Issue No. 259

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 259 | Mar 6, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

OSAM-1 gets the axe. NASA announced that OSAM-1, a six-year-late mission to refuel an unprepared satellite and perform some experimental on-orbit assembly and manufacturing tasks, would be mothballed. Originally contracted in 2016 as Restore-L with a targeted launch in 2020, at the time of cancellation the mission was looking like it might launch in 2026 with a total cost running over the current estimates of $2.05B. OSAM-1 would have approached Landsat 7 (still active but without station keeping fuel since 2011) and fueled it with 10 kg of hydrazine. In addition to refueling, it would have robotically assembled a large antenna and extruded a 10-meter-long carbon composite beam. In its October report, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) placed the vast majority of the blame on Maxar, the contractor responsible for the spacecraft’s bus and its attached SPIDER robotic arm. Interestingly, the NASA OIG report also lays blame on the Fixed-Firm Price (FFP) contracting method used for this mission—the OIG argued that NASA lacked the ability to incentivize Maxar to complete the contract on time and with more than minimum effort, and therefore allocated over $2M in staff labor over 18 months to help Maxar stay “closer” to schedule. This strikes us as a bit counterintuitive since non-fixed contracts have been a major historical factor in NASA’s biggest and most bloated programs—also worrisome is the idea that the Agency has to pay more than the contracted amount just to get the spacecraft it ordered close to on time and in reasonably working condition. The mission’s cancellation is disappointing but understandable given budgetary pressure from the Artemis program (a prime example of non-FFP cost overruns) and the in-limbo Mars Sample Return mission. While the industry is moving past refueling unprepared targets and moving toward spacecraft built with the ability to be refueled, OSAM-1 could have offered contributions around assembly and manufacturing, and we hope those technology demonstrations can be ported to other mission opportunities. (Related: Back in 2022, OrbitFab announced that it would provide up to 100 kg of hydrazine for $20M a pop; kilogram-to-kilogram OSAM-1’s hydrazine would simplistically have cost ~100x that price.)

OSAM-1 imagined grappling an uncooperative Landsat 7.

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Transporter-10. SpaceX's latest SSO rideshare mission lifted off Monday, flying into uncharacteristically clear skies above Vandenberg. The tenth installment of the company’s rideshare program placed 53 payloads into orbit. Its Falcon 9 booster performed a successful RTLS landing to complete its fifth launch. As always, most of the payloads are manifested through aggregators with only a few directly working with SpaceX. Here they are broken down by aggregator, to give you a sense of scope and scale of rideshare today:

Phew. 🥵

Just a few of Transporter-10’s payloads. Credit: SpaceX/NASASpaceflight

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MethaneSAT. MethaneSAT launched aboard Transporter-10 on Monday. The mission is a joint effort of the Environmental Defense Fund and New Zealand’s space agency, with significant funding from the Bezos Earth Fund, as well as collaboration with Google (on AI and data analysis) and others. The satellite is designed to both localize and measure km-scale emissions from oil and gas operations as well as to track aggregate emissions from smaller and/or intermittent sources, characterizing basin-level emissions. Having the capability to do both the focused and the broad tracking, with unprecedented resolution, is what sets this mission apart. It carries two IR Littrow spectrometers in the 1249-1305 nm (oxygen) and the 1598-1683 nm (methane and carbon dioxide) ranges which will capture a large 21 deg / ~200 km field of view (100 x 400 m GSD) from 525 km. Methane is responsible for about 30% of temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution, but as it has 80x the warming impact of CO2 for its first 20 years after release, it has an outsized impact on short-term warming and associated risks of overshoot and climate tipping points. MethaneSAT joins a (fortunately) quickly growing set of methane-tracking missions in orbit (c.f. HORACIO from Satlantis, above, also on T-10).

Sample data gathered by MethaneSAT’s airborne MethaneAIR test flights over Texas which started in 2021.

News in brief. IM-1’s Odysseus sent a final transmission before shutting down for lunar night (odds are low it survives at its latitude near the lunar south pole) SLIM also became dormant, but has hopes of reawakening again in late March at its more equatorial locationA 20 meter “close call” debris conjunction occurred between two fairly large and unmaneuverable satellites (NASA’s TIMED spacecraft and the defunct Cosmos 2221 Soviet spy satellite) that could have increased debris in LEO by 50% Unseenlabs raised $92M to double their maritime surveillance constellation to 25 nanosatellites Russia launched the Meteor-M2-4 weather satellite along with 18 ridesharing smallsats North Korea’s first spy satellite (launched last November) is alive and maneuvering China launched the first of a new ‘high orbit’ internet satellite series The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is planning to spend $290M on procuring commercial satellite imagery The FAA closed their investigation into Starship’s second test flight, so a third test flight could occur once a launch license is issued (potentially as soon as mid-March) SpaceFields, a Bengaluru startup, raised an $800K seed round to further develop their rocket propulsion systems, including an aerospike engine Richard Truly, Shuttle astronaut and NASA Administrator, passed away at 86 India revealed the four-person astronaut class for their first crewed missions to space, possibly starting next year Lockheed Martin (already a major investor and customer) offered to buy Terran Orbital at pennies on the dollar compared to its SPAC IPO valuation NASA is investigating safety concerns with Orion’s side hatch that could impact its ability to be opened in an off-nominal situation Crew-8 launched (despite a tense discovery of a crack on the hatch seal), sending four astronauts to the ISS and marking 50 crewmembers flown on Dragon over the 5 years since Demo-1 first launched.
The return of the Falcon 9 booster from the Crew-8 launch to the ISS.

At least SLIM and Odysseus tipped over more-or-less at their destinations. In 2003, NOAA-N Prime fell over during construction—due to a technician removing 24 bolts that held the mounting plate to the assembly table (while it was in storage)—causing $135M in damage. It was repaired and eventually launched in 2009.

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