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(17 December 2020 – ESA) Solar Orbiter is getting ready for the first of many gravity assist flybys of Venus on 27 December, to start bringing it closer to the Sun and tilting its orbit in order to observe our star from different perspectives.

Closest approach will take place at 12:39 UTC (13:39 CET) on 27 December, and will see the spacecraft fly some 7 500 km from the Venus cloud tops. Later flybys, from 2025, will see much closer encounters of just a few hundred kilometres.

Artist’s impression of Solar Orbiter making a flyby at Venus. (courtesy: ESA/ATG medialab)

During the upcoming flyby several in-situ science instruments – MAG, RPW and some sensors of EPD – will be switched on to record the magnetic, plasma and particle environment around the spacecraft as it encounters Venus. (It is not possible to take images of Venus during the flyby because the spacecraft must remain facing the Sun.)

In order to properly line up for the flyby, specialists from ESA’s ground stations and flight dynamics teams conducted a so-called ‘Delta-DOR’ campaign, using an advanced technique – Delta-Differential One-Way Ranging – to precisely determine the spacecraft’s position in space, and its trajectory.

In Delta-DOR, a set of widely separated ground stations on Earth are used to receive the spacecraft’s radio signals, giving a first result for its location. Then, this result is compared to locations of known stellar radio sources previously mapped by other missions, resulting in a corrected and ultra-precise final plot. The Delta-DOR technique allows operators to determine where a spacecraft is to within a few hundred metres, even at a distance of 100 million km.

Today, 17 December, Solar Orbiter is 235 million kilometres from Earth, and about 10.5 million from Venus. It takes about 13 minutes for signals to travel to (or from) the spacecraft.

Solar Orbiter’s path around the Sun has been chosen to be ‘in resonance’ with Venus, which means that it will return to the planet’s vicinity every few orbits and can again use the planet’s gravity to alter or tilt its orbit. The next encounter will be in August 2021, which is also within a few days of BepiColombo’s next Venus gravity assist. Initially Solar Orbiter will be confined to the same plane as the planets, but each encounter of Venus will increase its orbital inclination. By 2025 it will make its first solar pass at 17º inclination, increasing to 33º by the end of the decade, bringing even more of the polar regions into direct view. This will result in the spacecraft being able to take the first ever images of the Sun’s polar regions, crucial for understanding how the Sun ‘works’, for investigating the Sun-Earth connection and how we can better predict periods of stormy space weather.

Solar Orbiter is a space mission of international collaboration between ESA and NASA.

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NASA CubeSat to demonstrate water-fueled moves in space

NASA CubeSat to demonstrate water fueled moves in space

(19 January 2021 – NASA Ames) A NASA CubeSat will launch into low-Earth orbit to demonstrate a new type of propulsion system.

Carrying a pint of liquid water as fuel, the system will split the water into hydrogen and oxygen in space and burn them in a tiny rocket engine for thrust.

NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator, or PTD, series of missions demonstrates novel CubeSat technologies in low-Earth orbit, providing significant enhancements to the performance of these small and effective spacecraft. The first mission of the series, PTD-1, is slated to launch this month aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter-1 mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Illustration of Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator-1 spacecraft, demonstrating a water-based propulsion system in low-Earth orbit. (courtesy: NASA)

nasa 7

This Hydros hardware unit is a water-based propulsion system, sized for CubeSats. The system uses electricity to produce gas propellants – hydrogen and oxygen – from liquid water and burns these gases in a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. This technology will be demonstrated in space during NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator-1 mission. Hydros was developed by Tethers Unlimited, Inc., in Bothell, Washington. (courtesy: Tethers Unlimited Inc./Mason Freedman)

“We have a driving need for small spacecraft propulsion systems,” said David Mayer, PTD-1 project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “The need is for many reasons: to reach a destination, maintain orbit, maneuver around other objects in space, or hasten de-orbit, helping spacecraft at end-of-life, to be good stewards of an increasingly cluttered space environment.”

This addresses a major concern, as spacecraft can become orbital debris at the end of their missions. The longer defunct spacecraft stay in orbit, the greater chance of spacecraft-to-spacecraft collision, creating more debris.

Water as Fuel

The choice of fuel used in spacecraft propulsion systems can come with serious safety precautions. Traditional, high-performance fuels pose risks, including toxicity, flammability, and volatility. The use of such rocket fuels for in-space propulsion systems require extensive safety measures, and this drives up mission cost.

“To make these propulsion systems feasible for CubeSats, good propulsive performance needs to be balanced by safety,” said Mayer. “PTD-1 will meet this need with the first demonstration of a water-based electrolysis spacecraft propulsion system in space.”

PTD-1’s propulsion system will produce gas propellants – a mix of hydrogen and oxygen – from water, only when activated in orbit. The system applies an electric current through water to chemically separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases, in a process called electrolysis. The CubeSat’s solar arrays harness energy from the Sun to supply the electric power needed to operate the miniature electrolysis system.

These gases are more energetic fuels than water; burning hydrogen and oxygen gas in a rocket nozzle generates more thrust than using “unsplit” liquid water as propellant. This strikes a better balance between performance and safety for spacecraft propulsion, meaning CubeSats will get more bang for the buck.

“What’s new is that this system uses water as the fuel in an energetic way, with an inherently safe system,” said Mayer. “This mission will show that we can use water electrolysis in a rocket engine in space – that’s pretty cool.”

Water is an inexpensive “green” resource for propulsion, non-toxic and stable. Green propellants like water are easier to handle, cheaper to obtain, and safer to integrate into spacecraft.

“We are disallowed from using high-performance propulsion systems in CubeSats because of the nature of how we launch these missions, namely by being attached to other spacecraft,” said Mayer.

Most CubeSats and other small spacecraft launch to space as secondary payloads, often riding to space alongside larger and more expensive payloads. The use of traditional “high-performance” rocket fuels for CubeSat propulsion systems are avoided because the onboard presence of such fuels would increase mission risk to other payloads and the launch vehicle. The inability to use these fuels limits performance for small spacecraft propulsion systems.

“Water is the safest rocket fuel I know of,” said Mayer.

A Low-Cost, Effective Propulsion System

The PTD-1 spacecraft is a 6-unit CubeSat, comparable in size to a shoebox. Its flight demonstration, lasting four to six months, will verify propulsion performance through programmed changes in spacecraft velocity and altitude executed by the water-fueled thrusters. The mission will show that this safe, low-cost, high-performance propulsion system works in space and will pave the way for operational small spacecraft missions.

Flight qualification and demonstration of this technology increases small spacecraft mobility and capability for use in future science and exploration missions. This technology could be applied in future deep-space missions using water resources found off Earth such as from comets or the Moon and Mars.

The propulsion system, named Hydros, was developed by Tethers Unlimited, Inc., in Bothell, Washington. This technology was initially developed under a NASA Small Business Innovation Research contract and then matured under a NASA Tipping Point partnership. The PTD spacecraft bus was developed by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., in Irvine, California. Tyvak is also performing payload integration and operations for the PTD-1 mission.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the PTD series. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland collaborates as the payload lead on the PTD-1 mission. The mission launches as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 35, funded by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The PTD mission is managed and funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology program within the NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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Orbsat launches SolarTrack, solar-powered GPS satellite tracking solution

Orbsat launches SolarTrack solar powered GPS satellite tracking solution

(19 January 2021 – Orbsat) Orbsat Corp, a global provider of communication solutions for connectivity to the world through next-generation satellite technology, today announced the launch of its solar powered satellite tracking device, the SolarTrack.

SolarTrack (courtesy: Orbsat)

SolarTrack is a compact, rugged, solar-powered GPS tracker designed for a wide array of Internet of Things (IoT) applications including tracking vehicles and the remote monitoring of assets and livestock such as horses and cattle in “off grid” areas. Powered by the sun, SolarTrack can provide constant communication with the Globalstar Low Earth Orbit satellite network, delivering near global tracking capabilities through a transmit only messaging function. SolarTrack is available for pre-orders now and will be available for shipment to customers in March 2021 with competitively priced hardware and unlimited messaging plans including mapping software.

SolarTrack features include:

  • Compact, ruggedized design measuring just 2.2in x 1.3 in (5.7cm x 3.2cm) and weighing only 1.4oz (40g)
  • Internal satellite, GPS, and Bluetooth antennas
  • Easy to install or mount on any asset
  • View location and movements online and stay informed with live alerts
  • Power-efficient, one-way, transmit only messaging function

“Advances in satellite-enabled technology combined with the expanded capabilities of existing constellations has unlocked new opportunities to provide remote monitoring and tracking solutions to customers around the globe. In response to market demand for reliable and cost-effective tracking solutions, we are pleased to introduce SolarTrack, our first Orbsat-branded tracker, combining a novel solar-powered charging system with a rugged, compact design,” said David Phipps, Chief Executive Officer of Orbsat. “We look forward to offering SolarTrack to our global customer base as an ideal new solution for many remote IoT and asset tracking applications where access to cellular networks is impractical or non-existent.”

About Orbsat

Orbsat provides services and solutions to fulfill the rapidly growing global demand for satellite-based voice, high-speed data, tracking and IoT connectivity services. Building upon its long-term experience providing government, commercial, military and individual consumers with Mobile Satellite Services, Orbsat is positioned to capitalize on the significant opportunities being created by global investments in new and upgraded satellite networks. Orbsat’s US and European based subsidiaries, Orbital Satcom and Global Telesat Communications, have provided global satellite connectivity solutions to more than 35,000 customers located in over 160 countries across the world.

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FAA issues commercial space Reentry Site Operator License to Space Florida

FAA issues commercial space Reentry Site Operator License to Space

(19 January 2021 – FAA) After completing an assessment of potential environmental impacts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Space Florida’s application for a commercial space Reentry Site Operator License (RSOL) at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) in Titusville, Fla.

(courtesy: Space Florida)

The FAA determined that no significant environmental impacts would result from operations at the site. The license, which was issued after the company met all safety and risk requirements, is valid for five years.

Space Florida is expanding the capabilities of the SLF to allow commercial space operators to horizontally land reentry vehicles. It anticipates up to one reentry in 2021, and increasing to up to six reentries annually by 2025. Each commercial space operator applying to reenter at the SLF will develop a separate environmental document to support its specific vehicle requirements. These documents will be subject to FAA approval and will be tiered from the recently completed environmental assessment.

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