Apr 6, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: Russia's military space ambitions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Russia is staging shows of military might in orbit as its civil and commercial space sector loses its long-standing edge.

Why it matters: These demonstrations threaten to undermine responsible behavior in space and could put U.S. military — and possibly commercial — assets in orbit at risk.

  • The U.S., in particular, relies on space-based tools for situational awareness, communications, intelligence gathering and other key aspects of warfighting.

Driving the news: Russia has steadily been building its military capabilities in orbit, according to a pair of reports about space weapons released last week.

  • According to the reports — from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Secure World Foundation — Russia performed multiple tests of anti-satellite weapons in 2020.
  • One of the most notable was the nation's use of a satellite that appeared to fly close to a U.S. spy satellite before moving away and firing a projectile not far from another, unrelated Russian satellite.
  • Other nations, like China and India, have also tested their own military capabilities in orbit in the past years, including developing jamming technologies and anti-satellite missiles.

The big picture: Russia's capabilities aren't necessarily new, but the nation's most recent testing of its space weapons has some experts concerned that these types of tests will just inflame tensions in orbit.

  • "If you look at what's actually happening, the Russians have been extremely active, and much more so than I think even the Chinese have been," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told me.
  • Russia also seemingly has less to lose in space if these types of tests become the norm by comparison to a nation like the U.S., which relies more than any other country on expensive assets in orbit for warfighting.

The intrigue: Russia's space industry and civil space program have faced headwinds in recent years, from budget shortfalls to launch failures to competition from SpaceX and others.

  • And with the International Space Station program coming to an end in the coming years, Russia's close ties in space with the U.S. are fraying.

Military space operations appear to be the area where Russia is hoping to maintain its prestige, Samson added.

  • The nation is focusing many of its military efforts — including inspecting that U.S. spy satellite — in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the part of space where many commercial satellite constellations function.
  • "This kind of unusual behavior is more concerning, especially as the United States commercial industry looks to really invest and grow its presence in LEO," Kaitlyn Johnson of CSIS told me.

Yes, but: No nation has used destructive capabilities against their enemies in orbit, instead opting to test kinetic weapons on their own defunct satellites or in empty parts of space.

  • Countries likely won't use those capabilities unless they're at war and conflicts have escalated, instead opting for electronic means of jamming satellites or intercepting signals from enemy spacecraft, according to experts in space security.
  • The concern isn't necessarily that Russia or other nations will use military capabilities in orbit to start wars, but that these tools could be used once conflicts have already broken out on the ground.
  • "What happens in space reflects what's going on on the ground," Samson said. "So if there's increased potential for conflict in space, that wouldn't be happening independent of increased head-butting on the ground."
2. "Space Hero" wants to take us all to orbit

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The developers of the reality TV show "Space Hero" want to make space cool.

Why it matters: As spaceflight opportunities open up to more people who aren't professional astronauts, the space industry — which is largely insular and elite — will need to find ways to make space travel appealing to the public.

Catch up quick: The show, which is currently in pre-production, takes on a reality TV format with 24 contestants competing for the grand prize of a ticket aboard a ship bound for the International Space Station.

  • Those 24 contestants from all over the world will live in a "space village" during the filming of the show, which plans to feature space technologies developed by dozens of nations with space agencies.
  • The competition will focus on testing the participants' physical and mental strength in preparation for spaceflight.
  • "The drama that we will have in the space village is not going to be about the last piece of toilet paper and who kicks who out. This is a very different drama. The drama is in the realization of where you are," Thomas Reemer, a co-founder of the show, told me, adding that all 24 people in the village will have different reasons for applying.
  • "Space Hero" already has a ticket for its winner to fly aboard an Axiom Space mission expected to take flight in 2023.

The big picture: The people behind the show believe that having a high-profile reality TV competition with such a huge prize will show people what the space industry and space agencies can offer in a way that just flying astronauts couldn't.

  • "Let's make space cool. Let's make it sexy. Let's make it pop culture," "Space Hero" co-founder Deborah Sass told me.
  • "Let's make it mainstream so that everybody wants to get involved — not just a few that are super smart or super educated or super privileged. Let's make it available and accessible and engaging to everybody, and that's what mass media does."

What's next: "Space Hero" expects to go public with more of its vision for the show, and it plans to open up applications for contestants in the next six to eight months, Sass said.

  • Interested space fans can sign up to get information as it's available directly from "Space Hero" on its website by clicking the "become an insider" link at the bottom.
3. InSight feels Mars quake beneath it

InSight on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's InSight lander on Mars felt two relatively large quakes shake the Red Planet last month.

Why it matters: InSight uses these shakes on Mars — caused by volcanic activity — to learn more about the interior of the planet.

What they found: The two quakes, which were felt on March 7 and March 18, were magnitudes 3.3 and 3.1.

  • "It’s wonderful to once again observe marsquakes after a long period of recording wind noise," John Clinton, an InSight scientist, said in a statement. "One Martian year on, we are now much faster at characterizing seismic activity on the Red Planet."
  • The quakes seemed to come from a region called Cerberus Fossae, the same area where two other strong shakes were felt earlier in the mission.
  • The waves from all four of those relatively strong quakes traveled like quakes do on Earth — through the planet. Other shakes on Mars have been more like those seen on the Moon, which are more "scattered," according to NASA.

What's next: NASA extended InSight's mission on Mars by two years, to at least December 2022.

  • The lander will continue to listen for shakes on the planet, but the spacecraft's solar panels are covered in dust and its power is low, according to NASA.
  • The agency expects power levels to bounce back once the planet comes back toward the Sun, after July, but for now, mission managers are going to turn instruments off as needed to allow the lander to hibernate.
  • "The team hopes to keep the seismometer on for another month or two before it has to be temporarily turned off," NASA said in the statement.
4. Out of this world reading list

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

SpaceX identifies cause of Starship SN11 prototype's crash (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Numerica deploys telescopes to monitor space in broad daylight (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

SpaceX rocket debris lands on man’s farm in Washington (Joey Roulette, The Verge)

Companies race to design private space stations (Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: A little Martian helicopter

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity's time has come.

  • The little helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance is all set for its first flight, expected to occur as soon as this Sunday.
  • This photo, taken by Perseverance, shows Ingenuity next to some of the larger rover's tracks after detaching from its underbelly to set down on the Martian surface solo for the first time.
  • NASA hopes to use Ingenuity to prove out technology that could one day be used to explore other parts of the solar system by flying from one place on a planet's surface to another.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, David Nather and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🚁