Issue No. 261

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 261 | Mar 20, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Starship IFT-3 became the largest spacecraft launched into orbit… and then exploded. SpaceX launched the third test flight of their fully integrated Starship and Superheavy booster (S28 & B10) on Pi Day, the company’s 22nd birthday. All 30 Raptor engines on B10 performed nominally, completing ascent and a successful hot-staged separation (including a “most engines cutoff” MECO), with 10 engines relighting on the booster for boost-back. During reentry, B10 appeared to saturate the control authority provided by its grid fins and was unable to relight all but a few of the center 13 engines needed for its landing burn (it currently forgoes Falcon 9’s re-entry burn in the interest of optimizing fuel efficiency). SpaceX stated that B10 experienced a RUD at 462 meters in altitude, potentially impacting the Gulf of Mexico at 1,000+ km/hr. Meanwhile, S28 performed a nominal separation and achieved orbital energy, stopping just short of a fully orbital trajectory to ensure a safe unpowered re-entry and splashdown in the Indian Ocean. For all intents and purposes, this made it the largest single object humanity has ever put in orbit. While in the coast phase of the mission, Starship conducted multiple tests. One was opening the payload door which will be used to deploy Starlink (and other) satellites on some of Starship’s first operational missions—the “Pez dispenser” door seemed to have some difficulty opening and closing, perhaps due to pressure from atmosphere retained in Starship’s payload bay. NASA stated that for the second test, “propellant transfer demonstration operations were completed,” leaving the success of the internal tank liquid oxygen transfer slightly ambiguous. Finally, an in-space re-light test of a single Raptor engine was autonomously skipped due to an off-nominal roll rate—the test would have increased its orbital ellipse from approximately -50 x 234 km to +50 x 234 km (still very much suborbital on a planet with an atmosphere). S28’s uncontrolled roll became more significant as it began initial re-entry—here are stabilized and 3D modeled attitude videos. This is also when we got to see unprecedented live views of glowing plasma building up as the ship began hitting the atmosphere (video), likely made possible due to Starship’s bulk punching a hole in the atmosphere and creating a massive wake which allowed the craft’s Starlink terminals to preserve communication through what previously would have been a forced blackout period. However, S28’s tumble meant that its unprotected bits were exposed to plasma, including the engine bay, eventually leading to the loss of the vehicle ~65 km above the HYDROPAC 833/24 hazard zone. When looked at objectively, this test flight was a massive step forward for the Starship program, effectively proving out an expendable mission profile for the world's most powerful rocket (2x Saturn V’s thrust, with plans for 3x). This means that Starship is on the brink of being able to deliver 100-250 tons to orbit—that’s up to ½ the mass of the ISS in a single launch. One thing that stands out to us is the cost of Starship’s development to first orbit, currently in the neighborhood of $5-6B, compared to SLS’s development cost, which was in the ballpark of $30B to get it to first launch to orbit. SLS’s massive upfront CAPEX also doesn’t result in reduced ongoing costs, as it is expected to cost $2.2B per expendable launch vs Starship’s $100M even when expendable. While these programs aren’t directly comparable yet (one is more proven and human-rated), the cost comparison is stark. Now the question becomes: when will test flight four occur? With B11 and S29 nearly ready for static fire testing, Musk stating a 6+ flight goal for the year, and Shotwell suggesting a six week turn around, the FAA mishap investigation and related hardware improvements will again be the primary hurdle, likely meaning a next flight NET early May.

An unprecedented view of Starship S28 as it hurtles toward the Indian Ocean 46 minutes into its third flight test, compressing the atmosphere until it turns into super-hot, glowing plasma. Credit: SpaceX

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Space One also exploded. In an attempt to become the first private Japanese launch company to reach orbit, Space One launched their first 18-meter, 23-ton KAIROS rocket from Kushimoto, on the southern tip of the Kii peninsula of Honshu, Japan, out of the country’s first civilian launch site. Unfortunately, after two initial scrubs, it blew up via autonomous abort just five seconds post-launch. The test launch was carrying a prototype of a quick-response intelligence payload. KAIROS (Kii-based Advanced & Instant ROcket System) is a four-stage, small lift rocket with three solid-fueled stages and a liquid-fueled fourth/kick stage. It is designed to carry 250 kg to LEO or 150 to SSO, similar to the early version of Electron (it’s also roughly the same size), with the long-term hope of hitting 20 launches per year in 2029.

Short Papers

XKCD #2513

News in brief. Two (somewhat unexpected) Chinese lunar-orbit-bound spacecraft might be lost due to the upper stage of a Long March 2C rocket failing to place them in the proper trajectory Japan created a $6.7B, 10-year fund for JAXA Japan is also sending two astronauts to the Moon with NASA’s Artemis programESA released a call for a reusable upper stage demonstrator NASA’s Crew-7 returned to Earth from the ISS Belgian EO camera maker Simera Sense raised $15M to expand existing manufacturing from South Africa into Europe and develop more advanced, higher resolution devicesStell, a startup that is developing requirements management software, closed a $4M seed SpaceX’s Starshield business will build a $1.8B network of hundreds of spy satellites for the US’s National Reconnaissance Office, having launched roughly a dozen prototypes to date Orbio Earth, a startup that uses Sentinel-2 data to detect methane leaks, raised a $4M seed Starlink reached 6,000 satellites launched Stoke Space began testing the next version of their Nova rocket’s reusable second stage, firing its upgraded 30-thruster engine  NASA selected 10 university CubeSat missions to fly to the ISS as part of their CubeSat Launch Initiative ProgramApollo 10 commander Thomas Stafford passed away at 93 ● Rocket Lab launched a SAR satellite for Japanese EO firm Synspective.

Rocket Lab’s Electron lifting off on their ‘Owl Night Long’ Mission

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Due to the intricacies of leap years, the March 2020 vernal equinox, as captured by GOES-East, was the earliest equinox in 124 years. Yesterday’s spring equinox on March 19th at 11:06 pm EDT was even earlier, making it the earliest in 128 years. Every leap year for the next 400 years will set a new earliness record until it snaps back to the 21st. Credit: NOAA

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