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Good morning. Mind still stuck on The Slap? Let’s restore your faith in humanity and refocus your attention on the stuff that matters:

Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov yesterday handed over “the keys” to the (ISS) ship yesterday. As he passed off the proverbial baton to NASA’s Thomas Marshburn, the new commander,  Shkaplerov said: “People have problems on Earth. On orbit we are one crew.” We’re not crying, you are. 

Shkaplerov, fellow cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, and American spaceflight record-setter Mark Vande Hei touched down safely in Kazakhstan just over an hour ago.

In today’s newsletter…
🌎 Mercury thrusters
🚀 $VORB’s 2021
🛰️ European gold medalist
💸 The term sheet

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  The UN Bans Mercury Satellite Propellants

In a victory for NGOs and activists who have been pushing for more environmental accountability in space, the UN has adopted a provision that will ban the use of mercury as a satellite propellant. 

The UN provision: On Saturday, the UN added satellite propulsion to a long list of banned use cases for mercury under the Minamata Convention on Mercury, of which the US was the first signatory. 137 countries around the world have committed to the Minamata Convention, and the responsibility falls on those individual governments to enforce the ban.

Flash back: In 2018, the NGO Public Employees for Environmental Protection (PEER) received a whistleblower complaint that a Silicon Valley startup was building satellite propulsion systems powered by mercury. The whistleblower worried these systems would discharge mercury into the upper atmosphere, which would then make its way back down to Earth.

PEER took it upon itself to file a complaint with the FCC, requesting that the agency conduct a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review of any planned satellites. 

  • There are still ongoing legal battles that stemmed from that request, including a lawsuit between Viasat and SpaceX over the brightness of Starlink satellites in the night sky (among other things). 
  • The FCC has not committed to conducting NEPA reviews for planned satellite constellations.

Why mercury? “Mercury is cheap and plentiful, and it has a lot of things to attract it as a fuel source, so long as you don’t have to worry about the environmental effects of it,” Kevin Bell, staff counsel at PEER, told Payload. While mercury may be useful for propulsion, as Bell put it in his viral Twitter thread about the legal battle…“it’s also a powerful bioaccumulative neurotoxin!” Not great.

Apollo Fusion, which planned on using mercury propulsion in 2018, was likely drawn to the cheapness and effectiveness of the chemical. The space startup was in the process of selling its thrusters to megaconstellations and had signed at least one contract with a potential customer. 

Perhaps proponents of the mercury system assumed that firing mercury thrusters outside of the atmosphere wouldn’t have impacts on our planet’s environment. Scientists say that isn’t true: that mercury propellant would fall back to earth, and an estimated 75% of it would be deposited into the oceans.In the ocean, mercury “gets uptaken by krill and plankton and fish, and all that ends up working its way up the food chain,” Bell said.

There aren’t any mercury thrusters in orbit for now, as far as we know. This week’s announcement from the UN intends to keep it that way.

Taking Home the Gold

Vyoma's offering, in a nutshell
Vyoma’s offering, in a nutshell

Last week, Vyoma Space won the Startup Space pitch competition at Satellite 2022. Dr. Luisa Buinhas, a cofounder of Vyoma and space systems engineer, delivered the winning pitch. Payload wasn’t able to catch up with her on-site, but we spoke with Dr. Stefan Frey, an astrodynamics specialist and fellow Vyoma cofounder. 

Vyoma 101: Incubated within the ESA, the European startup is developing an orbital warning system that will run on space telescopes and accompanying suite of software.

Quick hits, c/o Dr. Frey

  1. Return to algebra class: Space debris follow a logarithmic distribution, Frey said: “There’s ~35,000 objects down to 10 cm, but up to 1M objects already of size 1 cm and bigger.”
  2. Rein in key orbits of concern: “Everything above 500 to, let’s say, 700 km.” 500–600km is a key orbit for Earth observation, Frey noted, where defunct spacecraft will remain for a couple years (or decades, max). 
  3. Rise up to higher regimes: At 700–800 km, “you enter the regime where objects are going to stick around for 200 or 300 years.”
  4. Responsible stewards: “Operators in GEO behave quite well because they know that if they pollute their own segment, which is a stationary orbit, they won’t be able to launch there anymore.”
  5. Rules of the road: “We have mitigation guidelines, but they’re only guidelines. This discussion has been stuck at the UN level for decades.” 

+ Want more? On the “valley of death,” how Vyoma’s space awareness stack differs from that of Privateer, and how to train space-facing AI eyes? Great–keep your 👀 peeled tomorrow. We’ll drop the link to the full Q&A in Thursday’s newsletter. 

  Virgin Orbit Reports FY 2021 Financial Results

Via Vorgin Orbit
Via Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit (NASDAQ:VORB) lost $157M in 2021 on $7.4M in revenue, the company said yesterday. $VORB finished the day up 8.4%. 

KPIs at a glance: 

  1. Adj. EBITDA: -$140M (vs. -$158M in 2020)
  2. Cash on hand: $194M
  3. Backlog: $575M, 26% of which is covered by binding agreements, and good for a 500% YoY increase. 

Context: This is the first time the air-based launcher has reported financial results since its Dec. de-SPAC. Virgin raised $228M through said merger. 

  • Back then, we wrote the proceeds “fall well short of what Virgin Orbit and sponsors were expecting to raise from shareholders (up to $483M, with only $100M in PIPE funding).”
  • Virgin’s 2021 revenue was ~50% less than what it projected Virgin projected for the year in its SPAC investor deck.

Bottom (and top) line

Payload readers need no reminder, but we’ll say it anyway: Launch is a business with razor-thin margins and ultra-slim odds of success. As Ars Technica’s Eric Berger put it…“Not great financial numbers for Virgin Orbit, which has an actual functioning rocket and an excellent record.” 

Launch is a tough nut to crack, but Virgin Orbit is part of a small and prestigious club of private space players. While quarter-to-quarter financial reporting isn’t the end all be all for rocket makers, it’s not nothing. It’s what space newsletter writers rely on. As Virgin expands its launch footprint globally and continues scaling up operations in 2022, we’ll be watching to see how (or if) the company can move the needle on its top and bottom lines.

In Other News

  • China’s new Long March 6A rocket conducted its maiden flight successfully from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, deploying two satellites to orbit.
  • The UN adopted a provision to ban mercury as a satellite propellant.
  • Australia has earmarked $38.5M AUD ($28.9M) in annual spend to fund its first national space mission. The land down under plans to launch four EO satellites.
  • Uhhhh NBD…Astrophotographer Sebastian Voltmer managed to capture an image…from Earth…of NASA’s Raja Chari and ESA’s Matthias Maurers mid-spacewalk at the ISS spacewalk. 
  • Steve Aoki invested in SpaceX “six or seven” years ago through a private fund, the EDM heavyweight said on The Verge’s Decoder podcast. He also proffered that he’d love to do a collab record with Elon Musk.

The Term Sheet

  • Synspective raised a $100M Series B, led by Sompo Japan Insurance, Nomura SPARX Investment, and Pavilion Capital Pte.
  • Pixxel, a hyperspectral imaging startup, raised a $25M Series A led by Radical Ventures (via Payload.) 
  • Impulse Space Propulsion raised a $20M seed round led by Founders Fund.
  • Hispasat acquired AXESS Networks for $96M.
  • Neuraspace raised €2.5M ($2.7M) from Armilar Venture Partners.

Payload Insights (x2): NASA funding

Above, we’re visually representing the breakdown in NASA funding in Pres. Biden’s budget FY 23 proposal. Below, see how how the proposal’s funding for key directorates (and select programs) stacks up against the 2022 enacted budget:

Data via the Planetary Society
Data via the Planetary Society