Issue No. 257

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 257 | Feb 21, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

ESA’s LISA. The Science Programme Committee of the European Space Agency recently formally approved (‘adopted’) the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, the first space-based gravitational wave detector, with spacecraft and instrument manufacturing starting next year. The incredibly ambitious mission is led by ESA, with support from NASA and individual European national space agencies. LISA will consist of three spacecraft housing internally free-floating 4.6 cm cubes of gold and platinum. The spacecraft will trail Earth’s orbit and fly in an equilateral-triangle formation with sides 2.5 million kilometers long. The distances between these widely-spaced free-floating cubes will be measured via laser pulses to an accuracy of picometers—the diameter of a hydrogen atom is ~120 pm—and will detect passing gravitational waves as the distance between cubes change. LISA will detect lower-frequency gravitational waves with 300,000 - 3,000,000,000 km wavelengths. These are too long to measure with terrestrial  instruments, but shorter than what we think we can detect using pulsar timing arrays. The waves are expected to come from sources such as ancient black hole mergers, as well as from compact binary systems in our galaxy. LISA will hopefully be able to generate a map of these tightly orbiting white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes that we often cannot otherwise see. By ~2035, LISA—in conjunction with LIGO, Virgo, and KAGRA, and the growing number of pulsar timing arrays—will enable a whole new way to look at the Universe.

A graph showing gravitational wave characteristic strain (a measure of GW sensitivity with lower values meaning less noise and better detection) for current and future detectors. Source: Fig. 3 of this paper.

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Hello H-3; goodbye H-IIA. JAXA continued a recent run of positive space program accomplishments with the launch of their soon-to-be workhorse medium-lift H3 rocket. The hydrolox + SRB H3, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, will occupy a similar space as Falcon 9, Ariane 6, Soyuz, and Long March 7, carrying 4 tons to SSO or 8 tons to GTO. After a failed first launch, which destroyed the $200M ALOS-3 satellite, this launch carried two small EO sats and a 3-ton ALOS-3-sized mass simulator (VEP-4). The previous launch failed due to a second-stage ignition problem—investigations weren’t able to determine a single cause, leading to multiple failure-case improvements to the ignition system, which is shared with H3’s predecessor and therefore caused H-IIA to be temporarily grounded as well. One payload, CE-SAT-1E, the latest of a series of 50 kg EO sats developed by Canon, is based on the company’s EOS 5D mark 3 camera and will produce 1 m/px resolution from 600 km SSO. The other active payload, TIRSAT, is a 5 kg cubesat that will observe in IR, measuring surface and water temps for the next 5 years. JAXA also performed a second ignition of the upper stage, demonstrating H3’s ability to responsibly deorbit its upper stage after payload release. H3’s predecessor, H-IIA still has two launches scheduled for later this year before it enters full retirement alongside the original H-II and the heavier-lift H-IIB variant that carried the HTV resupply craft to the ISS (and launched for its last time in 2020).

H3 lifts off from Tanegashima Space Center. Credit: Yomiuri Shimbun

ADRAS-J will (intentionally) approach debris for the first time. Also from JAXA: Astroscale’s ADRAS-J mission lifted off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch pad on Sunday morning (EST) atop the second Electron launch of the year. ADRAS-J follows up on ELSA-D from 2021 and, for the first time (that we know of), will approach a piece of unsuspecting space debris and assess its condition and dynamics (rate of tumble, etc.). The targeted piece of debris is the discarded 3,100 kg upper stage of an H-IIA rocket, launched in 2009 (making a timely example of why H3 will be actively deorbiting its upper stages). All trajectory data is supplied by ground-based observations and will be refined by ADRAS-J as it safely begins to approach the upper stage prior to rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO). Astroscale will conduct its RPO activities over the next few months. Next up, ClearSpace’s upcoming mission to capture and deorbit debris—its target itself was hit by debris last year, driving home the problem. (Related: a paper on how to rank the active removal priority of pieces of space debris—it turns out that based on this index, the H-IIA upper stage targeted by this mission isn’t super high priority.)

ADRAS-J conops. Credit: JAXA

IM-1 launched. Odysseus launched successfully last week on a Falcon 9 with a modified fairing—due to Odysseus’s use of cryogenic methalox instead of hypergolic fuels, a first for a lunar lander, the vehicle was fueled via quick disconnects newly installed on the strongback and fairing just before liftoff. IM-1 has now completed engine commissioning and initial maneuvers, making it the first in-space ignition of a methalox engine. Lunar orbit insertion should happen today, with a first lunar landing opportunity tomorrow (February 22nd). Intuitive Machines has continued to provide detailed updates as the mission has developed and we’re looking forward to the first CLPS program landing attempt!

A stunning view from Odysseus looking back toward Earth and its Falcon 9 upper stage shortly after separation on February 16th.

News in brief. NASA’s announced the final mass of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample at 121.6 g, twice the 60 g  mission requirement and the largest asteroid sample ever collected in space India launched their INSAT-3DS weather satellite to GEO and Cartosat-2 safely deorbited from LEOBAE Systems received regulatory approval to complete the acquisition of Ball AerospaceUruguay signed the Artemis AccordsStarship is stacked for its third flight, which might occur in three weeks pending FAA approval Skylo raised $37M to scale their direct-to-device (D2D) satellite services that connects new devices to existing satellites Falcon 9 flew for the 300th time—with just 2 failures (one on the pad) and a singular partial success, Falcon 9 is one of the most reliable rockets ever developedNASA successfully tested the unfurling of a new solar sail (largest quadrant deployment so far at 400 m2) that now is ready for space mission proposals K2 Space raised $50M to continue developing their Mega class satellite bus that is sized to launch from ‘heavy’ rocketsChinese launch startup Orienspace closed a $83.5M Series B to develop their first liquid propellant rocket, Gravity-2 SpaceX discovered an issue with 100 currently-operating Starlink spacecraft and will preemptively de-orbit them to avoid the risk of them becoming debris NASA is troubleshooting issues with a wonky dust cover on Perserverance’s SHERLOC instrument After much buzz in Congress, the US confirmed intelligence on a Russian anti-satellite weapon that is potentially nuclear powered but not in orbit yet After eight months in orbit, Varda was finally issued an FAA re-entry license (the first one for commercial purposes) and will attempt to return their first ~90 kg capsule today Blue Origin raised New Glenn’s stage 1 and 2 simulator hardware to a vertical launch position for the first time.

New Glenn’s stage 1 and 2 simulator hardware, raised for the first time at the Cape’s LC-36.

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One of the last photographs taken by a human on the Moon, captured in 1972 during the second EVA of Apollo 17 on a Hasselblad. Here’s the full, unprocessed photo.

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