Space Sunday: Debris, Artemis delays, SpaceX Plans

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Anyone  who follows news on space activities will be aware that on November 15th, Russia carried out the test of an anti-satellite(ASAT) missile system that resulted in the destruction of a defunct Soviet-era electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) satellite – and required the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) to move to their respective Earth return vehicles (Soyuz MS-19 and Crew Dragon Endurance) due to risk of being hit by the debris.

To be clear, ASAT systems are not new. The United States and Russia (/the Soviet Union) have between them spent decades developing and testing such systems (the last successful US test was in 2006, with both the USAF and USN having significant ASAT capabilities), and China and India have also demonstrated ASAT systems as deliberate demonstrations of force.

However, the November 15th test by Russia was somewhat different. Occupying a polar orbit at an average altitude of around 470 km, the 2.2 tonne Kosmos 1408 as both a substantial target risking a massive debris cloud, and routinely “passed over” the orbit of the ISS (ave 420 km), putting it at clear risk.  Nor did Russia give any forewarning of the test.

Instead, the US Space Command only became aware of what had happened after they tracked the missile launch all the way to impact – and then started tracking the cloud of debris. This presented no danger to the ISS in its first orbit, but tracking showed it was a very define threat to the station on its 2nd and 3rd orbits, prompting mission controllers to order the ISS crew to start shutting down non-essential operations and sealing-off hatches between the various science modules.

Some 15 minutes before the second pass of the debris field across the station’s orbit, controllers called the station to order the US / European astronauts in the “US section” of the station to secure all remaining hatches to minimise the risk of explosive decompression in the event of a hit, and evacuate to Crew Dragon Endurance both in case an emergency undock was required, and because it presented a significantly smaller target for any stray debris travelling at 28,000 km. The controllers also noted the Russia cosmonauts on the station were engaged in similar actions, and would be retiring to their Soyuz MS-19 vehicle.

In all, the crews were restricted to their Earth return vehicles for somewhere in the region of 3-3.5 hours before it was considered the most significant risk of and impacts had for the most part passed. Even so, it was not until November 17th that all hatches on the ISS were unsealed to allow normal operations to resume throughout all modules. Currently, NASA is still monitoring the situation and may postpone  a spacewalk planned for November 30th as a result of the debris risk.

Ironically, on November 11th, the ISS had to raise its orbit somewhat using the thrust from a docked Progress re-supply vehicle in order to completely remove the risk of debris from 2007 Chinese ASAT weapon test striking it, 14 years after the test.

In these images, Kosmos 1408 can be seen ringed on the left. The image on the right highlights some of the larger clumps and pieces of debris left after the kinetic “kill” by the Russian ASAT weapon. Credit: Numerica and Slingshot Aerospace

Following the test, Russia attempted to play down the risk, stating it posed “no threat” to other orbital vehicle, crewed or uncrewed – a less than accurate statement. Analysis of the debris cloud by both US Space Command and civilian debris tracking organisations reveals much of the cloud will remain a threat for the next several years – if not decades – as the convoluted nature of orbital mechanics and impact velocity gradually increases the cloud’s orbital altitude for a time as it continues to disperse, putting satellites in higher orbits at risk – particularly the likes of the SpaceX Starlink and the OneWeb constellations.

Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations. The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance manoeuvres.

– U.S. Army General James Dickinson, Space Command.

Some 1500 individual pieces of debris from the test are of a trackable size, with potentially tens of thousands more that are too small to be identified. Tim Flohrer, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office noted that the test means that debris avoidance manoeuvres made by satellites in the 400-500 km orbit range may increase by as much as 100% for the next couple of years before the threat is sufficiently dissipated. One of the biggest risks posed by this kind of action is the Kessler Effect (or Kessler Syndrome), wherein debris from one impact causes a second impact, generating more debris, and so setting off a chain reaction.

Given its size and orbit, there is simply no way Russia was unaware of the threat posed by Kosmos 1408 to low-orbit vehicles – particularly crewed vehicles and facilities – if the test was successful. As such, some have seen it as irresponsible due to the impact it could have on general orbital space operations, while others see it as a sign of aggressive intent on Vladimir Putin’s part.

Currently, Russia has not indicated as to whether this was a one-off incident (a previous test in 2020 missed its target), as has been the case in the US, Chinese and Indian tests, or if it could be a part of a wide series of tests. If the latter, then international relationships are liable to be further strained.

NASA OIG: No Moon Landing Before 2026

Following NASA’s indication that the first Artemis lunar laying won’t come “earlier” that 2025, the agency’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has thrown a bucket of realism over the entire project, pretty much confirming comments made in this blog concerning vehicle development timelines, whilst also questioning the sustainability of the programme.

Having carried out an extensive audit of the programme, OIG has issued a 73-page report which critiques the current Artemis programme and time frames, although it can only offer suggestions on what might be done, not instigated changes.

Artemis 3 mission (1): the OIG report outlines the first mission to return 2 humans to the Moon – Artemis 3 – as designed by NASA / SpaceX. This uses the SpaceX Starship HLS – which will now be supported by a SpaceX “fuel depot” (a modified Starship hull) sitting in Earth orbit, and frequently refuelled by between 4 and 8 additional Starship vehicles – and the Orion MPCV for transporting a crew of 4 forth and back between Earth and the Moon. Credit: NASA / NASA OIG

It terms of the development of the Human Landing System (HLS), required to get crews to / from the surface of the Moon, the report follows what has been noted in Space Sunday: the 4-year development time frame is simply unrealistic. In particular, the report notes that even in partnerships such as the Commercial Crew Programme, NASA tends to require around 8.5 years to develop a new spaceflight capability – more than double that allocated for HLS (in fact, NASA / SpaceX believed Crew Dragon could be developed and ready for operation in 6 years – it took 10). It also indicates that while a reliance on a single vehicle design / contractors (currently SpaceX) reduces costs, it also places further risk on the entire programme time fame and operations.

Further, the OIG report states that realistically, the first flight of the first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is unlikely to take place until mid-2022; somewhat later than NASA is still projecting (early 2022). It goes on to point of that given the delays on Artemis 1, it is unlikely that the Artemis 2 mission scheduled for 2023 and which will fly a crew around the Moon and back to Earth in a manner akin to Apollo 8 is unlikely to be ready until mid-2024, simply because NASA plan to re-use elements from the Artemis 1 Orion vehicle in the Artemis 2 Orion, and these will need a comprehensive post-flight examination and refurbishment.

Artemis 3 (2): The report shows the rendezvous with the HLS for the surface mission (2 crew), and leaps ahead to future missions and the establishment of the Lunar Gateway station. What is left unclear is whether the HLS vehicle will be reused (returning it to be refuelled) or simply abandoned (marking it as a waste). Credit: NASA / NASA OIG

Beyond this, the report also raises concerns whether the space suit required for lunar operations – the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) – will actually be ready for operations in 2025, issues in technical development, and in NASA flip-flopping between in-house and commercial contract development of the suit being pointed to as reasons for the delays.

The biggest critique in the report, however, is related to costs. The OIG report notes that at current levels of expenditure, Artemis will cost US $93 billion by 2025/26, with the first four Artemis SLS / Orion launches (Artemis 1 through 4) alone costing US $4.1 each – and this estimate does not include the development of the actual HLS system or the costs to launch / operate it.

NASA OIG estimates the Space Launch system will cost US $4.1 billion per launch for the 1st four flights, with total Artemis development and infrastructure costs (excluding HLS) being some US $93 billion by 2026. Credit: NASA

To reduce these costs, OIG suggests looking to alternate launch vehicles  to deliver crews to lunar orbit, but NASA management has already rejected such ideas and had refuted OIG’s cost analysis and call for most closely accounting for expenditure. However, it has accepted the report’s other concerns; although it will take time to see if this translates into any form of re-assessment of the programme as a whole.

SpaceX: No Starship Launch Before 2022

The Federal Aviation Administration has indicated it plans to publish the final version of its environmental assessment of the SpaceX Starbase facilities at Boca Chica, Texas, by December 31st, 2021. The final report will include an additional report by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, together with some 17,000 public comments both in favour and against the facilities, and plans to operate the massive Starship / Super Heavy launch system there.

Once completed, the report will pass for internal review by the FAA ahead of any actual launch licence for Starship / Super Heavy being granted, although if the environmental report is largely positive, then it is likely it will help ensure such a licence is awarded.

Starship 20 seen during the static fire test of its six Raptor engines on November 12th. Note the platform platform and support tower with its massive “chopsticks” catching arms, which are still currently being rigged for movement up and down the tower, and the finger of Booster 4 behind Starship 20. To the left, close to the crane, is the lower section of the partially dismantled Booster 3. Credit: Cosmic Perspectives

This means that the first Starship / Super Heavy launch attempt could come in around later January or February 2022 – with SpaceX CEO pushing for January. As I’ve previously noted in my SpaceX updates, this was always realistically going to be the case, simply because of the time frames involved in the production of the FAA report, and the amount of work required at Starbase in order for the first launch to take place.

Currently, however, the latter is getting close to being ready. The Starship vehicle – S20 – is assembled and has seen a series of successful propellant tanking exercises and static fire tests. Much of the work in preparing its lunch vehicle, Booster 4, has also been completed, up to and including the installation of all 29 Raptor engines. However, the vehicle still requires the installation of engine skirting and close-out panels around the expose guts of the Raptor motors to protect them from the flames of engine ignition. The booster will then require a static fire test of its motors, which in turn will require the completion of the launch platform and a testing of the sound suppression system.

Starship 20 and Booster 4 will attempt a near-complete orbit of the Earth, the booster powering its way back to a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico post-launch, and the Starship going onward around the Earth to re-enter the atmosphere over the Pacific to attempt a controlled descent and vertical splash-down off of Hawaii. However, Musk believes it is unlikely either / both aspects of the flight will be successful.

During a recent virtual presentation, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed the company plans to orbit a propellant depot, based on the Starship design, which will be used to re-fuel Starships for missions beyond Earth orbit following their launch, including Starship HLS, as indicated in the NASA OIG report mentioned above. Credit: SpacexVision

Beyond S20 / Booster 4, SpaceX is already pushing forward with completion of the second flight pair of Booster 5 and Starship 21, both of which incorporate further design / fabrication improvements, and the commencement of stacking of sections for Starship 22, and the arrival of ring segments of Booster 6. This all points to SpaceX looking to pick-up the cadence of vehicle fabrication in support of their testing and launch plans.

In this latter regard, Musk recently indicated that SpaceX plan to make 12 development orbital launch attempts in 2022, well over double the number allowed for Boca Chica in the current FAA environmental assessment report. As such, it is not clear if this is simply Musk throwing figures into the air, or whether it is indicative of the company planning to have their floating launch platforms available before the end of the year, or a combination of launch platform and the completion of Super Heavy launch facilities at Kennedy Space Centre. He has also indicated that ha sees all SpaceX being ready to start operational Starship / Super Heavy flights in 2023 – assuming they have the payload customers.