Issue No. 275

June 30th is Asteroid Day, an annual commemoration of the 1908 Tunguska event, which flattened about 2,150 km² of forest in Siberia. ☄️

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 275 | Jun 26, 2024

🚀 ☄️ 🛰

Upcoming planetary defense missions. An impressive number of planetary defense missions are currently in the works globally. ESA’s Hera mission, designed to further investigate the results of DART’s dramatic 6 km/s collision with Dimorphos, is scheduled to launch later this year—in addition to the primary rendezvous craft (which carries multiple cameras, a LiDAR instrument, and a Doppler ranging payload to measure gravitational fields), the mission carries two CubeSats: Milani and Juventas. Milani has a spectrometer and dust sensors and will attempt close (~2 km) approaches to Dimorphos. Juventas meanwhile carries a subsurface radar, gravimeter, cameras, and a radio for Doppler ranging in cooperation with Hera. Both cubesats will attempt to land on the mini-moon at the ends of their respective missions. After Hera, 2025 is looking like a big year for planetary defense missions, with China aiming to launch both Tianwen-2, the country’s first asteroid sample return mission, targeting NEO 469219 Kamoʻoalewa, and their first planetary defense mission to observe and impact 2019 VL5, a 30 m wide NEO. Meanwhile, JAXA’s DESTINY+, which is also shooting for a 2025 launch, will visit asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the assumed parent body of the Geminids meteor shower. Later this decade, the infrared NEO Surveyor mission, which is designed to find 90% of NEOs ≥140 m in diameter (including sungrazing ones), is targeting a launch around 2028. In 2029, Apophis will pass just 32,000  km of Earth, just inside the GEO belt. A number of missions may attempt to rendezvous or observe, with some using it as an opportunity to study asteroid mining. One will be OSIRIS-APEX, the rechristened mission extension of OSIRIS-REx, attempting to catch up with and map Apophis. Fast-forwarding to the early 2030s, ESA’s proposed NEOMIR mission plans to head to the Earth-Sun L1 point to spot asteroids hiding in the Sun’s glare. It could be a stressful few years (for those paying attention) after these missions launch while we wait to rule out any major impending NEO impacts in the coming decades. There are also a bunch of non-planetary-defense asteroid missions in flight or in the works, including NASA’s Lucy (conducting flybys of multiple Trojan asteroids) and Psyche (studying the metal-rich asteroid 16 Psyche), and JAXA’s MMX (exploring the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, both thought to be captured asteroids, and returning a sample from Phobos).

A graph of NEAs discovered over time. With >90% of the 1 km+ objects found, NASA has now turned its attention to making sure it finds >90% of 140 m+ asteroids. The most recent NEA was discovered on June 18th.

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ILRS slowly gains partners on its long march to the Moon. Established by China’s CNSA and Roscosmos in June 2021, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) has now been joined by 12 nations and 12 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). For comparison, the Artemis Accords were launched in 2020 and have 43 national signatories (most recently Armenia). Both of these international lunar cooperative frameworks consist of an exploration program and a set of principles for conducting the program’s activities. The ILRS program outlines a three-phase development plan for lunar reconnaissance, construction, and utilization, which should culminate in permanent occupation of the lunar base with rotating crews starting in ~2036. China’s Chang’E missions 4-8, Russia’s Luna 25-28, and the ICUBE-Q cubesat from Pakistan have been incorporated into the project. The program’s foundation is China’s Chang’E program, with multiple successful complex lunar missions in the rearview mirror and a second lunar sample return just landed! 🎉 Unfortunately, Russia failed to land Luna 25 in 2023 following a 47-year hiatus in its lunar program (Luna 24 launched in 1976). After the primary location for constructing the ILRS’s permanent station is selected in the next 2-3 years, the most critical missions are planned for 2030-2035 to establish infrastructure for command, communications, power, a research station, and in-situ resource utilization facilities. 😅 These missions will be dependent on super-heavy lift vehicles to deliver massive payloads to the Moon. Timing will be tricky, as the first flight of China’s in-development heavy-lift Long March 9 is scheduled for 2033. Its two-stage variant will carry 150,000 kg to LEO or 50,000 kg to trans-lunar injection. The questionable Roscosmos Yenisei rocket may be able to carry 90,000 kg to LEO or 20,000 kg to the Moon, but the development timeline and actual figures are still unclear. While public mention of Russia’s involvement in the ILRS program has decreased since its invasion of Ukraine, Roscosmos’ Director General Yuri Borisov said in March that research is ongoing with CNSA for a robotically-constructed lunar nuclear reactor to provide base power and the country’s involvement was penned into law just this month. China’s majority lead on the ILRS was further amplified by the release of a Moonbase concept animation in April, which highlighted the Chang’E missions and only Chinese flags on the Moon. As this monumental undertaking requires extensive financing and technological innovation, the contributions from other ILRS partners—particularly nations and NGOs with very little space activity—are likely more political than instrumental. Chief Designer of China's Lunar Exploration Program Wu Weiren stated the ILRS program will aim to work with 50 countries and 500 international research institutions in the future.

CNSA/Roscosmos rendering of the planned International Lunar Research Station in 2036.

News in brief. Chang’e 6 delivered samples from the farside of the MoonStarliner’s departure from the ISS has been delayed again, now until early July—with five thrusters malfunctioning, NASA wants to run tests and get as much data as they can from the service module before it’s discarded and burns up during reentry NASA postponed another ISS spacewalk, this time due to a cooling unit water leak (water leaks are a recent recurring theme) Paris-based startup Skynopy raised $3.1M to simplify the data transfer process between LEO satellites and ground stations China conducted a static fire test of the first stage for their Long March 10 rocket that’s designed for crewed lunar missions (vs the LM9 which is designed for maximum payload) CesiumAstro raised a $65M Series B+ for their space communications technology The UN hosted its first conference on sustainable lunar activities Colorado startup ExoTerra raised $8M to expand production of their microsat propulsion systems after successful demonstration of their Halo Hall effect thruster last year Spanish space mobility startup IENAI raised €3.9M to develop their in-space propulsion system with plans to offer ‘maneuvering as a service’ Namibia plans to build a “spaceport” (at least initially it will only be a LEO ground control location) China’s state-owned Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology conducted a hop test, reaching 12 km, for their in-development reusable orbital launch vehicle Isar Aerospace, one of Europe’s many small launch developers, raised $70M through a Series C extension (that included NATO funding) to scale production of their upcoming Spectrum launch vehicle A Florida homeowner filed a claim against NASA for damages from an ISS battery pack that fell on their home—this could set precedent for compensation for space debris damages Spanish startup FOSSA raised a $6.8M Series A to build 20 IoT cubesats based on their existing picosatellites Synspective, a Japanese SAR provider, raised a $44.1M Series C and signed a deal for 10 launches with Rocket Lab Rocket Lab meanwhile launched satellites for French Internet-of-Things (IoT) company Kinéis on their 50th Electron launch—with a first launch in 2017, Rocket Lab is  the fastest company to go from 1-50 launches.

Liftoff of “No Time Toulouse”,  RocketLab’s 50th Electron mission. Credit: Jack Beyer
  • NASA shared findings (pdf) from the recent fifth biennial Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise, a roleplaying exercise held in coordination with FEMA and many US and international agencies to model what might happen and how groups would coordinate if an impending asteroid impact were detected. Their hypothetical was an object with a 72% chance of hitting Earth in 14 years. Short version: Humanity is not particularly ready to deal with something like this. (Global climate change called to say “I told you so”… 🙄)
  • B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute and the University of Washington’s DiRAC Institute identified 27,500 new asteroids by mining historical datasets from NOIRLab, demonstrating a big data approach to asteroid detection. The vast majority of the discovered objects were in the Main Belt, but 100 were previously unknown NEOs.
  • If you want to get into asteroid and NEO research, here are some upcoming events of interest: Follow-up Observations of Small Bodies in the Solar System in the Era of Large Discovery Surveys, August 6-8 in Cape Town), Europlanet Science Congress (September 8-13, Berlin), 43rd International Meteor Conference (September 19-22, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic), and 56th Annual Meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (October 6-10, Boise).
  • If an asteroid was very small but supermassive such that it was 1G at the surface, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
  • A very cool video of Chang’e 6’s ascender docking with its orbiter/return vehicle before heading to Earth.
  • This article makes the case that “no other existential risk is as well handled as that of asteroids or comets,” due to ongoing international NEO surveys and the low probability of an impact, and that “there’s also a reason we might want to positively avoid rushing into building asteroid defence systems: any technology capable of deflecting an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth will probably make it easier to divert it toward Earth.” As Carl Sagan and Steven J. Ostro wrote that, “premature deployment of any asteroid orbit-modification capability, in the real world and in light of well-established human frailty and fallibility, may introduce a new category of danger that dwarfs that posed by the objects themselves.
  • Relatedly… “What does the ‘Open’ in Open Asteroid Impact stand for? Initially we wanted to open-source all of our asteroid redirection software, designs, and schematics. But our safety advisors have raised concerns [...]. Instead, we rent out our machines to whoever is willing to pay us enough money. For safety.” 😂

NASA released Hubble’s first images taken in its new single-gyro pointing mode (c.f. Issue 273) after science operations resumed on June 14.

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