Mar 28, 2019

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: NASA's moonshot whiplash
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Data: Office of Management and Budget; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The Trump administration's new goal of returning astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024 — 5 years earlier than planned — is a huge gamble with the prestige of the United States.

Why it matters: If the administration succeeds, this week could be remembered as the turning point that restored some of the space program's lost glory. But that's a big if, since the rockets and spacecraft are nowhere near ready.

In setting the 5-year timeline on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, gave stark instructions to an agency that strives to be both bold and risk-averse: "In order to succeed ... we must focus on the mission over the means."

  • Pence provided the agency with a possible destination on the lunar surface: the south pole.
  • Two things he didn't mention: Why the lunar south pole and whether NASA will get more money to do all of this. He did, however, say he'd work with Congress on getting the agency "the resources they need."

Reality check: The 2024 deadline will require NASA, Boeing and other commercial space companies to ramp up progress on a host of complex projects.

  • They'll have to either successfully build the largest, most powerful rocket NASA has ever made — known as the Space Launch System, or SLS — as well as an orbiting command post called the Lunar Gateway that would serve as the space-based launch point for lunar landing and deep space missions.
  • Or they could scrap those and go with another new rocket design.
  • They'll need a lander to get the astronauts onto the moon, too.
  • None are ready, but technology isn't an issue, experts say.

We just have to build and test the stuff — without a lot of time or money.

The numbers that matter: Earlier this month, the Trump administration sent a new NASA budget to Congress that requests $21.9 billion for the agency. That's a 2% cut for the agency as a whole compared to fiscal year 2019.

  • The budget does not include an overall 2024 moon landing program, though it includes a $360 million line item for developing a new lunar lander, which the administration hopes to grow to more than $2 billion by 2024.

The destination is a tantalizing scientific target, says Noah Petro, project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission at NASA.

  • NASA is eager to discover if they can use frozen water detected at the lunar south pole as source of power and fuel for a permanent lunar base or deep space mission.

"The farther humans venture into space, the more important it becomes to manufacture materials and products with local resources," Petro says.

The catch: Space historian Robert Pearlman tells Axios the White House's timetable will require NASA to alter its testing protocol for the new SLS rocket. Instead of testing each component separately, the agency may have to put the massive rocket together and test it on the launch pad as a unit or through an uncrewed mission.

Go deeper: What we can learn from a return to the moon

2. NASA's shifting priorities, thanks to POTUS
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Data: NASA, Space.com; Graphic: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The lunar landing by 2024 directive means that NASA now has a new top-level goal, which will affect everything from spending decisions to rocket testing protocols. It also means that yet again, a new administration has given the space agency new marching orders.

Background: NASA has been buffeted by changing priorities from administration to administration.

  • A poster child for this is NASA's Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon in 2020 and subsequently launch Mars missions.
  • The Obama administration canceled it after a blue-ribbon commission concluded the program had been chronically underfunded and needed a massive cash infusion.

Democratic administrations have tended to be more supportive of NASA's Earth science programs than their Republican counterparts.

  • For example, in his fiscal year 2020 budget request, President Trump proposed a cut of 8% for the Earth science division.
  • The Trump administration also proposed to eliminate funding for two Earth science satellite missions, including one deemed essential to climate scientists, known as CLARREO.

Context: The moon has never left NASA's sights even after Eugene Cernan boarded the last crew capsule to leave the lunar surface in 1972. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all maintained a return to the moon and then eventually deeper into space, including to Mars, as a target.

  • What's new is the timetable and complex technological components involved.

The bottom line: While Pence's speech may have caused heartburn for many NASA workers, it thrilled the spaceflight industry. Tommy Sanford, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, says the administration's new timetable is doable and will be beneficial for the pubic and private sectors.

  • “I think it’s quite feasible if it is done adequately and executed appropriately.”

Go deeper: NASA pushes its moon and Mars missions

3. Measles outbreaks will "certainly" surpass 2018
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Data: Adapted from a CDC chart; Chart: Axios Visuals

Measles cases in the U.S. this year are "certainly going to surpass those in 2018," mainly due to the lack of vaccination among certain groups, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), tells Axios.

Why it matters: The extremely contagious virus, which can cause serious complications like pneumonia, brain swelling and even death, requires a vaccination rate in a community to be 93–95% in order to prevent outbreaks.

"Whenever the level of vaccination gets below a certain level, you will get outbreaks."
— Anthony Fauci, NIAID director

Driving the news: Rockland County in New York sounded a national alarm when it declared a local state of emergency on Wednesday, with a directive barring unvaccinated children under 18 from countywide public spaces unless they are under 6 months or have a medical exemption.

  • The New York City suburb only had a 72.9% vaccination rate in those under 18. They're paying the price with 156 cases reported as of March 28.
  • John Lyon, spokesperson for Rockland County Executive Ed Day, says the directive is considered a Class B misdemeanor, which could result in up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.
  • "We don't want to put any people in jail, though. That's insane," Lyon tells Axios. But, he adds, they needed to take action after the outbreak had gone on for 6 months, and there was growing resistance to their efforts to track the whereabouts of infected people.
  • They are already seeing a large uptick in vaccinations since Wednesday morning, he reports.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows outbreaks taking place now in New York City, Washington State, Texas, Illinois and California.

Go deeper:

4. The Amazon could be a casualty of U.S.-China trade war
A time-lapse satellite view of deforestation in Brazil from 1984 to 2016. Images via EarthTime.

The U.S.-China trade war could result in a devastating increase in deforestation in the Amazon, according to a new commentary published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The commentary, by Richard Fuchs et. al, finds that the amount of land devoted to soybean production in Brazil could skyrocket by 39% as China looks for other import sources due to ongoing trade disputes with the U.S.

  • This could lead to the loss of up to 13 million hectares of Amazonian rainforest at a time when the new Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro is pushing for more agricultural development.

What they did: The authors used data from a UN Food and Agricultural Organization database to examine the flow of soybeans, a crop mainly used for animal feed.

Context: In 2018, the U.S. introduced tariffs of up to 25% on Chinese imported goods worth $250 billion. The Chinese government retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods, including soybeans.

  • This caused exports of U.S. soybeans to China to plummet in 2018, the authors state.

What they found: "We forecast that a surge of tropical deforestation could occur as a result of the fresh demand being placed on China’s other major suppliers to provide up to 37.6 million tonnes of the crop," the authors write.

  • They call the Amazon, a haven for biodiversity on a planet facing an extinction crisis as well as a major absorber of carbon, potentially "the greatest casualty of the US-China trade war."
  • As of late 2018, the authors write, 75% of China’s soybean imports came from Brazil — a new record — meaning the entire U.S. shortfall was substituted with Brazilian soybeans.

What they're saying: "The trade-war is a perfect example of the vulnerabilities in global agricultural trade, caused by national agendas," Fuchs tells Axios via email. "It highlights how a few big players ... can cause massive trade shocks and potential shifts in agricultural production."

  • "We urge the international community to find better protections schemes and greater efforts to fight this worrying trend," he says.

Our thought bubble, via Axios chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon: "Chinese demand for soy imports has been rising rapidly, and now Bolsonaro is openly advocating the deforestation of a large swath of Amazon rainforest. That combination alone could spell doom for one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. The US-China trade war can only exacerbate what was already a terrible situation."

5. Axios stories worthy of your time

Iceberg that broke off Jakobshavn Glacier into Disko Bay, Greenland, seen in 2017. Photo: Andrew Freedman

Cholera outbreak hits Mozambique following Cyclone Idai: Aid agencies are rushing to respond to public health threats in the wake of the Category 3 storm.

The Fed takes on climate change: The San Francisco Fed produced a report detailing the economic and monetary policy implications of global warming.

Modi says India shot down a satellite to join space "super league": India joined the small club of nations to shoot down a satellite, raising the stakes in space.

Ebola tops 1,000 cases in Congo, officials express concern: This outbreak is proving to be resistant to containment efforts.

The fastest-melting Greenland glacier has made a temporary U-turn: The Jakobshavn Glacier hit the brakes unexpectedly.

Experts: Eliminating TB is possible this generation, but funding is paramount: The U.S., the biggest contributor to the fight against TB, is cutting back its support.

6. What we're reading elsewhere

Red-eyed leaf frog. Photo: Kike Calvo/UIG via Getty Images

Amphibian apocalypse is twice as bad as scientists thought (Jason Bittel, Washington Post)

African elephants are evolving without tusks because of poaching (Caitlin O'Kane, CBS News)

FDA wants women to get breast-density information along with their mammograms (Laurie McGinley, Washington Post)

Why the sexes don’t feel pain the same way (Amber Dance, Nature News)

What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings (JoAnna Klein, NYT)

7. Something wondrous: The butterfly nebula

A nebula known as W40. The "wings" of the butterfly are giant bubbles of gas being blown from the inside out by massive stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope caught sight of an extraordinary star nursery that resembles a butterfly. Its official name does not hint at its otherworldly looks: It’s referred to as Westerhout 40, or W40.

The formation is a nebula, which is a large cloud of dust and gas in space where new stars tend to form. It’s located about 1,400 light-years from the Sun.

How it works: The hottest interstellar gases ejected from the innards of the largest stars are what comprise the butterfly’s wings, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

New stars form inside these giant clouds, where gravity can force material together to form dense clumps. Once they reach a particular density, these clumps allow for star formation, NASA says in a press release.

Radiation and winds emanating from the most massive stars in these clouds of hot gas and dust — combined with the material spewed into space when those stars eventually explode — can form bubbles like those seen in this image. But such emissions also emit the material in many directions, curtailing star formation.

Here’s how NASA describes the image’s details:

“The material that forms W40's wings was ejected from a dense cluster of stars that lies between the wings in the image. The hottest, most massive of these stars, W40 IRS 1a, lies near the center of the star cluster.”
“Another cluster of stars, named Serpens South, can be seen to the upper right of W40 in this image. Although both Serpens South and the cluster at the heart of W40 are young in astronomical terms (less than a few million years old), Serpens South is the younger of the two. Its stars are still embedded within their cloud but will someday break out to produce bubbles like those of W40.”
— NASA press release description of the image

The Spitzer image is actually the combination of four images taken with the telescope’s infrared array camera, detecting different wavelengths of infrared light.

  • Interstellar light excites organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and these become luminescent at wavelengths near 8.0 microns. This gives the nebula its reddish hues.
  • The youngest stars are surrounded by dusty disks of material, which glow yellow or red.

1 cool thing: The massive stars formed in this nebula are thought to be 10 times the density of the Sun or greater.

Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading, and see you back here next week!