Issue No. 272

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 272 | Jun 5, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Chang'e 6 lands on the Moon, then launches again. The first lunar far-side sample return mission, China’s Chang'e 6, autonomously landed in the Moon’s vast far side South Pole-Aitken impact basin this weekend (landing video), collected samples, and has already launched them into lunar orbit. China is now four for four on Moon landings. The lander autonomously selected a landing site, descended to 100 m, and then hovered for a LIDAR scan before descending and cutting the engine just before touchdown, with the final shock absorbed by cushioning landing legs. Interestingly, "to prevent interference to optical sensors by lunar dust during landing, the lander is also equipped with gamma-ray sensors to accurately measure [its distance]" above the surface. Landing was timed with the Sun rising over the Moon’s largest, deepest, and oldest (known) crater so that the mission could operate during the lunar day. This is a region of ancient mare basalts likely composed of mantle material which are geologically distinct from the Moon’s near side. The mission launched on May 3rd on a heavy-lift Long March 5 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. The ambitious mission will deliver 2 kilograms of pristine lunar far side material, both drilled from a depth of up to 2 meters and collected on the surface with a robotic arm, to Earth. It is composed of an orbiter, a lunar lander, and an ascent vehicle, now back in lunar orbit with samples, which will soon dock with the orbiter and transfer its cargo to a reentry capsule. The lander also carried a surprise, unannounced rover with an infrared spectrometer. Due to landing on the side of the Moon perpetually facing away from Earth, the mission relies on the recently launched Queqiao-2 relay satellite (itself a research spacecraft, c.f. Issue 260). This complex architecture builds on Chang'e 4, which in 2019, was humanity’s first soft landing on the lunar far side (and also delivered the Yutu-2 rover), and 2020’s Chang'e 5, a successful robotic lunar sample return (for which CE6 was initially backup hardware). In addition to the sampling drill and scoop, onboard is a ground-penetrating radar and a mineral spectrometer. China has been trying to encourage international science collaboration, so it also carries a radon-detecting payload from France, a Swiss surface ion research payload, an Italian passive laser retro-reflector, and the already-deployed-and-functioning 7 kg cubesat from Pakistan with onboard cameras and a magnetometer (here are its first lunar photos). If all goes well, lunar geologists will have a field day with CE6’s samples once they land in Inner Mongolia near the end of June.

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dearMoon canceled. In a development not wholly unexpected by those following the project, Japanese Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s ambitious vanity flight around the Moon with eight artists—on what was planned to be a free-return trajectory that took humans farther away from our planet than ever before—was canceled last week. Both Starship’s extended development timeline and Maezawa’s significantly decreased net worth likely played a part in the cancellation. According to the project, “launch within 2023 became unfeasible, and without clear schedule certainty in the near-term, it is with a heavy heart that Maezawa made the unavoidable decision to cancel the project.” Musk had unfollowed Maezawa on X/Twitter earlier this year, leading to some speculations that tensions were strained. Additionally, NASA’s selection of Starship for HLS, Jared Issacman’s intention to use Starship for the Polaris Program’s third mission, and Dennis Tito’s circumlunar flight have shifted some of SpaceX’s focus away from dearMoon. Starship’s next flight (Flight-4) may come as soon as tomorrow (T-0 is planned for 8 am ET), with the FAA finding that Flight-3 did not endanger the public, the agency has moved forward with the final certification of the launch. However, the road from where they are now to crewed flight for Starship is still a long one, with launch reliability, on-orbit refueling, and repeatedly-proven safe reentry, not to mention a crew compartment with life support systems all still on the vehicle’s to-do list. This lack of current focus on crewed launches, paired with a long development timeline, elicited an additional comment from Maezewa: “I can’t plan my future in this situation, and I feel terrible making the crew members wait longer, hence the difficult decision to cancel at this point in time.” We’re hoping the startups betting on Starship as part of their business models have the runway to be more patient than this particular billionaire.

This gaggle of humans won’t be circumnavigating the Moon (yet). 😢

Delayed again. Starliner, originally scheduled to launch with crew for the first time in 2017, has continued to encounter delays leading up to its first attempt at transporting humans to space. Proposed in the fall of 2009, CST-100 Starliner has been under development for almost fifteen years. Starliner’s most recent delays have mostly been due to its launch vehicle—a particularly finicky Atlas V (a vehicle that is usually very reliable). First, there was a rapidly oscillating valve in the Centaur second stage that required replacement, and then this past Saturday, a slow-to-respond launch control computer (one of three redundant instances that control final launch events) scrubbed the launch. In between, an issue was discovered with Starliner’s helium-pressurized reaction control system—a leaking flange was eventually characterized as not being a threat to the mission and, if the leak worsens, could be isolated and compensated for with Starliner’s 27 other RCS jets. Despite its litany of delays, Starliner may have launched earlier this morning, with a backup attempt available at 10:29 am ET tomorrow (livestream). If it doesn’t launch today, our fingers are crossed for a successful doubleheader launch of Starliner and Starship tomorrow!

Starliner atop Atlas V, still standing ready for launch. Credit: NASASpaceflight

News in brief. SpaceX launched the ESA-led EarthCARE mission to study clouds and aerosols with four instruments, including a cloud profiler designed by JAXA JAXA meanwhile lost communication with their Venus-orbiting Akatsuki spacecraft due to ‘an extended period of low attitude stability control mode’ JAXA also failed to communicate with the so-far-surprisingly-resilient SLIM as lunar day broke, but they plan to ping it again after the next lunar night Peru and Slovakia signed the Artemis AccordsSlovenia plans to join ESA The Russian Progress MS-27 mission brought cargo supplies to the ISS North Korea failed to launch a spy satellite due to a midair explosion during the first stage of the rocket’s flight AST SpaceMobile has partnered with AT&T and now Verizon on space-to-cell connectivity, including $100M in new funding SaxaVord Spaceport, the UK’s first vertical launch site, is now open and ready for Rocket Factory Augsburg’s first launch ESA successfully static-fired the Vega-C’s redesigned Zefiro-40 solid rocket motor with an improved engine nozzle and hopes to return it to flight by the end of the year UK satellite manufacturer Open Cosmos won a $65.1M ESA contract to build EO satellites for Greece Agnikul launched its “Suborbital Tech Demonstrator,” which was not intended to reach space, but acts as a tested bed for their upcoming small-lift launch vehicle NASAs Europa Clipper flew across the US from JPL to KSC ahead of its October launch Hubble has paused science again due to faulty gyro readings Amazon started deorbiting their two Project Kuiper Protoflight satellites after a successful test mission, with plans to launch production satellites this year China launched three times within two days: a Long March 3B that took Pakistan’s Paksat MM1 to GEO, Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 that placed 5 satellites in sun-sync LEO orbits, and another Ceres-1 launch from a sea barge (uncomfortably close to the city of Rizhao) which placed 3 IoT satellites into LEO.

Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 launched off a floating launch pad just 2 miles off the coast of Rizhao, a city with 3 million inhabitants in China’s Shandong province.

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HEO Robotics’s space situational awareness satellite took this photo of the ISS from 69 km away.

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