Issue No. 277

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 277 | Jul 10, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Ariane 6 at last. This week, ESA debuted the first flight of the long-awaited Ariane 6, Europe’s next-generation medium- to heavy-lift launch vehicle. While it reached orbit and released its satellites successfully, an anomaly with the re-ignition of the upper stage engines left the stage and a pair of small experimental reentry capsules in orbit. Originally slated for launch in 2020, the program’s delays have left ESA without a domestic rocket in this class for just over a year after the last flight of Ariane 5 (and with limited options for a significantly longer period). In its medium-lift ‘62’ configuration, which was the version that launched on Tuesday, the rocket can deliver 10 tons to LEO and 4.5 to GTO. The heavy-lift ‘64’ configuration adds two additional SRBs and can chuck 21.5 and 11.5 tons into the same orbits, with the specific use case of deploying two large GEO sats on the same launch. The rocket’s P120 SRBs are shared with Vega C with the goal of increasing production rates and bringing down costs. (However, Vega C is currently grounded due to an issue with the throat of its second-stage engine nozzle eroding—current plans have Vega C returning to flight in November.) This first mission for the new European workhorse carried 15 payloads, including Curie, a small sat from NASA that will look at radio bursts from solar events such as flares and CMEs, and the two reentry capsules, SpaceCase SC-X01 from Ariane Group and Nyx Bikini from The Exploration Company, that are now stuck in orbit with the upper stage. When Ariane 6 hits its planned production rate, possibly in 2026, it should launch 9-11 times per year, with a mix of government and private launches (including 18 launches pre-booked for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation). However, Ariane 6 might not be out of the woods quite yet; Ariane 5 had several failures early in its life, and just prior to this launch, Eumetsat pulled one of the EU’s flagship missions from launching on Ariane 6 in 2025MTG-S1 (an advanced, sounding weather satellite) will now launch on a Falcon 9. Unsurprisingly, people whose jobs rely on Ariane 6 (or other rockets from companies with names that don’t start with Space and end in X) say they aren't worried about Falcon 9 and Starship dominating the market—here at Orbital Index, we’ll stay independent and root for a plurality of launch options and declining costs per kg. 

 Ariane 6 takes of from Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: AFP

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SVOM. The Chinese and French Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) mission launched on a Long March 2C from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center a few weeks ago (unfortunately, once again, horrifyingly dropping a first stage with toxic hypergolic propellant on a populated area). The 930kg LEO observatory, in development since 2006, will study gamma-ray bursts, attempting to characterize these distant and incredibly powerful (but typically brief) eruptions of energy. Gamma-ray bursts aren’t fully understood and may, in fact, be multiple types of events. Some, at least, are thought to be due to extremely massive, rapidly rotating stars collapsing into black holes with their directed jets of energy happening to point at Earth. Onboard SVOM are four instruments, two each from France and China: ECLAIRs (X-rays and gamma rays between 4 to 250 keV), MXT (soft X-rays between 0.2 and 10keV), GRM (15 keV to 5000 keV), and the visible light VT to provide comparison at visible wavelengths. SVOM could detect 70-80 bursts each year.

SVOM launching on its Long March 2C from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

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News in brief. NASA selected SpaceX to launch the deminutive Compton Spectrometer and Imager gamma-ray telescope (< 1 ton) to a rare, high-energy equatorial orbit which avoids radiation interference from the South Atlantic Anomaly InSpacePropulsion Technologies raised a €2M pre-seed round to develop spacecraft propulsion systems that use non-toxic ‘green’ propellant Russia plans to develop the four-module core of their new space station by 2030 (we’ll believe it when we see it) South Korean launch startup Innospace went public on the Korean market but had shares drop by 20% Orbit Fab, a Colorado-based in-orbit satellite refueling startup, successfully ground-tested their GRIP fueling nozzle for satellite docking and propellant transfer Botswana is working with Endurosat to build their first satellite (named Botsat-1) that will carry a hyperspectral instrument Blue Origin and Stoke Space joined the Space Force’s approved pool of 10 existing vendors for small orbital launches (though neither has launched yet) Chinese satellite manufacturer MinoSpace raised $137M to continue building satellites for national and commercial missions Italian rocket builder Sidereus Space Dynamics completed the first integrated static fire test of their small single-stage EOS rocket Kazakhstan joined China’s ILRS moon base program Blue Origin (who plans to launch New Glenn at Cape Canaveral this year) voiced numerous concerns about the future environmental and operational impacts of Starship launches from the Cape, suggesting limiting the number of allowed launches from Florida—Elon called them ‘Sue Origin’ yet again Two out of three of the spy satellites in Germany’s SARash constellation appear to have failed in orbit (after launching six months ago) due to stuck, undeployed antennas Polaris Dawn might launch at the end of July and will carry four commercial astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon to an altitude of 1,400 km (higher than any human has gone since the last Apollo mission in 1972) and perform a first commercial space walk by temporarily depressurizing the capsule Firefly launched 8 cubesats from NASA’s CSLI aboard their Alpha rocket’s fifth flight (the company is also working on a reusable rocket).

Firefly’s Alpha rocket amongst firework celebrations for US Independence Day. Credit: Shawn McCormick


“They're a little cagey about exactly where the crossover point lies relative to the likelihood of devastating effects on the planet.”  XKCD 2878

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