believes that it is no longer capable of taking off. We started writing about Ingenuity all the way back in Issue 64, and of course when it first flew in Issue 113. Here’s the iconic video of its first flight on Mars. Ingenuity survived almost 1,000 Martian days (33x longer than planned); flew to a maximum altitude of 24 m over its 72 flights (the original mission planned for 5 m altitude and 5 flights); racked up a total of17 km flown; received remote software upgrades for autonomous landing site selection and dead sensors; cleaned itself off after dust storms; and, weathered a Martian winter. Nicknamed Ginny, the craft will be the basis of next-gen Martian flying vehicles as well as heavily informing operations for Dragonfly when it reaches Titan. In Issue 105 we wrote: “Tucked underneath Percy is Ingenuity, a 1.8 kg, $80-million autonomous helicopter. Its counter-rotating carbon-fiber blades are tuned to move about as quickly as they can—their tips will be moving at around 70% the speed of sound in the Martian atmosphere (~240 m/s), which is about 1% the density of Earth’s. Ginny carries two cameras, a laser altimeter from SparkFun, and no scientific instruments—its singular mission is to demonstrate the first powered flight of an aircraft on another planet.” It sure did.

A shadow of Ingenuity’s rotor blade showing mission-ending damage. 🚁🫡

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SLIM landed nose down. It turns out that SLIM went mun or bust, landing nose down on the Moon. Here’s JAXA’s detailed breakdown (kudos on the thoroughness), and Scott Manley has a further review of the landing. Until about 50 m altitude the landing progressed nominally, then, while hovering to detect potential hazards, thrust dropped by ~55% when the nozzle from one of its two main engines… came off for some reason (possibly due to burning oxidizer-rich, similar to the failure of the related Akatsuki Venus mission’s engine). Remarkably, even after losing an engine nozzle, the mission’s software was able to compensate and it soft-landed within 55 meters of its target (one of the mission’s primary goals, making it the most precise robotic planetary landing to date). While the impressive compensation of SLIM’s guidance software resulted in a landing that was below its maximum safe vertical velocity, uneven thrust from the damaged engine and its reaction control system resulted in lateral velocity, causing the craft to roll over with its solar panels ultimately oriented facing west, away from the Sun. The incredible image below was taken by the tiny tennis-ball-sized LEV-2 and was transmitted to Earth by LEV-1, a 2 kg hopping vehicle that is now the smallest system to directly transmit data from the Moon to Earth. Even in its current orientation, SLIM has also managed to communicate with Earth, and after being offline for a week, sunlight illuminated its panels allowing it to start communicating again on Monday! JAXA is using its remaining time before the end of the lunar day (February 1st) to study the lovingly dog-breed-named ejecta around Shioli crater with the onboard near-infrared spectroscopic camera. There is also some (cough) slim hope that the craft will be able to reawaken during the second half of the next lunar day, but regardless of whether it does or not, the mission has pushed the boundaries of our abilities to land robotic missions on the lunar surface.

Space is hard. And sometimes hilarious. 🙃

GITAI launches two arms to the ISS. GITAI, a Japanese startup that recently relocated to the US, launched two robotic arms to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 to carry a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo spacecraft. For this launch, SpaceX modified Falcon’s fairings to include a door. The hatch (pictured here) supports the continuation of Cygnus’ late-load cargo feature for special supplies headed to the station (aka ice cream) while still maintaining a cleanroom environment for the rest of the spacecraft. Cygnus was originally launched atop an Antares rocket (and occasionally on an Atlas V), but production of the current version of the Antares 230 was ended due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pushing the company to find a new launch provider for the launcher-agnostic Cygnus—at least until the Antares 300-series comes into service, built around Firefly-developed engines and first stage. GITAI’s 1.5-meter robotic S2 arms will be installed on a test fixture near the ISS’s Nanoracks Bishop airlock. They will demonstrate two-arm tasks including the installation of a task panel, unscrewing fasteners, plugging in flexible cables, and manipulating a sample of thermal blanketing (ground test video). These demonstrations will be conducted with an eye toward robotic servicing of satellites, something the company hopes to do by launching satellites this year and next with its arms installed on them, in hopes of performing a robotic arm capture and rendezvous. 

News in brief. Having removed 1.3 km of potentially-flammable P213 tape, Boeing’s Starliner is aiming for a mid-April first crewed flight SSA startup Aldoria (formerly Share My Space) raised a $10.9M Series A to double their ground-based space object tracking systemNobel laureate Arno Penzias, co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background, passed away at 90Albedo, a Denver-based EO startup, raised a $35M Series A-1 to launch their first Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) satellite which can capture imagery at extraordinarily high resolutions (10 cm optical GSD / 2 m infrared)Belgium joined the Artemis AccordsVirgin Galactic launched its suborbital spaceplane VSS Unity for the 6th timeFirefly’s Alpha rocket has been on-boarded for NRO missionsFrench small launch startup Latitude closed a $30M Series B to continue developing their Zephyr rocket China launched five remote sensing satellitesIran successfully launched three satellites on their Simorgh rocket (which failed during its 5 previous launches) SpaceX launched back-to-back Falcon 9 Starlink missions Blue Origin mated New Glenn’s first and second stages for the first time.

New Glenn’s mated first and second stages at Blue Origin’s LC-36 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Blue is pretty sure New Glenn will take flight this year.

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An old picture of Starliner without its skin. Here the capsule shows just some of the 1.3 km of wiring that had to have its flammable tape replaced with a non-flammable alternative.

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