Issue No. 268

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 268 | May 8, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

SpaceX does EVA. To mark one of space fans’ favorite days of the year, SpaceX unveiled the next major iteration of development from its spacesuit program (promo video). The new SpaceX EVA suit, in tandem with an updated Crew Dragon capsule, will perform the first commercial extravehicular activity as part of the Polaris Dawn mission (overview of the mission, as well as Dragon modifications and EVA suit design). SpaceX’s new suit borrows material expertise from other existing programs within the company and heavily focuses on the upper body for the moment since lower body mobility isn’t as high a priority during EVAs. The shoulders and forearms of the suit feature semi-rigid joints (soft at low pressure, hard smoothly rotating joints when pressurized) with additional flexures at wrists, elbows, waist, and legs. Designed to be worn both inside (IVA) and outside (EVA) of the capsule, the suits will feature a slow zero-pre-breathe transition to 0.35 bar pure oxygen to avoid decompression sickness/the bends during the ~2-hour EVA (when the entire capsule will be exposed to vacuum). Suits are pressurized to a full 1 bar during ascent and re-entry, but use a mix of nitrogen and oxygen due to the lessons learned from Apollo 1 (Apollo missions also continued to use pure oxygen while in space, just not at pressures above ~0.4 bar). This version of the suit will require an umbilical for temperature management, life support, and power—in the future SpaceX hopes to merge its IVA and EVA suits into a single architecture that could support autonomous operation. Polaris Dawn is scheduled for later this summer and will also test Starlink-to-Dragon laser links, gather data on space radiation’s impact on humans (it is targeting a record 1,400 km apogee for a crewed Earth-orbit mission, just inside the Van Allen Belts), and perform 40+ experiments over 5 more days of the mission. 

The Polaris Dawn crew wear their new SpaceX EVA suits. Credit: SpaceX/Polaris Program

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Cassini imaged Saturn’s moon Mimas with its death-ray emitting Herschel Crater. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

NASA awards feasibility studies for commercial Mars services. NASA announced the award of 12 short feasibility study contracts to 9 companies exploring commercial service missions to the red planet. The agency’s goal is to facilitate the launch of one or more commercial missions during every upcoming optimal launch window. The $200,000 - $300,000 contracts cover small and large payload delivery and hosting, Mars surface-imaging, and communications relay services. Astrobotic will explore modifying one of its Lunar exploration craft for Martian applications, including added imaging capabilities. Lockheed Martin will study a similar lunar craft modification, but will be adding a communications relay instead of imaging. Impulse Space will investigate the adaptation of one of their space tugs for Mars delivery services. ULA will analyze repurposing one of its Earth-vicinity cryogenic upper stages for large payload delivery. Blue Origin is tasked with looking at whether Blue Ring will make good on its design to voyage outside cislunar space, while also providing communications relay support. Albedo and Redwire will study repurposing LEO imaging sats for imaging of Mars. Finally, SpaceX will propose a use of Starlink hardware for Martian comms applications. A summary of these feasibility studies will be released later this year and will inform the agency’s creation of future RFPs as part of its Mars Exploration Commercial Services program. These awards are separate from the recent commercial Mars Sample Return campaign.
News in brief. A rapidly-cycling oxygen pressure regulation valve on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket caused a scrub of the latest attempt to send a crewed Starliner capsule to the ISS—the next attempt is scheduled NET Friday SES is buying Intelsat for $3.1B, merging their GEO fleets of 100+ multi-ton communications satellites Privateer Space, founded by Steve Wozniak, has raised an additional $56.5M and also acquired Orbital Insight, as it works to provide an integrated space data and situational awareness platform Hubble resumed science and is operating with all three gyros again A US defense offical warned lawmakers that Russia is developing an “indiscriminate” anti-satellite nuclear device that poses a threat to all satellites—the US Assistant Defense Secretary for space policy says it could render LEO unusable for a year Astroscale plans to go public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange NASA issued a report on Artemis II readiness, stating that they are still investigating the root cause of (what now appears to be fairly severe) Orion heat shield issues, but are are unlikely to request redesign for Artemis II SpaceX launched two Maxar WorldView satellites A new startup Portal Space Systems received $3M from the DOD to develop highly manueverable spacecraft that would use solar thermal propulsion to achieve 6,000 m/s delta-v over a mission liftime Lockheed Martin clawed back their bid to buy Terran Orbital China’s Shenzhou-17 spacecraft returned to Earth with three astronauts who spent 6 months aboard the CSS BAE systems won a $365M contract from NOAA to develop an air quality sensor for GEO weather satellites NASA’s Crew-8 Dragon spacecraft relocated to the zenith port on the ISS to make way for Starliner, whose software is configured to dock with just the forward port China launched their Chang’e 6 mission to the Moon to collect samples from the far side, and brought along a previously undisclosed rover—the spacecraft should arrive in lunar orbit on May 7th, with an early June landingGerman launch startup HyImpulse successfully launched a paraffin (aka candle wax) powered rocket on a test suborbital flight, marking the first time a German company has achieved lift-off of a commercially viable launch vehicle.

HyImpulse’s suborbital paraffin-powered ‘SR75’ single-stage rocket launching from an Australian launch site in Koonibba.

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  • Speaking of the volcanic moon, Juno recently delivered new observations of Io. “We also got some great close-ups and other data on a 200-kilometer-long (127-mile-long) lava lake called Loki Patera. There is amazing detail showing these crazy islands embedded in the middle of a potentially magma lake rimmed with hot lava. The specular reflection our instruments recorded of the lake suggests parts of Io’s surface are as smooth as glass, reminiscent of volcanically created obsidian glass on Earth.
  • Meta and World Resources Institute recently released a global map of tree canopy height at a 1-meter resolution, sufficient for detecting single trees. The underlying imagery is 0.5m data from Maxar. Earthblox has a review of their approach.
  • XPrize announced the 20 qualified finalist teams for their Space-based Wildfire Detection and Intelligence track. Familiar names include Muon Space, Loft, and Orbital Sidekick, among others. “[T]eams will have one minute to accurately detect all fires across a landscape larger than entire states or countries, and 10 minutes to precisely characterize and report data with the least false positives to fire managers on the ground.”
  • Psyche (the spacecraft) is now ~2 AU from Earth. Last month, the craft again tested its deep space optical comms demonstration hardware (cf. Issue 238), transmitting over 226 million kilometers. Target data rates of 1 Mbps were far exceeded, with duplicated mission data (a first, previous test had been with preloaded test data) being sent at a blistering 25 Mbps. DSOC is being developed with an eye toward future high data rate Mars communications needs.
  • The US Space Force found a dead Cold War-era satellite that had been “lost in space” for 25 years.
  • JP Aerospace’s Airship to Orbit project, is the minimalist website of a small project that’s been running for over 25 years. JP Aerospace is a 42-year-old, volunteer-led, “independent space program.”

One of JP Aerospace’s almost two hundred “missions” was to produce this amazing photo of a chair at the edge of space. In September 2009, the group flew chairs on balloons to the edge of space four times, producing a TV commercial for Toshiba.

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