Development of a space-based economy, space settlement, and space news
Space news and commentary
The following are recent presentations on space-related topics, mostly made to the monthly meetings of the North Houston chapter of the National Space Society. You can access the videos from a list, and subscribe to receive notifications of new videos for free at channel gstanley0 on YouTube.
Starship design: simplify, simplify, simplify. Eliminating consumables, also new hot staging. (YouTube video,28 minutes)
SpaceX continually rethinks design for practical space travel, including simplification by eliminating consumables, and redesigning stage separation. Consumables being eliminated include nitrogen, helium, hypergolic fuels, explosive bolts & cords, and solid rocket engines. Even SpaceX previously used toxic hypergolic propellants on the Falcon 9, for instance, for Merlin engine starts and small thrusters. One reason to eliminate all these consumables is the difficulty of obtaining them on Mars or other planets or moons. The goal is a rocket consistent with sustainable operations, simply filling up with LOX and methane which can be locally manufactured when refilling on Mars or elsewhere. Another reason is reducing complexity, which gets reflected in rocket weight, cost, and reliability, as well as the turnaround time for rapid re-use. The new hot staging system for stage separation is also included at the end of this video, duplicating a segment in the July, 2023 Monthly Space News.
Monthly Space News 2023/07: Starship hot staging; Euclid Space Telescope; Virgin Galactic;12 recent launches to space (YouTube video,18 minutes)
ESA's Euclid Space Telescope will study mysterious dark matter & dark energy, orbiting out by the James Webb Space Telescope. Missing 95% of the mass and energy in the universe is extremely annoying to scientists! Virgin Galactic made its first commercial flight, with another 800 passengers signed up. SpaceX is quitting the novel rotation method for stage separation, in favor of hot staging, where the second stage fires up its engines while the booster is still running. Musk says this will increase payload by 10% ! The solution will require shielding for the top of the booster, and adding an interstage section so stage 2 exhaust can escape. There were 12 launches to space since the last meeting, including the final launch of the Ariane-5 rocket.
Monthly Space News 2023/06: Blue Origin as 2nd Moon lander; Virgin Orbit gone; 19 recent launches to space (YouTube video,13 minutes)
Blue Origin was chosen by NASA for the second Moon lander, after SpaceX. Why Virgin Orbit is gone forever. Its assets were auctioned off. 19 recent launches to space.
Wood satellites! Finland vs Japan! Why? (YouTube video,7 minutes)
There is a space race between Finland and Japan for wooden satellites! Finland has the WISA woodsat, a cubesat more or less ready for launch, once approval is granted for its radio communications. It is sponsored by a Finnish plywood company, with involvement from numerous others, including the European Space Agency. Japan's LignoSat Space Wood Project is a joint effort between Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University, with some involvement by the Japanese space agency JAXA, and NASA. NASA was involved because there was a 10 month test of treated wood placed on the outside of the International Space Station. A report in May 2023 revealed that the wood experienced minimal decomposition or deformation, and that magnolia was best. A cubesat launch is expected by 2024. Advantages of wood are said to be that antennas could remain inside satellites, and that wood sounds more environmentally friendly. But the real impact could be longer term. If wood can withstand space conditions, we might grow trees in greenhouses on the Moon or Mars and use them for building material. The most encouraging thing is that pockets of people around the world are gearing up for humanity's expansion into space. They're thinking about how they could participate. Almost every industry would be involved, including forestry companies.
Fault management overview (emphasizing aerospace) (YouTube video,57 minutes)
An overview of fault management, emphasizing aerospace applications. Main activities include fault detection, fault isolation (diagnosis), fault mitigation, repair, and preventing recurrence. Major issues include signal processing to reduce the impact of noise, alarm/message/event filtering, user interfaces, test planning, and designing for adequate redundancy. Examples of fault detection for sensors and models of normal operation are given for single sensors, duplicate sensors, sensors linked by equations, models making predictions over time, and cluster analysis. Examples of diagnosis using abnormal operation models or data analysis include cause/effect models, fault signatures, general pattern matching by tools like neural nets, and rules. Examples of aerospace failures in fault management include the Hakuto-R lunar lander crash, and sensor problems with Boeing and Airbus airplanes.
Hakuto-R lunar lander crash: A failure in fault management (YouTube video,25 minutes)
Hakuto-R crashed while landing on the Moon April 25. The craft's fault diagnosis logic incorrectly decided its altimeter was wrong, because it wasn't expecting the sudden change in measured altitude above the ground when passing over a crater. While the original landing site was not in a crater, the landing location was changed late in the project to be in a crater. Simulations that might have exposed the incorrect fault diagnosis were not run for the new landing site. The craft thought it was still close to the ground, but was really 5 km above the landing site. So, it descended slowly until it ran out of fuel, and then fell 5 km to crash.
The crash represented a failure in fault management. The technical factors leading to this situation can mostly be traced back to inadequate design for redundancy of a key sensor, and failure to plan for what happened if it failed or was declared failed. With only 1 way to measure the crucial altitude, there was no way to cross check the reading, so it was too easily classified as failed. The threshold for failure classification by high rate of change was not appropriate when craters were present. No one checked if the threshold would be exceeded when flying over a crater edge to land there.
Once the altimeter was ignored, apparently inertial navigation was used as the backup. Using what the craft thought was the last "good" value for altitude (meaning, before reaching the crater) meant that it was wrong by 5 km. Unfortunately, inertial navigation accuracy drifts quickly without the altitude measurement, and also cannot recover from a bad estimate at any point, without correction by realistic altitude estimates. In control system terms, the system became unobservable, and control of the landing would eventually fail without observability. Almost any landing was doomed without a real measure of altitude, but especially so once such a huge error was made.
Alternative altitude estimates could and should have been used. For instance, another sensor. Or, using cruise missile technology, matching against pictures to determine the position over the surface, and available lunar topographic maps to estimate the altitude at that location.
Monthly Space News 2023/05: HAKUTO-R lunar lander; Jupiter moon mission; ISS end,(Starship separate) (YouTube video,10 minutes)
This month's space news covers (1) the crash of the private lunar lander HAKUTO-R; (2) the JUICE (Jupiter icy moons Explorer) launch; (3) what will happen to the International Space Station after its end of life in 2030. Also, the count of the recent launches to space (16). News and analysis about the April 20 Starship test, and also its innovative stage separation method, were split out into two other videos, not included here..
Starship test with the Super Heavy Booster, April, 2023: Description, problems, fixes coming (YouTube video,18 minutes)
This video describes the first test integrating the Super Heavy Booster and the Starship upper stage, the most powerful rocket ever launched. This Starship test on April 20, 2023 was successful in proving out the launch infrastructure (except the launch pad), and the rocket systems and controls, until engine failures and their effects led to deliberate (automatic) termination. Starship passed through the max-Q point of maximum aerodynamic stress. This, as well as multiple unintended complete loops even while the Flight Termination System (FTS) was trying to destroy the rocket, proved the structural soundness.
Starship problems included: (1) Inadequate strength of the launch pad, especially without any flame trench/diverter; (2) The Flight Termination System (FTS) did not immediately destroy the fuel tanks or stop the booster thrust. It appeared to take about 40 seconds; (3) Engine failures, leading to inadequate lift and loss of thrust vector control, also making it impossible to test the innovative stage separation technique. The new stage separation technique using no hardware beyond clamps wasn't done. Solutions are already in progress to remedy these problems, including a heavy water cooled perforated steel plate providing water quenching of the launch pad, reduced engine firing before liftoff to reduce concrete damage, electrical thrust vector control, etc. While there was no evidence of significant environmental damage, nonetheless there is a lawsuit against the FAA to force a more complete environmental review, an attempt to stop the program for at least several years!
The original presentation included a discussion on Starship's innovative stage separation technique requiring no hardware beyond interstage clamps. This was split off into a separate video, with references given. There was some confusion during the test, when people thought the tumbling rocket was starting the new stage separation maneuver. But that tumbling was due to loss of control, not a failure of the new maneuver, which wasn't attempted because it required booster engine shutoff (which didn't happen).
Starship's innovative stage separation, using no hardware besides clamps, illustrated (YouTube video, 11 minutes)
With Starship, SpaceX introduces a surprising yet simpler approach to separating the stages of rockets. Other than interstage clamps, no hardware is required. The method is based on giving the ship some rotation, releasing the interstage clamps, and letting physics do the rest. The maneuver only creates only a minor disturbance in the flight path of the upper stage, and this video shows why, using pictures rather than math. This fits in with a general engineering principle followed at SpaceX: eliminate anything you don't need. That's not only to reduce costs, but also to speed up design, speed up or eliminate refurbishment of reusable vehicles, and improve reliability. (The part that isn't there, can't fail.) There was some confusion during the April, 2023 Starship flight test, when people thought the tumbling rocket was starting the new stage separation maneuver. But that tumbling was due to loss of control, not a failure of the new maneuver, which wasn't attempted because it required booster engine shutoff (which didn't happen)..
Terran 1, including the methalox race to orbit and why, 3D printing, and what is the max q/dynamic pressure stress (YouTube video, 15 minutes)
The Terran 1 launch, with its implications for 3D printed rockets. Terran 1's failure to win the race for first to orbit for methalox (methane + liquid oxygen) propellants, and why methalox is becoming the liquid propellant of choice. Diving into the meaning of dynamic pressure and the "max q" point of maximum stress on rockets that the Terran-1 survived for its claim of partial success. Excerpted from Monthly Space News, April, 2023.
Orbital debris removal, a NASA study covering technology and cost/benefit analysis (YouTube video, 17 minutes)
Technology and conclusions from a recent NASA cost/benefit study for remediation of orbital debris, with an estimated breakeven time to recover the investment cost. Scenarios included removing the top 50 larger objects, and 100,000 pieces of small debris. For small debris, the most promising results were using ground or space based lasers to "nudge" debris by ablating it to slow it down and fall out of orbit. For larger debris, the most promising approaches were collision avoidance using either lasers or small rockets to nudge debris. A recycling approach to melt down and re-use the metals appeared promising, but it was felt the R&D effort was still high. Excerpted from the Monthly Space News, April, 2023.
Monthly Space News, April 1, 2023 (YouTube Video, 36 minutes)
This month's space news covers (1) the Terran 1 launch, with its implications for 3D printed rockets; (2), Terran 1's failure to win the race for first to orbit for methalox (methane + liquid oxygen) propellants, and why methalox is becoming the liquid propellant of choice.; (3), diving into the meaning of dynamic pressure and the "max q" point of maximum stress on rockets that the Terran-1 survived for its claim of partial success. Also, (4), orbital debris removal, including technology and conclusions from a recent NASA cost/benefit study for remediation. Also, Virgin Orbit is rapidly falling towards bankruptcy. The News also briefly reviews the 19 recent launches into space.
Mining and making solar panels on the Moon (Blue Origin & Lunar Resources): technology and implications (YouTube Video, 17 minutes)
Prompted by Blue Origin's announcement about manufacturing solar cells on the Moon, we discuss the implications for development on the Moon and beyond, and for space-based solar power. We review the technology for Moon mining via Molten Regolith Electrolysis used by both Blue Origin and Lunar Resources. The Lunar Resources lunar mining prototype landing in 2024 is covered, along with a general discussion of In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and its importance for expanding humanity into space. Excerpted from the Monthly Space News, 3/2023.
Monthly Space News, March 11, 2023 (YouTube Video, 32 minutes)
This month’s space news focuses on Moon mining, prompted by Blue Origin's announcement about manufacturing solar cells on the Moon. We discuss the implications for development on the Moon and beyond, and for space-based solar power. We review the technology for Moon mining via Molten Regolith Electrolysis used by both Blue Origin and Lunar Resources. The Lunar Resources lunar mining prototype landing in 2024 is covered, along with a general discussion of In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and its importance for expanding humanity into space. Also, updates on the effectiveness of DART (planetary defense); International Space Station (ISS) problems with leaking coolant from docked Russian craft (twice), as well as orbital crowding and how to fix that; Rocket Lab is abandoning recovery of boosters by net from a helicopter; The Chinese Mars rover appears to be dead, failing to survive a winter season. The News also briefly reviews the 12 recent launches to space.
New hope for asteroid mining - maybe with Victorian steampunk tech! (YouTube video, 35 minutes)
Interest and investment in asteroid mining is reviving, for both the "return to Earth" and the "use in space" cases. A history of earlier mining ventures and reasons for their failure are reviewed, especially Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries (DSI). The environment for asteroid mining is changing, with increased space activities, reduced launch costs, and more solid legal status. The main problems are economics and business models, with long payback times, along with mining technology and limited prospecting. Recent missions, including sample return, are increasing our knowledge of asteroids. One change is the realization that many asteroids are "rubble piles", so mining will differ from previous expectations of heavy machinery and drills. Plans and technology for new companies TransAstra and AstroForge are reviewed, showing radical differences in approach. TransAstra uses an automated "steam punk" approach both for propulsion and mining, gathering water from near earth asteroids to sell in space. It is funding itself with research grants and technology sales until mining revenue starts. AstroForge is bringing platinum group metals all the way back to Earth, and not planning on selling technology to others. The extraction technology is modern, ionizing atoms and sorting them. Both companies potentially have launches this year to demonstrate technology. This video is also included as a segment in the February 11, 2023 Monthly Space News.
Monthly Space News, February 11, 2023 (YouTube Video,44 minutes) (pdf slides)
This month’s space news covers NASA’s test of a Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine, the Starship wet-dress rehearsal (full fuel loading), the Starship Super Heavy booster static fire test, and a problem with the “Lunar Flashlight” that prevents achieving its desired orbit. Then it focuses on the renewed interest and investment in asteroid mining. See the description above for “New hope for asteroid mining... “, included in this news. It also quickly reviews the 20 recent launches to space
Orion and the 10 dwarfs (What happened to the 10 Artemis Moon launch secondary payloads?) (YouTube video, 6 minutes)
The Artemis 1 launch returned the uncrewed Orion test capsule successfully to Earth, and it is now being analyzed and scavenged for parts. But what about the 10 small secondary payloads? Artemis-1 might be called "Orion and the 10 dwarfs". The secondary missions ("rideshares") are reviewed, along with the failure of 4 to 6 of them..
Monthly Space News, January 7, 2023 (YouTube video, 15 minutes) pdf slides
The Artemis 1 launch returned the uncrewed Orion test capsule successfully to Earth. But what about the 10 small secondary payloads? The secondary missions ("rideshares") are reviewed, along with the failure of 4 to 6 of them. The Korean lunar orbiter launched August 4 arrived at lunar orbit after a slow, low-energy transfer. A pair of missions was sent to the Moon, also in a low-energy trajectory: NASA's lunar flashlight, and the Hakuto-R Mission which is a lunar lander by the private Japanese company ispace. The Soyuz attached to the International Space Station (ISS) leaked out all its coolant, apparently from a micrometeorite. It is not yet decided if ISS crews will attempt to land it, or if a new uncrewed Soyuz will be sent for an automated docking. 15 recent launches are reviewed. A slightly puzzling Starlink launch.
Monthly Space News 2022 Year end review (YouTube video, 32 minutes) , pdf slides
Year end review of space news in 2022. It was a record year for launches to space. Major progress in deep space included the James Webb Space Telescope, and in planetary defense (DART asteroid crash and funding for the NEO Surveyor). The Lucy asteroid mission overcome solar array problems. The Juno probe passed close to Europa. The Parker solar probe entered the Sun's corona multiple times. Mars events included the death of the Insight lander and India's Mars orbiter. The space race to presence on the Moon heated up with the CAPSTONE lunar launch; Artemis 1 lunar launch of SLS, Orion, and 10 cubesats; Korean lunar orbiter; Lunar flashlight; Hakuto-R Mission 1 private lunar lander containing the UAE rover, and announced speedups of the Chinese lunar program. Disruption from the Ukraine war had a major impact on commercial and military use of space, with increasing overlap between the two. In low Earth orbit, the International Space Station (ISS) life was extended despite age problems, and it was joined by completion of the Chinese space station phase 1. Large internet satellite constellations are growing, including Starlink and OneWeb, with Amazon's Kuiper starting to have a major impact before any launches. Other drivers of satellite constellations include new direct satellite service to ordinary cell phones, and commercial Earth observation satellites combining ubiquitous, frequent coverage and machine intelligence to automate analysis. Advances in enabling technologies included the inflatable heat shield and In Situ Resource Utilization, including published results on MOXIE's oxygen generation from the Martian atmosphere.
3D Printing for Construction on the Moon & Mars using autonomous robots (YouTube video, 8 minutes)
NASA has projects under way to study 3D printing for construction on the Moon and Mars using autonomous robots. This includes a recent grant specifically for construction on the Moon. Construction needs include landing pads, blast shields, roads, and habitats. We also review the status of the CHAPEA/Mars Dune Alpha project, a Mars analog (Mars base simulator). The habitat was constructed on Earth, by 3D printing using a variation of Portland cement mixed with crushed lava. Construction was completed, and numerous issues were identified. It seems unlikely that water-based cement would be used on the Moon or Mars. So, current work focuses on techniques involving melting regolith to some degree. This report is extracted from the December 10 Monthly Space News, so that people only interested in 3D printing for construction do not need to wade through other news.
Reverse thrust to speed up? Oh my, Oberth! (YouTube video, 15 minutes)
The Oberth effect, gravity assist (slingshot), and Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) concepts were illustrated in the Artemis 1 mission. It turns out that sometimes, to escape a planet's gravity, it's more efficient to first reverse thrust to slow down to dive towards the planet. This report is extracted from the December 10 Monthly Space News, so that people only interested in the unusual Artemis orbit and its energy-saving use of the Oberth effect, gravity assist, and so on, do not need to wade through other news.
Monthly Space News, December 10, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (29 minutes)
This month's Space News covers the Artemis 1 moon mission, its Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO), and its use of the Oberth effect and gravity assist ("slingshot"); delay in a separate lunar launch; newly-funded research on Moon/Mars construction using 3D printing by autonomous robots; progress on the Mars Dune Alpha/CHAPEA Mars base analog with its 3D printing; NEO Surveyor (space telescope to detect killer asteroids) is now a full project, the Chinese space station crew overlap with 6 onboard at once; and the 14 recent launches to space.
DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) for planetary defense -- status November, 2022 (YouTube video, 14 minutes)
DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) was a test of planetary defense against rogue asteroids threatening Earth. Launched in November, 2021 on a Falcon 9 rocket, the 1,100 pound craft deliberately crashed at 15,000 mph into the smaller asteroid of a binary asteroid pair on Sept. 26, 2022. The intent was to alter an asteroid's orbit, mainly measured by altering the orbital period of the smaller asteroid around the bigger one. The result was much better than expected - a reduction of 32 minutes out of a 12 hour period. This was thought due to the "pile of rubble" nature of the asteroid: As a collection of boulders held together by gravity, significant amounts of material were ejected, providing an extra "kick". The overall effect on the orbit of the asteroid pair will be assessed over the next few years, but our ability to hit and change the path of a distant asteroid has now been proven.
However, we still need to identify more asteroids that could threaten us to respond with a mission like DART. The NEO Surveyor (Near Earth Objects Surveyor) would do that, but it has never been fully approved or funded.
MOXIE: Generating O2 on Mars -- progress report (YouTube video, 10 minutes)
MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) generates oxygen from CO2 in the Martian atmosphere using electrolysis. This is a progress report. MOXIE is running tests intermittently onboard the Perseverance Mars rover. In 7 tests so far, MOXIE produced 99.6 % pure oxygen. When scaled up, this process could be used to generate oxygen for breathing or for rocket propellant. Longer term, electrolysis of water will also be needed, not only to get oxygen, but as a source of the hydrogen atoms needed to make hydrocarbons like the rocket fuel methane. But mining and processing Martian ice will be much more complex. A simpler process like MOXIE could be much more easily automated in the early stages of Martian exploration and settlement, even before humans arrive. This report is extracted from the November 12 Monthly Space News, so that people only interested in MOXIE don’t need to wade through other news.
Monthly Space News, November 12, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (30 minutes)
This month's Space News covers planetary defense (DART asteroid crash effectiveness update); MOXIE (Mars In-Situ oxygen generator results); Chinese Space Station Phase 1 completion; LOFTID inflatable heat shield test; Upcoming launch of a Japanese lunar lander, and the Lunar Flashlight using lasers to probe for ice in polar craters; Blue Origin finally delivers 2 engines for the Vulcan rocket; Falcon Heavy flies for the first time in over 3 years; 27 recent launches to space.
Monthly Space News, October 8, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (28 minutes)
This month's Space News covers planetary defense (DART crashing into an asteroid, and the NEO Surveyor); Juno's Europa flyby; India's Mars orbiter end of mission; LunaGrid lunar power by Astrobotic; Firefly Alpha rocket getting to orbit on their second try; Artemis 1 lunar launch delay; Blue Origin suborbital fight failure/emergency abort test; Astrobotic devours Masten Space Systems; 17 recent launches to space.
Monthly Space News, September 10, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (32 minutes)
This month's Space News covers NASA's Artemis 1 lunar launch delays, including discussion of the pros and cons of hydrogen propellant; an Artemis 1 secondary payload, the Near Earth Asteroid Scout with its solar sail; September's DART planetary defense test crashing into an asteroid; lunar space suits; space-based service coming to ordinary cell phones (sort of), and 11 recent launches to space The video also includes discussion on the status of rocket reusability.
Monthly Space News, August 13, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (42 minutes)
This month's Space News covers NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) including new participant Draper, delays including the VIPER lunar ice prospector, Astrobotic, and Intuitive Machines, and a bankruptcy by Masten; the upcoming Artemis 1 launch; continuing Russian noise about the International Space Station (ISS) signifying nothing; new plans for the NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return mission; Lucy the asteroid explorer is declared OK; another Blue Origin suborbital flight; new trash bag disposal for ISS; Astra abandoning their troubled rocket to build a bigger one instead; start of pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST); and a brief review of a record 25 launches to space during the last month. Some notable launches include a new module for the Chinese Space Station, a Korean mission to lunar orbit on a Falcon 9, and Starlink internet satellites launched surpassing 3,000.
Flags and footprints again? NASA Moon to Mars Workshop, June 28-29, 2022 (pdf) YouTubeVideo (59 minutes)
NASA held a Moon to Mars (M2M) Objectives Workshop in Houston, June 28-29, 2022. Companies, universities, and non-profits were invited based on responses to an objectives survey in May, 2022. This provides an overview of the workshop and issues of concern about M2M, as well as some spirited discussion It looks like the program goal is a "flags and footprints" human mission to Mars. This is a letdown from the more ambitious NASA 2019 goals which included "Going forward to the Moon to Stay", "quickly and sustainably", and "use the resources of the Moon to enable further exploration". The official NSS announcement of participation in the workshop also includes a link to the slides presented to NASA.
Monthly Space News, July 9, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (15 minutes)
This month's Space News covers the FAA approval of the SpaceX Starship launches from Boca Chica, TX, after completing 75 small hurdles; solutions to maintain the International Space Station (ISS) orbit if Russia leaves ISS, including the Cygnus cargo craft recent boosting, eliminating the dependence on Russian rocket engines to get Cygnus there, and Boeing Starliner when it goes into service; Redwire's optical crystal made in space and sold on Earth; the first Artemis launch, CAPSTONE, which will test the orbit of the future lunar Gateway; leaked NASA news that Artemis/Moon to Mars schedules and budgets are slipping; NASA Administrator Bill Nelson may finally be "playing the China card"; a full-scale ISS mockup is saved; the first full photographs from the James Webb space telescope are eagerly awaited; and a brief review of 15 launches to space during the last month.
Monthly Space News, June 11, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (21 minutes)
This month's Space News covers activity at the Chinese space station, the Boeing Starliner unmanned test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), minor damage to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA's badly-needed new competitive spacesuit rental contracts for both the ISS and the Artemis moon landings, the Nanoracks demo of metal cutting in orbit, an update to the solar cell latching problem for the Lucy asteroid mission, another Blue Origin suborbital flight, a new NASA study on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP - the new name for UFOs), a brief review of 10 recent launches to space, discussions including the economics favoring "rideshares" or SpaceX consolidated "Transporter" missions with space tugs, over smaller launches, and the scheduling difficulties for rideshares caused by delays such as the Psyche metallic asteroid mission delay.
Monthly Space News, May 14, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (21 minutes)
Winter is coming to the Mars northern hemisphere, affecting solar-powered surface craft with decreased light and increased dust. Steps are taken to conserve power for heating to survive the nights. The Ingenuity Mars helicopter temporarily lost contact with the Perseverance rover. China's Zhurong Mars rover operations are scaled back. The Insight lander (2018) is barely hanging on, but did detect the largest Marsquake so far, magnitude 5. DARPA's DRACO project is soliciting proposals for phases 2 & 3 to demonstrate a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) Rocket in orbit by 2026. The U.S. Space Force is seeking technologies and participation from small business and universities for its "Orbital Prime" program for space sustainability, starting with orbital debris cleanup. Scientists grew plants in lunar regolith for the first time. Seeds sprouted and grew, but were stressed and stunted. Plants did worse with surface regolith heavily exposed to micrometeorites, radiation, and solar wind. OneWeb launches will now include some from India. ESA continues re-planning missions after Russian cooperation ended. Ukraine claims 150,000 Starlink (satellite internet) users on 10,000 terminals. Rocket Lab caught a first stage booster with a helicopter and net, but dropped it. There were 18 launches to orbit since the last meeting, including 3 launches whose reporting was delayed.
Monthly Space News, April 9, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (26 minutes)
The James Webb Space Telescope mirror alignment is completed. Passive cooldown is also nearly complete. Commissioning is proceeding for 3 remaining instruments, with full startup still expected in June. The Space Launch System (SLS) was rolled out for a "wet dress rehearsal", where the cryogenic propellant tanks are filled. Problems arose with a vent valve, fans, and some overly-warm liquid O2. Testing will resume soon after the launch of the Axiom Space Ax-1 mission on the adjacent launch pad. The Ax-1 mission launched the first fully-private human flight to the International Space Station (ISS), setting a pattern for future private space station operations. The 10-day mission is controlled from Axiom HQ while at the ISS. ISS operations are normal despite some Russian bluster: A new crew was launched from Russia, and an American astronaut returned via Russian craft as planned.
OneWeb (satellite internet) future launches are now planned using competitor SpaceX rockets, replacing the Russian Soyuz rockets previously used. Amazon's Project Kuiper (to provide internet service via 3,236 satellites) contracted for up to 83 launches from everyone but SpaceX or Russia, in the largest commercial contracts ever. Launches will be split between the United Launch Alliance (ULA), Blue Origin, and Arianespace, all on rocket models that have never been launched yet, along with the 9 Atlas 5 launches previously contracted. This provides a lifeline to SpaceX competitors, and uses up about all the medium to heavy lift capacity for multiple years. This leaves SpaceX as the only source for those launches for several years at least, until new medium lift capacity arrives from Rocket Lab and Relativity Space. Inflation (and possibly an enviable market position) caused SpaceX to raise prices for both launches and Starlink (internet) service. Norwegian company KSAT is expanding their network of space communications antennas, adding larger antennas to support lunar missions, as another sign of expansion of lunar activities. Blue Origin had another 6-passenger suborbital launch. SpaceX will now exclusively use Raptor Version 2 engines for Starship testing, despite Elon Musk comments in February that they were still melting those engines at full thrust.
There were only 8 launches to orbit since the last meeting Mar. 12.
Monthly Space News, March 12, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (42 minutes) This month's Space News focuses on the impact of the Ukraine war on space programs worldwide, and a brief discussion on newly-revealed costs for the Space Launch System (SLS).
The Russian commercial space program is in crisis. Commercial relationships with the West (including Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) are broken short term, and will probably be untangled for the long term. This means a severe decline in Russia's commercial launch business as well as the sale of engines. India and the Middle East are more of an open question. As Russia is forced more into a client state of China, it will be the junior partner of China in joint projects such as their Lunar base. The Russian space program will probably fall back to mainly a military focus. Long term, sanctions will degrade even that, although the effectiveness of those sanctions remain to be seen, and depend on the extent of Chinese help.
The Ukrainian space industry was bigger than most think, but now devastated. They manufactured engines for Europe's Vega rockets. The first stage of the Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, which sends the Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS), was designed and built in the Ukraine, with a Russian engine.
Impact on U.S. government space programs is limited because of policy since 2014 to reduce dependence on Russia. The U.S. can deliver astronauts to ISS via SpaceX (and eventually Boeing) spacecraft. There are still 24 remaining Atlas rockets, which use the Russian RD-180 engine. But, the U.S. stockpiled enough engines. Newer rockets have "designed out" the Russian or Ukrainian engines, except for Antares. The Venera-D robotic mission to Venus is halted, but was only in the earliest stages. ISS is the biggest question. So far, cooperation is holding, with the exception of some tweet wars and a few on-board experiments. Russian modules and cargo ships provide thrusters needed to maintain the ISS orbit and maneuver to avoid collisions. The U.S. will soon test maneuvering using the Cygnus cargo freighter, though. The heightened tensions may lead to earlier termination of ISS.
The impact on the European Space Agency is more severe, since it manages commercial sales of Soyuz rocket launches, both at the ESA launch site in French Guiana and from several Russian launch sites. The 87 Russian staffers left Guiana, stopping the next 7 Soyuz launches there. Even French military satellites were launched on Soyuz rockets. There were at least a dozen Soyuz launches in the near future, now canceled. The ESA small Vega rockets depend on Ukrainian engines. The ExoMars joint ESA/Russia mission to send a rover to Mars in 2022 is stopped. The next launch window would be in 2024, and even that is now doubtful. The Spektr-RG space X-ray observatory was a joint Russian/German project already in use. The Russians turned it off, and said they would take it over.
Few companies or countries have much additional capacity to handle the canceled Soyuz launches. The clear winner will be SpaceX, and, to a lesser extent, Rocket Lab for small payloads. The Europeans will probably delay many missions until their new rockets are ready. Space-based internet service from Starlink competitors will be the most affected. All previous and planned launches of OneWeb satellites were on Soyuz. OneWeb will avoid SpaceX launches, since it competes with SpaceX Starlink. Starlink started internet service in Ukraine at their urgent request. Now SpaceX is prioritizing cyber defense, and overcoming the jamming it sees in Ukraine. A cyberattack stopped Viasat satellite internet for Ukraine and nearby countries. The rapidly-growing Earth observation satellite business is getting a boost. Secrecy in peace or war is harder, and even the public is getting more access to high quality imagery. Ukraine, for instance, is now getting real-time satellite-based intelligence through a Canadian company. Space business is also subject to indirect effects of war and pandemics that all businesses experience. This includes competing for funds shifting into defense and energy infrastructure, and building shorter supply chains, as well as unexpected interruptions in supply chains.
The staggering costs of the first four Artemis (Moon program) launches were finally revealed, stated as unsustainable. The launches will each cost $4.1 billion dollars, not even counting previous development costs. The entire program from 2012-2025 will cost about $93 billion dollars. Newer technologies such as Starship or even the existing Falcon Heavy promise to be an order of magnitude cheaper with the orbital refueling now included in Artemis plans. But the former space shuttle contractor jobs program continues, driven by Congress with cost-plus contracts, creating no incentive to keep costs down. Politically, until Starship is really proven, it will be hard to change the current planning.
There were 13 launches to orbit since the last meeting Feb 12.
Monthly Space News February 12, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (31.5 minutes) This month's news includes a special focus on Space Based Solar Power (SBSP).
The James Webb Telescope (JWST) is now fully deployed, in a 6-month orbit around the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point. It continues to cool down, and calibration of the 18 primary mirrors has started. The fuel for maintaining its orbit should last for 20 years.
In a demonstration of the importance of paying attention to space weather, SpaceX lost 40 Starlink (internet) satellites out of 49 that it launched on February 3. A solar flare on January 30 launched plasma (ions), which started to arrive on February 2, causing a geomagnetic storm. The Earth's magnetic shield dumped the ion's energy into the upper atmosphere (visible as the Aurora Borealis), warming it and increasing its density. So, atmospheric drag increased by 50% at the Starlink initial orbit. The satellites were put in a "safe mode" to ride out the storm, but the atmospheric drag to was too much, so 40 of the satellites fell out of orbit and vaporized. These storms will increase with the normal 11 year solar cycle, peaking in 2025. More powerful storms are expected, including ones that could damage electrical circuits.
The Chinese Shijian-21 satellite grabbed a defunct Chinese satellite in geosynchronous orbit, moved it into a much higher "graveyard" orbit, and then returned. This demonstrated useful capabilities for space debris removal, comparable or possibly improving on similar U.S. satellites MEV-1 and MEV-2. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the ability to disable a satellite in a space war. A U.S. satellite approached a pair of Chinese satellites, which then moved away to avoid closeup inspection. This symptom of an ongoing "space cold war" is reminiscent of earlier cold wars including close encounters between submarines, planes, and ships. The Japanese company Astroscale paused a low earth orbit debris removal test due to an unspecified "anomaly".
An NSS press release congratulated Japan for its revised technology roadmap for space based solar power (SBSP), significant mainly because of a firm commitment to testing power transmission from low earth orbit in 2025, and a 1 gigawatt commercial power satellite in the 2030's. The basics of SBSP were reviewed, along with benefits and barriers, especially costs. There are other ongoing projects by the US Naval research lab, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Caltech, the UK, and China.
There were 11 launches to orbit since the last meeting (January 8). There are now about 2,050 launched Starlink satellites, and 428 OneWeb satellites. With their recent "Transporter 3" mission launching 105 small satellites, SpaceX continues to threaten small rocket specialists like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit.
Monthly Space News and year end summary January 8, 2022 (pdf) YouTube video (42 minutes)
The James Webb Telescope (JWST) was launched December 25, as a successor 100x more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope located 1 million miles farther from Earth than the Hubble. The extremely complex unfolding was much higher risk than the launch. By the time of the meeting, deployment was nearly complete, and was completed Jan. 8. It appears that there will be enough fuel left that JWST should be able to maintain orbit for 10 years, not just the 5 promised. The Parker Solar Probe "touched the Sun", meaning it entered the Sun's corona. The goal is to improve solar modeling to better forecast solar wind events that endanger communications, satellites, and astronauts. Design for the high solar radiation included a thick heat shield and careful autonomous control. China announced advancing their lunar base schedule by 8 years, to 2027, reflecting an increasing emphasis on their space program and asserting some control over the Moon.
There were 12 launches since the last meeting (Dec 11). A review of launches in 2021 shows matching or exceeding all previous records for launches and successful launches. The US and China vie for the lead (China winning, with some uncertainty in the exact count), followed by Russia, and much smaller numbers for Europe and others.
2021 highlights included record numbers of space missions and satellites. 3 Mars missions arrived, including rovers from China and the US, and the US helicopter. Other major NASA achievements included taking samples from asteroid Bennu by OSIRIS-REX, the Parker Solar Probe, and major launches: Lucy (asteroid explorer), DART (planetary defense test), IXPE (X-ray explorer), and JWST. NASA also contracted for the Human Landing system for the Moon, and commercial space stations. The Chinese launched their space station and added a module. Russia added the Nauka science module to the International Space Station (ISS). Suborbital tourism started from both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. New companies reached orbit, including Astra and Virgin Orbit. The SpaceX Starship (upper stage) test landed successfully after many previous explosions. 2021 lowlights included more delays in the SLS rocket (Space Launch System), Boeing Starliner (crew capsule), the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine (affecting both their New Glenn rocket and the ULA Vulcan rocket), and delays in the Artemis Moon missions, partly due to Blue Origin legal maneuvers. A Russian ASAT (Anti-satellite) weapon test spread space debris, requiring the ISS to maneuver. The Chinese space station maneuvered to avoid some Starlink satellites. Aging modules at ISS threaten its reliability with cracks and leaks, first affecting the Russian-built modules that are the oldest part of ISS. The Russians accidentally fired thrusters, destabilizing the ISS -- twice! General trends in space include the rapid ascent of the Chinese space program, and the market lead of the SpaceX Falcon 9. Falcon 9 accounted for 31 of 51 US missions, all successful, and only required 2 new first stages, proving re-usability. New launch companies arose, including Rocket Lab with 6 launches. There is a rise of new companies providing services in space, just assuming launch costs will continue to get cheaper. The number of satellites continues to explode, including ever-smaller ones, now down to the size of a sandwich. That's 1/4 of a popular "cubesat" (4 inch cube).
Expectations for 2022 include more launches, with estimates of 150. There will be new competitors for rockets, if they all stay on schedule, including SpaceX Starship, SLS, Vega-C, Arian 6, H3, Terran 1, Vulcan, ... . Both the Chinese and Europeans will make progress on re-usable craft. There may be as many as 9 Moon missions if all stay on schedule, including multiple robotic landers. There will be increasing growth in commercialization and space-based services, especially in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Internet service from Starlink and OneWeb will mature. Space-based monitoring will grow substantially. Various companies can now answer questions like "how many cars park in Walmart parking lots each day?" with satellite imagery and analytics. In-orbit services will grow, including moving existing satellites, capturing and moving or de-orbiting space junk, and space tugs to deploy satellites into multiple orbits from large, low-cost launches. There will be increasing conflict over utilization of space, including the dominant space race between China and the US, both in orbit and to the Moon. There will be increased concern about space junk, avoiding collisions, and hardening satellite systems. The military will increasingly rely on commercial services.
Monthly Space News December 11, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (63 minutes)
NASA launched the DART mission to test planetary defense, altering the orbit of an asteroid by crashing into it. The data from this and other interplanetary missions arrives via the Deep Space Network run by JPL. The Russians destroyed one of their old 2-ton satellites with a ground based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile. This created over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris (over 4 inches), and potentially hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces. This will threaten all satellites and passing spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit between 190-680 miles. Some of this debris will burn up within 5 years (with orbital decay due to air friction), while the higher debris could stay for decades. The International Space Station (ISS) and some SpaceX Starlink satellites adjusted orbits to avoid immediate damage. This was another warning that Russia or others could make space dangerous or even inaccessible for significant periods of time.
NASA officially delayed the target for landing humans on the moon until at least 2025. While there was deserved blame on Blue Origin for its recent lawsuit, there are numerous other reasons. There was also a warning that the Chinese might get there first. NASA further locked into the troubled Space Launch System (SLS) with a $3.2B contract with Northrop Grumman to produce 6 more pairs of SLS solid booster rockets through 2031. NASA awarded funding for 3 commercial space station concepts to replace ISS. The teams are led by Nanoracks, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman. This is just for design work through 2025, unlike the $140M already awarded to Axiom to both design and build a detachable ISS module.
SpinLaunch ran their first test of launching small rockets by spinning them to supersonic speed in a vacuum-sealed centrifuge before release. This replaces the first stage, saving 75% on fuel, but a small simple conventional rocket is needed to achieve orbit. The test was a 20% low-power run on their 1/3 scale test launcher. Future testing will determine if this approach scales to overcome challenges such as high vibration and high g-force (10,000 g). This is for sturdy cargo up to 440 lbs., never for humans or other living things.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch Dec 22, delayed from its initial optimistic 2007. This is a much powerful telescope to replace the Hubble. It will operate much farther away from Earth at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point a million miles away, instead of the low Earth orbit of the Hubble.
There were 21 launches attempting orbit or beyond since the last news. In addition to launches mentioned above, this also included the third SpaceX crew launch to ISS, the start of a new "shell" of Starlink internet satellites, the first successful Astra test flight to orbit, and a 12-day tourist mission to the ISS.
Monthly Space News Nov 6, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (58 minutes)
China launched a second crew of 3 to their space station. Construction will continue through 2022 for the initial target of 3 modules. There is an upsurge in proposals for new space stations, driven by the aging of the International Space Station (ISS), and a new NASA program to partly fund private space station development. Major entrants include Axiom (previously funded for new ISS modules that can be detached later as a standalone station), Nanoracks/Lockheed Martin, and Blue Origin/Sierra Space/Boeing and others. The Blue Origin PR material makes the inside look like an Apple store without all the clutter, the opposite of the ISS. Russia made part of a movie at the ISS, and once again also rotated and destabilized ISS through errant thruster firing. Recent space tourism triggered debates on a false dichotomy between investing in space vs. fighting climate change. In reality, environmental monitoring and modeling depend heavily on satellite data, and the current and expected space benefits far outweigh the minor costs of space development. NASA's Lucy probe launched on a 12 year mission to explore 8 asteroids trapped at Lagrange points before and after Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. There is concern over a solar panel that didn't fully deploy. Lucy's complex trajectory includes 3 earth fly-bys for gravity assist. New controversy erupted over NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), the heavy lift rocket with a troubled budget and delayed schedule. Contract disputes to delay the Artemis (lunar) Human Landing System may finally be over, as a federal judge dismissed a Blue Origin lawsuit. A U.S. X-37B space plane landed after a record 780 days in orbit. The Chinese launched twice what was claimed to be a space plane test, but was probably a long-range hypersonic glider missile test, making a complete orbit. Space planes vs. hypersonic weapons were reviewed, with strategic implications of an unstoppable missile. The Chinese appear to be ahead of the U.S., having first deployed intermediate range hypersonic missiles in 2019. The Chinese also launched a new satellite allegedly testing space debris mitigation. But almost all mitigation of space debris can be used for military purposes - it's just a question of who defines what debris is. Russia, China, and the US have all tested anti-satellite weapons, because the military (especially the US) depends heavily on space-based assets. Brute force "kinetic weapons" are developed as a deterrent, but unlikely to be used except as a last resort because the resulting small debris imperils all satellites, friend or foe. EMP weapons have a similar problem of disabling friend or foe as well. The development emphasis now for the U.S. and China is on disabling satellites in place without creating debris, ideally with deniability. Future space wars are likely to be like the low-level cyberwarfare already going on, mostly hidden. Offensive and defensive tactics were reviewed. How to respond to attacks like a laser blinding a satellite, or threats implied by tailgating, are open strategy questions. There were 12 launches to orbit or beyond since the last news.
Monthly Space News October 2, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (25.5 minutes)
Serious all-private space tourism has now started, reaching Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The SpaceX Inspiration4 mission orbited 4 private citizens for 3 days, the first to orbit without government astronauts. This is consistent with the newer direction of NASA, having commercial interests run LEO operations. Interesting ISS (space station) experiments are under way for 3D printing with simulated lunar regolith (for future habitats), a space-rated robot arm (for future space construction), and others. There are now more biological experiments because new automated labs reduce astronaut workloads. New studies include the effects of microgravity and high radiation on muscle loss, bone loss, plant germination and growth (so we can achieve agriculture in space), the interactions of animals with their microbes supporting digestion and the immune system, and the effects on tardigrades. Tardigrades are unique, in that they can survive significant periods in outer space (1 degree above absolute zero temperature, 0 pressure, micro gravity, lack of O2, food and water, and 1000x the radiation compared to humans). We want to understand how they do this, for preserving medicine, food, and improving our own radiation resistance. The Artemis lunar landing program is again derailed, by a Blue Origin lawsuit complaining about awarding the HLS (Human Landing System) contract solely to SpaceX. NASA threw a bone to the losers in that competition, with $146M for loosely-defined studies for future landers. NASA is building a new Mars simulated habitat (an "analog") called CHAPEA. It includes a 1,700 sq. ft. 3D printed habitat. Each of 3 missions will have 4 crew members, starting in Fall 2022. Some previous Moon or Mars analogs were reviewed. Some other new facilities were described, including Mars Science City in Dubai, and SAM, by the University of Arizona, building on previous test facilities associated with Biosphere 2. There were 10 launches attempting to reach orbit in the last month.
Monthly Space News September 4, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (33.5 minutes)
Lunar news this month mostly was about impediments to NASA's Artemis program to get humans to the moon by 2024. The large rocket SLS (Space Launch System) test flight may slip until next year. A review of the $1B NASA program to develop a lunar space suit concluded it won't be ready in time. NASA will continue work, but also award a commercial contract for this in 2022. After losing the HLS (Human Landing System, for the Artemis program) contract and first protest, Blue Origin lawyers are again delaying HLS by suing NASA. In Mars news, the Perseverance rover failed to store its first rock sample. The second rock sample was successful. The rover has now driven 1.35 miles, and the Ingenuity helicopter being used as a scout has traveled 1.66 miles in 12 flights. The Chinese rover completed its primary 3 month mission, driving 0.55 miles. The NASA Curiosity rover has now been active for 9 years, driving 16.4 miles and climbing 1,073 feet up Mt. Sharp. It has returned some dramatic pictures of the local scenery, as well as returning extensive sample results. The Insight Mars lander has been active for 2.75 years, but is near the end of operations because of dust on its solar panels. Recent papers based on its data showed the Mars molten core is bigger than previously thought. An Earth-Mars solar conjunction will soon stop Mars communications for 2 weeks, halting rover operations. August brought two cargo deliveries to the ISS (International Space Station). There are significant differences between the SpaceX Cargo Dragon and the Northrop Grumman Cygnus capsule, including the sole ability of the Dragon to return cargo to Earth - a key ability for future manufacturing in space and many science experiments. The status of the Starlink internet service was reviewed. It now has 1,619 working satellites out of 4.408 approved. It has 100,000 beta test users in 12 countries, and 500,000 pre-orders. This is one of two SpaceX "bet the company" projects requiring large investment before significant revenue, the other being the Starship large rocket. All future Starlink satellites launched will now include laser crosslinks, reducing the number of needed ground stations. SpaceX is requesting revisions to its Gen2 next phase of 30,000 satellites. They will be bigger and more powerful, with more varied orbits. Blue Origin is protesting. When Starship is ready, it will launch 400 Starlink satellites at a time directly to the final orbits, vs. the 60 at lower orbits today with a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is still expecting 10x the revenue from Starlink as from the launch business, perhaps $30B/year. The main competition so far is OneWeb, with 288 satellites out of 648 planned, but that's mainly aimed at business users. But SpaceX is buying Swarm, which directly competes against Iridium for part of their business: the low-speed, low-power, low cost internet of things applications, at 1/4 to 1/20 the cost of Iridium service. Recent launches attempting to reach orbit in the last month were reviewed. Only 7 of 10 succeeded, with failures for Astra, Firefly, and the Indian space agency. COVID-19 is impacting launch schedules because it is causing a shortage of liquid oxygen (needed by hospitals) and liquid nitrogen (because liquid N2 trucks are carrying liquid O2 instead). The related global semiconductor shortage is also impacting space-related hardware manufacturing, such as the Starlink ground terminals.
Monthly Space News August 7, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (24 minutes)
Suborbital space tourism is now really started, with passenger launches by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, reaching 53.5 miles and 66.5 miles respectively. Both provided about 3 minutes of weightlessness. The Virgin Galactic space plane carried 4 passengers and 2 pilots. Virgin claims there are about 600 reservations at $200K - $250K per seat. New tickets are being sold, but the price has increased to $450K. Blue Origin launched 4 passengers, with no pilots required. Blue Origin claims there is a $100M backlog of tickets sold.
Russia delivered the Nauka Science Lab module to the International Space Station (ISS), the first large pressurized element since 2011. The launch also carried the 37 foot European Robot Arm, built 15 years ago. After docking, Nauka thrusters accidentally fired for 15 minutes, and rotated the ISS 1.5 times before control was re-established. This delayed the Boeing Starliner test launch, which then was delayed again when a valve problem was discovered. The GAO (Government Accountability Office) rejected an appeal from Blue Origin, so that the single-sourcing of the HLS (Human Landing System, taking astronauts between lunar orbit and the lunar surface) to SpaceX could resume. Robotic exploration of the moon is intensifying in 2022-2024: A lunar lander from Intuitive Machines will release a "hopper lander", essentially a drone to look for water in permanently shaded regions. Also, a joint venture between Helios and ispace will attempt to extract O2 and metals from lunar regolith. The Falcon Heavy rocket has now officially been chosen for the NASA Europa Clipper mission in 2024. There were 9 launches to orbit since last month. Notably, not one was launched from the US this time. We give an award for the most scenic launch site, to the Chinese Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
Monthly Space News July 10, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (34 minutes)
NASA announced 2 robotic missions to Venus around 2029, the first in 30 years, including a probe parachuting down to the surface. Goals include better understanding geological activity, how the atmosphere and possible past oceans became so hostile, and looking for phosphine which could be a biomarker for life in the clouds. The European Space Agency (ESA) is sending an orbiter in 2031 with similar goals. Rocket Lab is still planning a private mission to Venus in 2023, using their photon spacecraft which now has NASA contracts to go to both the Moon and Mars. The suborbital private space tourism market is heating up, with imminent launches by both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. A balloon from Space Perspective was recently tested, keeping it in the suborbital race, reaching a lower altitude but for a longer time period. The orbital space tourism market is still expanding, now with 4 Axiom missions to the International Space Station (ISS), and separate private missions flown by SpaceX for Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Relativity space announced a new, larger, reusable 3D printed rocket to compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9, even before its first launch of a smaller expendable 3D printed rocket this year. 3D printing is just one disruptive technology advancing the space industry. Other disruptive technologies have already reduced the cost of launch to Low Earth Orbit to 1% of the 1980 costs. In particular, SpaceX alone through reusable rockets has reduced the cost to orbit by 90%. Other disruptive technologies in use include ion engines, cubesats, space tugs, and future technologies like space solar power and nuclear thermal propulsion. All the technologies for transportation are necessary enablers, but many other new technologies will still be needed to succeed in space. Disruptive business models and regulatory frameworks are also changing things, including NASA's shift to buying services instead of just hardware, the Artemis accords, and in-orbit services. As a result of all these changes, the pace of technology iterations is increasing. Investment is pouring into space, because people see the analogy to the vast changes resulting from the rapid increase in computing power summarized as Moore's law in semiconductor chips. A brief review of the 15 orbital launches since the last meeting included the launch of 3 Chinese astronauts to their new space station, launch using a converted 54 year old Minuteman missile (the oldest rocket engine ever used), more OneWeb satellites to compete against the Starlink internet service, and several launches of rockets dropped from planes.
Monthly Space news, June 5, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (23 minutes)
The Chinese Mars mission finally sent its lander to the surface, releasing the 529 lb rover, while the orbiter continued its observation mission and relaying data. The US Mars mission ran more extreme altitude, distance, and speed tests for the Mars helicopter acting to scout ahead of the rover's path. At high speed, a software bug led to some control instability. Virgin Galactic test pilots flew the VSS Unity spacecraft to space, although not as high as the traditional Kármán line. The physical basis for the Karman definition of the edge of space is based on ability to achieve aerodynamic flight, ability to maintain a satellite in orbit, and large air temperature changes. 11 recent orbital launches were reviewed, including 4 batches of SpaceX Starlink internet satellites, and some internet competition from new OneWeb satellites. The Falcon/Cargo Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station was the first in 17 launches this year to use a new booster.
Monthly Space News, May 1, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (26 minutes) Perseverance, NASA's Mars rover, demonstrated the first in-situ resource use in space, proving that O2 can be extracted from the Martian CO2 atmosphere. It extracted enough O2 in an hour for 10 minutes of breathing. Otherwise, Perseverance mostly relayed data and video from the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The helicopter was very successful, with 4 test flights, and will continue working for at least another month. NASA selected SpaceX Starship as the sole lander for the "Human Landing System" in the Artemis Moon program. This was protested by the other vendors, so progress will be halted for an unknown time for litigation. The first Artemis program landing would still involve the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, and require Starship refueling in Earth orbit. Long term, this could hasten the end of SLS, Orion, and Gateway, so the political decisions may be a bigger hurdle than the technical ones. Astrobotic chose the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as the rocket for its 2023 lunar robotic mission. Blue Origin will start selling tickets for 10 minute suborbital rides starting May 5, following 15 successful tests out of 15. The New Glenn orbital rocket won't be available until late 2022. Northrup Grumman grabs another Intelsat satellite to extend its life with additional propulsion. The International Space Station (ISS) had a busy month, with crews arriving from both Russian and American launches, starting bartered trades of launch seats between Russia and the US. China still expects to land their Mars rover in mid-May. China launched the first module for its new space station, with 10 remaining launches for 2022 completion. China and Russia also formally invited other countries to join their Lunar Research Station. Bill Nelson is confirmed as NASA's next administrator. There were 10 orbital launches since the last meeting.
Monthly Space News, April 3, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (31 minutes) NASA's Perseverance Mars rover has completed initial self tests, analyzed some rocks by zapping them with lasers, and recorded sounds from Mars. A strange green rock has been analyzed, but not yet understood. Perseverance has been scouting out an airfield for Ingenuity, the helicopter it carries. Ingenuity is mainly a technology demo, gathering information for the next design. Benefits of a working helicopter include scouting, faster exploration, and reaching areas inaccessible to rovers or humans. Ingenuity was built quickly with all new technology, including open source software and commercial components like a cell phone processor. With an atmospheric density only 1% of earth, Ingenuity requires large blades spinning very rapidly. 2/3 of the rechargeable battery power is needed just to stay warm at night. Most of the Ingenuity commercial electronics are not radiation hardened. As a result, computations may be incorrect fairly frequently. Circuitry was added to detect problems, and reboot quickly in that case. Inertial navigation is used, coupled with solar tracking and use of a downward-facing camera to match locations with photos. An airfield has been selected based on aerial photos and the up-close inspection. Perseverance is currently deploying the helicopter. The first flight is planned for April 11. Space debris cleanup is getting more critical. Astroscale launched a test of a satellite for finding a dead satellite or rocket body, docking with it, and de-orbiting. The space industry is relieved that it seems space policy will likely remain essentially the same with the new administration, for the first time in 30 years. SpaceX Starship prototype SN11 blew up. Nine recent orbital launches were reviewed, including 216 satellites for internet service by SpaceX (Starlink) and OneWeb.
Monthly Space News, March 6, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (27.5 minutes) 3 robotic mars missions launched in July 2020 all arrived at Mars, after traveling over 300 million miles in 200 days. They were launched by the UAE, China, and the US during a favorable alignment window occurring every 26 months. The UAE and China missions went into orbit around Mars, while NASA's Perseverance Rover landed successfully in the Jezero crater/ancient river delta. The nuclear-powered Perseverance rover, about the size of a car, will drive autonomously to search for ancient life with cameras and multiple instruments, and cache samples on the surface for a future return mission. So far, the rover has been going through self tests, including flexing the robot arm and taking a short drive. The Ingenuity helicopter has not been released yet. There are currently 11 active missions at Mars, including orbiting satellites as well as rovers and a stationary lander. The asteroid Apophis flew close to Earth on Mar 5, and will fly within the orbits of geosynchronous satellites on its next visit in 2029. The government's Space Launch System (SLS), a troubled heavy lift vehicle, will be dropped from the 2024 mission to Europa, in favor of a "proven commercial heavy lift rocket", meaning the Falcon 9 Heavy. A luxury space hotel in orbit in the form of a rotating wheel to achieve artificial lunar gravity has been announced by Orbital Assembly Corporation. The company is actively looking for investors, and produced slick marketing materials. The CEO of Rocket Lab once said he would eat his hat if they ever moved to make their boosters reusable. Now that they are pursuing that, he did eat his hat during a meeting announcing a new, larger rocket, saying "This hat is not tasty". SpaceX continues to put on the best shows on earth, gathering a lot of data during rocket test launches, followed by large explosions: the Starship prototype SN10 blew up spectacularly 8 minutes after a completely successful suborbital test, taking off and landing back on the launch pad. Among the 7 orbital launches since the last meeting, it is now rare news that SpaceX lost a booster instead of recovering it. Just a few years ago, everyone was amazed it was even possible.
Monthly Space News, February 6, 2021 (pdf) YouTube video (31 minutes) NASA delays decision on Human Landing System. Delays are not unexpected in any organization under new management, but the 2024 NASA human Moon landing gets even less likely. NASA selects Firefly Aerospace in 6th CLPS award for payloads to the Moon. All 3 robotic missions to Mars (UAE, China, US) are still on track to arrive in February. Virgin Orbit with their hybrid plane/rocket launch system successfully delivers satellites to orbit. SpaceX launches record 143 satellites with one rocket, into sun-synchronous orbit. Organizing 143 satellites was helped by mission aggregators and space tugs. General issues with the expanding small satellite business, including launch vendor positioning and military strategy. What is a sun-synchronous orbit. Starlink now has 1,022 orbiting satellites, 10,000 customers, and now includes some polar orbits with laser crosslinks between satellites. SpaceX is converting 2 deepwater oil rigs into floating spaceports. Space tourism is taking off, with a charity mission in October, Axiom's tourists to the ISS in January, and yet another successful Blue Origin test. Venus life is looking much less likely. Starship SN9 test fails landing again. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News, January 9, 2021 (pdf) Chinese lunar sample return (Chang’e 5) update. Japanese Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return update, with lessons re-learned about our future space-based economy, including not to expect “space freighter captain” to be a real job. Offbeat news on ashes smuggled aboard the ISS for Star Trek’s Scotty, smuggling alcohol and food to space stations, and Space Force now as “guardians of the ... galaxy?”. Recent launches, and a scorecard on launches in 2020.
Monthly Space News, December 12, 2020 (pdf) Chinese lunar sample return (Chang’e 5) and the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) in general. Japanese Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return.. Arecibo observatory collapses. SpaceX Starship protoype SN8 test “puts a crater in the right spot”. SpaceX Starlink gets FCC subsidies over 10 years. Relativity Space raises money, becoming 2nd most valuable venture-backed company. Recent launches include everything from ISS astronauts and cargo, to large spy satellites, and communications satellites the size of a slice of bread.
Monthly Space News, November 7, 2020 (pdf) Asteroid Bennu sample collection by OSIRIS-REx. Other asteroid missions past and future.; SpaceX Starlink update. More water found on the Moon. NASA Tipping Point contract. Venus life might be a false alarm. ISS inhabited 20 years continuously. 7 nations joined Artemis accords. Blue Origin New Shepard test. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News, October 3, 2020 (pdf) NASA’s Artemis (Moon) plans and treaty issues. Venus might have life. Cubesat launching. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News, September 5, 2020 (pdf) SpaceX Starlink update, including use of barges, polar orbit launches and related history of the “most expensive cow in history” in Cuba. SpaceX Starship tests. US Department of Defense selection of primary rocket launch companies. Chinese lunar base plans. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News, August 1, 2020 (Powerpoint) 3 missions to Mars launched by UAE, China, US. Launch windows and Hohmann transfer orbits; miscellany. Recent launches. (Click on the animated gifs, especially for the Hohmann transfer orbits, or go to slide show mode)
Monthly Space News, July 11, 2020 (pdf) Delayed US Mars Perseverance mission to Mars preview. Starlink and OneWeb updates. Spaceship Neptune: To the stratosphere in a balloon. Zombie satellites return from the graveyard. NASA “Lunar Loo Challenge. “Eau de Space”. A noisy way to light birthday candles. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News, June 6, 2020 (pdf) Historic crewed launch to ISS on SpaceX Falcon 9/Crew Dragon. Serious re-usability shown in 8th Starlink launch. SpaceX Starship prototype SN4 explodes. Asteroid near miss. China announces space station in 2 years. Miscellany. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News May 2, 2020 (pdf) ISS (International Space Station) crew launch and return. NASA contracts for robotic lunar landings in 2021-2022 by Masten Space Systems, Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic. NASA funding for lunar Human Landing System by Blue Origin/Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman, Dynetics/Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. Starlink update on addressing astronomers concerns on satellite brightness. Recent launches.
Monthly Space News, April 4, 2020 (pdf) OneWeb launches 34 more communications satellites, then declares bankruptcy. SpaceX Starlink receives FCC license for 1 million user terminals, which are now a “UFO on a stick”. NASA selects SpaceX for transportation to Lunar Gateway (if it’s ever built). “Space Fence” for tracking satellites and space debris completed. COVID-19 impact. Recent launches
Other presentations on space-related topics
Presentations on specific topics related to the development of a space-based economy and settling in space are:
Biosphere 2 and closed ecological systems: systems biology for sustainable life outside earth, and a space settlement prototype 30 years ahead of its time (YouTube video or slides)
Biosphere 2 was constructed as a demonstration/test site for prototyping sealed life support systems to support future space colonization, and to better model how earth’s ecosystems work. 8 people were sealed in the 3.14 acre facility for 2 years starting in 1991. It holds the record as the world’s largest and longest-running closed environment test. The facility is still there and open to the public, although it is no longer sealed. The presentation Biosphere 2: A space settlement prototype 30 years ahead of its time (pdf) offers a retrospective on its unique contributions to understanding the complexities of sustaining life outside earth. The presentation was to the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) Annual Technical Symposium (Houston), October 24, 2020. There is a 30 minute YouTube video of the presentation. There also a video of the AIAA Biosphere 2 presentation on the Houston AIAA site, but security software often flags that site as unsafe, so it is best to view the YouTube version.
Lunar gateway orbit options
The “lunar gateway” has gone through various name changes over time. If it is built, it will be a small-scale, short term human habitat orbiting the moon (also called “cis-lunar space”). An overview of the issues in choosing an appropriate orbit is given in this Lunar gateway orbit options presentation (Powerpoint) from January, 2019. The presentation includes some animations. To see those, you may need to go into “slide show” mode.
SpaceX’s StarLink and other satellite-based internet services
StarLink is a satellite-based worldwide internet service being built by SpaceX. It was initially envisioned to be based on up to 12,000 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, although there is now an application to increase this to 30,000 satellites. By comparison, there were only about 5000 satellites in orbit at the time of the first launch. There are other competitors who also are launching large numbers of satellites in the race to provide space-based internet service. This StarLink presentation (Powerpoint) from June, 2019 provides an overview. The presentation includes some animations. To see those, you may need to go into “slide show” mode or click on the picture.