Issue No. 276

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 276 | Jul 3, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

GOES-Up. NOAA’s GOES-U launched on the first Falcon Heavy of the year last Tuesday night from Launch Complex 39A at KSC (beautiful double Falcon booster return footage). The mission, the last of the GOES-R series of geostationary weather satellites, continuously monitors weather systems over the Western Hemisphere (such as tropical storms in both the eastern Pacific and Atlantic, relevant at the moment) with 16 spectral bands (previous generation GOES satellites had 5) as well as a lightning mapper (cf. Issue 111). The mission also carries local radiation monitors, solar X-ray and UV monitoring sensors, and a compact coronagraph from the Naval Research Laboratory to watch the Sun for coronal mass ejections.

GOES-U deploying from its Falcon 9 upper stage, with the Earth in the background.

The Orbital Index is made possible through generous sponsorship by:


Coming down. SpaceX won a contract valued at up to $843 million to build a vehicle capable of safely deorbiting the ISS once the station is decommissioned in 2030 (c.f. Issue 270). The Agency also released a whitepaper detailing its approach and reasoning around multiple decommissioning scenarios. While many people have suggested raising the ISS’s orbit and turning it into a museum, the amount of fuel needed to move the approximately 420-ton station to a high enough orbit to remain stable for long durations is beyond prohibitive, at least with existing chemical propulsion and current vehicles (propellant alone would be 4-15x the amount needed for a deorbit). Additionally, boosting to a higher altitude means moving through bands of significantly higher debris strike risk, which in a worst-case scenario, could create a cascade of debris (possibly even leading to Kessler syndrome).

Blows up. Russian Resurs-P1, an almost-six-ton defunct SSO Earth observation satellite that stopped orbit maintenance in 2017 but continued operations until 2022, unexpectedly exploded last week into 180+ fragments (a number that is expected to continue to grow in the coming weeks and months). Expected to reenter later this year, Resurs-P1 was orbiting at ~350 km, close enough to the ISS’s orbital altitude that the event forced ISS astronauts into shelter for an hour while debris was tracked. No immediate follow-on conjunctions or collisions are expected. Likely causes of the explosion include a lack of passivization or a problem with a solar array deployment mechanism. Less likely is the use of the massive satellite as a Russian ASAT test target—no announcements to that effect have been released by any national defense or space agency. Resurs-P1 is the first of 5 satellites in its family, one having already deorbited, and the most recent still yet to be launched.

Goes up, comes down, and blows up (unexpectedly). In what must have been a surreal event for anyone nearby, during a static fire test of the first stage of Space Pioneer’s close-to-finished Tianlong-3 rocket, the hold-down hardware failed to do its singular job: hold down the rocket. The Falcon 9 copycat rocket was just months away from a first launch. The test ended up being anything but static despite the rocket being loaded with a significant amount of “ballast” propellant to help make up for the lack of a second stage and weigh it down. Moments after ignition it sheared through either its hold-down bolts or the rocket's structure and shot 1.5 km into the sky above the city of Gongyi, China. While the official statement is that the engines were commanded to shut down, videos appear to show a slow cascade of engine failure (perhaps due to damage during its unexpected takeoff) followed by gravity doing its thing, resulting in a massive fireball on impact that broke surrounding windows in the resulting overpressure event. Space Pioneer previously successfully launched Tianlong-2 into orbit (on their first try, a record which now looks a bit lucky) and recently raised ~$207 million to complete the development and initial operations of the significantly-scaled-up Tianlong-3. This was the only Tianlong-3 flight article, so timing on a new maiden flight is now very much up in the air. Very fortunately, there were no casualties as the rocket mostly went up and straight back down. (The videos are well worth a watch.)

Tianlong-3: Going up. Coming down. Blowing up.

News in brief. Starliner remains at the ISS while thruster tests continue in space and on Earth—NASA stresses that this is about understanding how to fix the thrusters for next time, not about concerns over a safe return home for Butch Willmore and Sunita Williams ULA will launch a dummy payload, rather than the delayed Dream Chaser, on their second Vulcan launch to try to win Space Force certification later this year French rocket builder Latitude won a $16M grant from the French government to develop the turbomachinery and production capabilities for its Zephyr rocket Collins Aerospace is ‘descoping’ and likely exiting their NASA spacesuit contract due to schedule delays, admitting that they ‘drastically underperformed and have overspent’ Sift, a California-based startup developing tools to manage telemetry, raised a $17M Series A Planet Labs reduced their workforce by 17% to try to become profitable The Space Force will seek bids for their ‘Resilient GPS’ program to deploy smaller and cheaper satellites to complement the existing system, adding more resilience against increasing vulnerability from military conflict Stratospheric balloon startup Urban Sky won a $2.6M NASA contract to develop a wildfire monitoring system Japan’s H3 rocket launched the ALOS-4 radar satellites, the third successful flight for this two-stage rocket SpaceX launched a second batch of small satellites for the NRO The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) awarded $730M to MDA Space for the final development of the Canadarm3 robotics system for Lunar Gateway Berlin-based LiveEO raised a $27M Series B for their EO data analysis tools After six months of effort, NASA revived the SHERLOC instrument on the Perserverance rover by shaking the stuck dust cover that was preventing data collection.

The cover for the Autofocus and Context Imager on the SHERLOC instrument aboard Perseverance is now moving after being stuck for six months, as captured by the rover’s Mastcam-Z instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Support Us› Orbital Index is made possible by readers like you. If you appreciate our writing, please support us with a monthly membership!


NASA astronauts training for lunar surface work at night with a bright spotlight on a ‘Sun cart’ to simulate the harsh, low angle sunlight at the Moon’s south pole.

© 2024 The Orbital Index. All rights reserved.

Powered by Hydejack v8.4.0