Issue No. 266

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 266 | Apr 24, 2024

🚀 🌍 🎶

NASA is abandoning current Mars Sample Return plans. NASA announced that their $11B plan (with ~$2B already spent) for Mars Sample Return is too expensive and too far away, especially given tightening budgets (which also threaten the agency’s other science missions). The campaign, as envisioned, with a lander, Mars orbital rocket, and return vehicle, would also likely not return samples until 2040, based on a just-released report (meanwhile, Bill Nelson hopes we’re sending astronauts to Mars by then, which seems… optimistic). Perseverance has collected >20 samples from Jezero Crater, and NASA still wants to return the majority of them. The agency issued an RFP for the commercial sector to propose creative (and cheaper) architectures for MSR, including the option of returning a paired-down set of only 10 sample tubes. NASA will be recommending $200M in their 2025 budget for these studies. Elon (unsurprisingly) thinks it could be Starship. 🎶

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NASA goes sailing again. NASA's Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) is scheduled to launch to SSO on an Electron from New Zealand NET today (it’s a secondary payload, the primary is NEONSAT-1, a Korean EO sat). The ACS3 tech demonstration is a 12U CubeSat built by NanoAvionics with new flexible polymer and carbon fiber composite booms which are stiffer and lighter than previous designs. Once deployed, the sail will deploy to 80 square meters (an impressive accomplishment for a 12U CubeSat). The mission’s primary goal is to test boom deployment, but everyone hopes that it goes sailing (by angling its sail to the sun) as well. Once the sail is fully deployed and pointed at the Sun, it will be as bright as Sirius for observers in a location where the sail is visible. 🎶

The diminutive 12U ACS3, in the middle of its 80 sq meter solar sail.

Waiting on you, Artemis II. In January, Artemis II, the launch of the first crewed lunar mission since 1972, was delayed to NET September 2025. Its nominal 10-day flight will carry astronauts Victor Glover, Jeremy Hansen, Christina Koch, and Reid Wiseman to a maximum altitude of 8,889 km in lunar orbit via multiple translunar injection maneuvers, followed by a free-return trajectory back to Earth (we’re wondering if they used this KSP tutorial to help with planning). Meeting the updated 2025 launch target depends on the readiness of the next SLS in its Block 1 configuration, along with the Orion Crew Module. As of last March, the SLS Core Stage-2 has all five main elements (the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks, four RS-25 engines, intertank, and forward skirt) mated, and the timing of its shipment to KSC is being evaluated. Meanwhile, its twin five-segment solid rocket boosters arrived at KSC last September and are being prepared for storage. Also at KSC and awaiting Artemis II vehicle stacking is ULA’s completed interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS-2). Since the Artemis I flight in 2022, the Mobile Launcher 1 structure has been undergoing repairs and modifications, including the installation of four emergency egress baskets. 🧑‍🚀🧺 Vacuum testing of the Artemis II Orion Crew Module is scheduled for this spring, while the Artemis I Orion capsule, now dubbed Orion Environmental Test Article, is being put through eight months of tests—under particular evaluation are the heat shield’s protective ablative material ‘Avcoat’ (which eroded more than expected during the capsule’s reentry) and the latching current limiters (which switched open several times without command). NASA also reported a nine-month investigation into design issues with the Orion side hatch. The most significant difference between the Artemis I and II missions is the need to add life support systems and creature comforts to the 330-cubic-foot habitable cabin. Like Artemis I, which flew 10 cubesats, Artemis II has the capability to release 6U and 12U cubesats. However, its flight path would put them “in a high ballistic trajectory” which would return them to Earth within eight hours, leaving the usefulness of their inclusion unclear. 🎶

Artemis II’s SLS Core stage gained its four RS-25 engines in September 2023.

News in brief. Sweden, Switzerland, and Slovenia signed on to the Artemis Accords NASA’s 2028 Dragonfly octocopter mission (c.f. Issue 243) to Titan was officially approved despite the mission cost having now doubled to $3.35B Peter Higgs, proposer of the Higgs particle which explains why matter has mass, passed away at 94 EO company Satellogic received $30M from Tether Investments Limited (that’s a crypto fund) TESS is doing science again after entering safe mode on April 8th The FAA is now requiring reentry vehicles to acquire a license before launching (commercial reentry licenses are still rare with only 2 currently active, but the FAA wants to set a precedent before demand increases) Finnish SAR provider IceEye raised $93MULA received the next set of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, earmarked for their second Vulcan certification flight, scheduled for the fall but the payload (Dreamchaser) is looking like it won’t be ready UK launch startup Orbex raised $16.7M to ramp up work on their delayed small rocket Prime, designed to launch 180 kg to LEO Canada created a National Space Council and invested $8.6M into lunar technology Boeing plans to reduce their SLS workforce due to ‘external factors’ like Artemis delays and lack of continued funding (and presumably because no one besides NASA will ever pay for an SLS launch)Ingenuity communicated with JPL one last time before Perseverance moved out of range (it’s been grounded since January, c.f. Issue 254), but the trailblazing ‘copter  received a final software patch to allow it to act as a stationary testbed and collect up to 20 years worth of daily data. 🎶

JPL’s Ingenuity team monitoring the last transmission from the helicopter and enjoying some “Final Comms” chocolate cake in honor of Ingenuity’s groundbreaking three year mission.

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  • The first step in fixing Voyager 1 (by painstakingly moving memory around to avoid a failing FDS memory chip) is working, and the spacecraft is now returning useful engineering health and status data.
  • Ethan Siegel points out that, due to the Universe’s accelerating expansion, “everything that’s farther than 18 billion light-years away is already unreachable. This means that, of everything we can observe, only ~6% of the objects out there are potentially reachable by us. With every single second that passes, there are tens of thousands of stars that the expanding Universe pushes over that critical boundary, causing them to transition from ‘reachable’ to ‘unreachable,’ even if we left on a journey for them, today, at the speed of light.”
  • Data from NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite is now available. We wrote about PACE in Issue 256.
  • NASA’s Electrodynamic Dust Shield (EDS) prevents the buildup of lunar dust. The EagleCam CubeSat deployed from IM-1 Odysseus tested the EDS on the Moon. While the cubesat captured no images, EDS technology was used on two of its lenses, and data was successfully downloaded. 
  • Musk recently shared the latest on his “making life multiplanetary” quest. While some of the presentation was marked with familiar aspiration-heavy Musk-isms, it was also significantly more tangible than previous iterations, given that Starship has now made orbit. Eric Berger of Ars wrote: “Eight years ago, when Musk first outlined his Mars plans, I characterized them as ‘audacity, madness, and brilliance.’ I still believe all three adjectives apply. If anything, the vision is more audacious. But as of today, with SpaceX having proven that rocket reusability is a very viable thing and with a vibrant Starship factory at hand, they do seem a little less mad.” 
  • At the crossroads of Starship and Artemis, lies the planned Artemis III return-to-the-Moon mission. The complexity and large amount of unbuilt and untested hardware that is still in development is causing the agency to internally evaluate altering the mission. While no announcements have been made, a re-imagined Artemis III could follow the pattern of Apollo 9, testing the rendezvous of Starship and Orion, supporting crew on HLS Starship for the first time, as well as testing other maneuvers, all while staying closer to home in the relative safety of LEO (and perhaps could be rebranded as Artemis IIS, with the full Moon landing pushed out another year or two). This all seems pretty reasonable, but let’s pray they don’t alter it any further. 
  • Also Artemis: When the next Artemis mission does fly, it will attempt to achieve optical downlink rates of up to 260 megabits per second with its Optical Communications System (O2O).
  • Peptides may form more easily in space than on Earth (paper). Perhaps ours started out there, accumulated, and was delivered via comet?
  • 🎶

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