Issue No. 269

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 269 | May 15, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Our star throws its decadal tantrum. Last week, as Sol continues to edge into the most active phase of its 11-year cycle, multiple massive X-class solar flares (the largest an X5.8 flare) erupted from associated active sunspots, along with coronal mass ejections (CMEs) directed towards Earth. This sustained activity caused a G5 solar storm last weekend (NOAA’s space weather scales for reference), leading to aurorae visible from middle latitudes as far south as Puerto Rico in the US and all over Europe. This was one of the most powerful solar storms since an estimated X28-45 flare in 2003 contributed to the 2003 Halloween solar storms that damaged or interrupted services from multiple spacecraft, saturated measurement instruments, and made ISS astronauts shelter in the more shielded Russian segment. The 2003 event was the worst solar storm since modern solar monitoring, but the Carrington Event in 1859, as the most significant geomagnetic event in measurable history, puts it to shame. The Carrington Event came from a retrospectively-estimated X45+ class flare with its CME directed squarely at Earth and was preceded by another large CME that likely cleared ambient solar wind plasma, allowing the Carrington CME to arrive at Earth just 17.6 hours after the event (most CMEs take several days to arrive at Earth). This caused globally viewable aurorae, made telegraph pylons arc and spark, and even allowed operators to send messages through lines that were solely powered by the induced current. The impact of high-energy solar events is often under-appreciated, but can particularly negatively affect space systems and the electrical grid—a Carrington-scale event today could trigger a full grid blackout destroying hard-to-replace high-voltage transformers, significantly disrupt RF-based communications, impact the internet backbone, and knock out critical satellite systems like GNSS constellations. (We could prepare our grid in the US for single-digit-billions of dollars, but little seems to be happening.) Last weekend’s event did cause interruptions to RTK position systems used by some industrial-scale agriculture equipment and caused power grid fluctuations around the world. Carrington-scale events happen every ~500 years and are far more likely than a large meteorite impact, but society is currently largely underprepared for the next one. Related: Based on Carbon-14 dating of tree rings (paper), it’s likely that at least nine super solar storms, some an order of magnitude larger than Carrington, known as Miyake Events, have occurred over the last 15,000 years, the last ones in 993 and 774.

Several of the recent solar X-class flares can be seen at the top right of this extreme ultraviolet spectrum video of our star captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA.

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NASA NIAC goes Phase II. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, known for funding some exciting and weird shit (c.f Issues 160, 205, 219, 253, etc…), has selected six prior NIAC concept studies for additional development. Phase II grants are only up to $600,000 in funding, though, so temper your expectations. NIAC Phase II awards are also a potential gateway to the somewhat more impactful $2 million Phase III awards. The winners were:

  • FLUTE, a concept to create fluidic telescopes with massive liquid primary mirrors in space by shaping ionic liquids—swiped wholeheartedly from Dune. (NASA’s Ames Research Center)
  • A pulsed plasma rocket that would use “fission-generated packets of plasma” to generate up to 100,000 N of thrust with an Isp of 5,000s… sounds fantastic! (Howe Industries in Scottsdale, Arizona)
  • GO-LoW, a megaconstellation of interferometric, autonomous, low-frequency radio telescopes at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point to study exoplanets’ magnetospheres and the cosmic dark ages at frequencies (100 kHz and 15 MHz) that we cannot observe from Earth due to the ionosphere. (MIT)
  • A concept for radioisotope thermoradiative power generators for deep space missions with a mass-specific power 4-5x that of NASA’s MMRTG. (RIT)
  • Quantum dot sensors on solar sails, allow the sail to also function as an imager for missions to the outer planets. (Goddard Space Flight Center)
  • FLOAT, a diamagnetically levitating lunar railway system with no moving parts for payload transport on the Moon. (JPL)

FLOAT’s unpowered vehicles diamagnetically levitate over a film track composed of a graphite layer (for diamagnetic levitation), a flex-circuit layer (to electromagnetically push vehicles along), and an optional thin-film solar panel (for power). Levitation could remove the risk of wear from lunar dust abrasion.

Otter Pup signs off. Last week, Otter Pup, the ambitious and high-drama rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking (RPOD) mission from Starfish Space, concluded its mission on a high note. The drama began with an emergency deployment from its Launcher orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) after catching a ride to orbit last year on Transporter 8 (c.f. Issue 234). That emergency deployment imparted a tumble of 330 degrees/second, much more than the few degrees/second that its attitude control system was designed to handle. The Starfish team was able to save the spacecraft by pulsing its magnetorquers opportunistically against the magnetic field of the Earth to detumble the craft. Original plans to meet RPOD goals by working with the Launcher OTV were scrapped and objectives were updated, only to have Otter Pup’s electric propulsion fail soon after the detumbling operation. This left the mission with one remaining objective: in-space rendezvous with another spacecraft. But without propulsion, that would have to be a very specific partner that had delta-v and availability to cooperatively change their orbital parameters. D-Orbit, an Italian orbital logistics company that supplies hosted payload and space tug services, provided one of their existing twelve ION orbital delivery vehicles as the other half of the rendezvous. Starfish orchestrated the rendezvous, with help from space situational awareness company LeoLabs, while D-Orbit executed the maneuver with their ION SVC006 craft, originally launched with Transporter 5. SVC006 approached to within 1 km of Otter Pup over the course of multiple orbital flybys. The latter was able to point and capture an image of the ION vehicle (below), salvaging a meaningful part of the original mission. Starfish plans to launch their next Otter Pup in 2025. (Related: Starfish just won a $37M contract from the DODto improve maneuverability on-orbit and enable dynamic space operations, docking, and maneuvering of Department of Defense assets on-orbit by 2026.”)

Otter Pup’s view of the D-Orbit ION SVC006 vehicle at 1 km. Credit: Starfish Space

News in brief. Xona Space Systems, designer of a LEO alternative to GPS, raised a $19M Series A Rocket Lab completed the first full assembly of their 3-D printed reusable Archimedes engine for their medium-lift Neutron rocket, whose debut has been pushed to 2025 Chang’e-6 entered an elliptical lunar orbit that will gradually circularize ahead of a landing attempt in early June Serbia became the 11th country to join the China-led ILRS Moon base project China also launched their first Long March 6C, the latest of Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight (SAST)’s upgraded vehicles that use kerosene and liquid oxygen instead of toxic hypergolic propellant China also also launched their first MEO broadband satellite South Korea’s Perigee Aerospace signed an agreement to launch their Blue Whale 1 rocket at Sweden’s Esrange Space Center, becoming the site’s first orbital launch customer The FAA began a new environmental review of Starship launches from the Kennedy Space Center due to design changes that have occurred since their first review in 2019 NASA and JAXA plan to operate XRISM as is for the next eighteen months before trying to fix an issue with an aperture that failed to open on the Resolve imaging instrument (the instrument is still able to conduct ‘very good science’ despite the closed beryllium door attenuating some lower energy X-rays) Gunning ahead, SpaceX conducted a static fire test of the upper stage for their Flight-5 Starship launch, with the Flight-4 launch set for as early as the end of this month, but is more likely to happen in June.

The 50 m tall upper stage for Starship Flight-5 performs a static fire with all six of the Raptor engines ignited while anchored to a testing ground mount. Credit: SpaceX 

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Puppis A, yet another supernova remnant, about 4,000 years old, is the Einstein Probe’s first released image. The image below comes from Einstein Probe’s Follow-up X-ray Telescope (FXT) imager. The Einstein Probe (c.f. Issue 252) is a collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Sciences, ESA, and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

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