Issue No. 256

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 256 | Feb 14, 2024

🚀 ❤️ 🛰

NASA’s PACE. After weather delayed launch for two days, a Falcon 9 successfully carried NASA’s PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) satellite into orbit. PACE’s primary instrument will measure the color of the Earth’s oceans from ultraviolet to shortwave infrared, delivering “unprecedented coverage” from 350 nm to 2,260 nm. PACE also carries two polarimeters to measure how clouds, aerosols, and the ocean affect light. Data from these instruments combined will provide information about ocean and atmosphere carbon dioxide exchange, algal blooms, the effects of aerosols on phytoplankton growth, and the evolution of our oceans’ biogeochemical systems. The 1,700 kg spacecraft has onboard storage for 1.7 terabytes of data (which is only 7 orbits worth) and can support downlink at up to 600 Mbps. While it’s designed for a three-year primary mission, NASA expects it to last much longer, with at least a decade of propellant onboard.

The payloads of PACE. Creepy plastic mannequin man for scale.

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PREFIRE. After PACE, NASA’s next Earth Science mission will be a pair of polar-orbiting cubesats designed to study how the Earth radiates heat into space from the Arctic and Antarctic. Launching two weeks apart in May on Electron rockets, the pair will crisscross both polar regions from their high inclination near-polar orbits, measuring how the Earth radiates heat into space from these icy regions. Each satellite carries a thermal infrared spectrometer, originally developed for MRO’s Mars Climate Sounder instrument, and since miniaturized and updated for the warmer atmosphere and tinier payload requirements of PREFIRE. Polar regions help regulate the planet’s warm topics where most solar radiation is absorbed; circular prevailing weather patterns carry tropical heat to the poles where it is radiated as infrared energy back into space. This polar process hasn’t been directly measured at wavelengths over 15 μm which account for nearly 60% of emitted radiation. Data from PREFIRE about emissions from different polar surface types and conditions will help fill this gap for global climate models—particularly important as polar regions change (paper).

Highlighting some of the cameras on IM-1. Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 Nova-C Odysseus lunar lander (see our last issue), which is set to launch tonight (1:05 am EST), is carrying a number of space-rated cameras from Canadensys Aerospace Corporation. Affixed directly to Odysseus is the Canadensys dual-camera 360-degree imaging system which will take images of the lunar surface during descent and after landing. Also onboard are two precursor ILO-X cameras, mounted near the top of the lander—again built by Canadensys, this time for the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA). The ILO-X payload is designed to image the sky and Milky Way from the lunar surface, as well as to take part in some check-out observations on the way to the Moon. ILOA has big plans for long-term lunar astronomy with a future ILO-1 mission to either Malapert Mountain or the Shackle Crater rim, two of the 13 candidate landing regions also selected for the Artemis III mission. The last of the Canadensys-built cameras onboard are on the 1.5U Embry-Riddle EagleCam cubesat which will be flung onto the lunar surface approximately 30 meters / 30 seconds prior to the lander’s touchdown in the hope that at least two of its three 12-megapixel, 180° FOV cameras can catch the dramatic dust plume which will be created during descent. EagleCam also houses two 5-megapixel camera sensors from Arducam. In 2022, Canadensys released the first pictures from its imaging system aboard the ispace Hakuto-R lunar lander while it was en route to the Moon. (ed., This wasn’t intended as an ad for Canadensys, we were just researching ILO-X and were struck by how many cameras the company has onboard this single mission.)

ILO-X wide field-of-view imager. Credit: Canadensys Aerospace Corp.

News in brief. Axiom Space’s private Crew Dragon mission AX-3 splashed down Greece joined the Artemis Accords, and also announced an upcoming €60M hyperspectral EO constellation Lynk is SPACing—they are one of a number of companies developing satellites that can communicate direct to cell (DTC) phones—some of the competitors are Starlink, AST SpaceMobile, Iridium, and newcomer OQ TechnologyJPL reduced its workforce by 8% amid Mars Sample Return budget uncertainties and the “absence of an FY24 appropriation from Congress” California startup AiDash raised $50M to develop their AI technology that analyzes satellite data to spot wildfires ESA is seeking reusable rocket booster conceptsRocket Lab closed $355M in convertible note financing to support investment in their medium-lift Neutron rocket The first Polaris private astronaut mission has slipped again to mid-2024 LeoLabs raised $29M to expand their global space-object tracking network Russia launched a military satellite Japanese small satellite propulsion startup Pale Blue was awarded a $27M grant to develop their miniaturized, water-based ion and hall-effect thrusters Virgin Galactic dropped an alignment pin during their latest VSS Unity flight, prompting an FAA investigation BlackSky inked a $50M deal with the Indonesian Ministry of Defense to provide EO intelligence and satellites NASA’s Juno conducted a close flyby (1,500 km) over the southern hemisphere of Io, finding more active plumes on Jupiter’s volcanic moon.

The horizon of Io with two volcanic plumes visible against the backdrop of space. This image was captured by JunoCam on February 3rd from about 3,800 km away. You can download and process all the beautiful JunoCam data of Io yourself.


Happy Valentine's Day! The BBC Sky at Night Magazine has dozens of images of the Heart Nebula, also known as IC 1805, located 7,500 lightyears away in Cassiopeia. 💖
Credit: By Byronmhome - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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