A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.
Jan 18, 2022

Axios Space

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1 big thing: Redefining NASA's astronaut corps

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA's next crewed missions to the Moon will need a larger, differently trained and multiskilled astronaut corps to deliver on the agency's ambitions.

Why it matters: NASA has plans to fly astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2025 and ultimately establish a long-term presence there. That goal requires a robust corps with new, specialized training in what it takes to live and work on the Moon — and NASA needs to start planning now.

Driving the news: NASA will need to grow the number of astronauts in its active corps in order to satisfy its requirements for lunar missions, according to a new report from NASA's Office of Inspector General.

  • At the moment, there are 44 astronauts that make up NASA's active astronaut corps, far lower than its peak of almost 150 in 2000 during the space shuttle program. The relatively small number is fine for current needs on the International Space Station, but it will have to grow in order to crew Artemis missions to the Moon.
  • The OIG also pointed out that NASA doesn't keep detailed demographic data on all of its astronauts — particularly those detailed to the space agency from military branches — making it hard to know whether NASA is meeting its diversity goals.
  • Training also needs to be updated to help prepare astronauts for Artemis missions — to make sure they're prepared to fly aboard a new vehicle and rocket, collect samples from the Moon, and perform various novel science experiments.

Yes, but: Experts caution that NASA shouldn't take on too many astronauts at any given time due to the risk of low morale caused by potentially long waits for flight assignments.

  • "It's demoralizing to sit around for 15 years waiting for a flight when that's a thing you've wanted to do since you're a kid, or the reason you gave up your high-paying job working for Lockheed or you got off your Ph.D., postdoc track at Cornell or left your military career," Michael Cassutt, an author and historian, told Axios.
  • NASA does have a process for determining who gets assigned to any given mission to the International Space Station, but the agency has yet to finalize a framework that will work for Moon mission assignments, which will have different scientific and engineering requirements.

Background: The astronaut corps has gone through a number of transformations since NASA was established.

  • The first astronauts were test pilots with military backgrounds and were entirely male and white. Eventually, the agency diversified its corps, recruiting some white women and people of color from a variety of backgrounds.
  • Some current astronauts have helped develop the Artemis program, but they may not be in a position to fly due to family needs, age or other concerns, space historian Robert Pearlman and editor of collectspace.com told Axios. That means NASA will need more astronauts trained who could take their places.

The big picture: Other space agencies around the world are starting to change their requirements for who gets to be an astronaut.

  • The European Space Agency recently started recruiting people with certain disabilities who may one day fly in space, and Japan's space agency has dropped its requirement for potential astronauts to have a four-year college degree.
  • NASA, on the other hand, requires that all serious applicants have at least a master's degree in a STEM field.
  • Despite those high requirements, NASA has had no trouble getting enough applications in recent rounds, with record-breaking numbers submitted.

What to watch: NASA may look for more geologists and scientists whose skills and expertise would be valuable for exploring the Moon's surface.

  • By selecting more scientists, the agency will also bring those skills to their astronaut classes at large, allowing them to learn from one another, Cassutt said.
2. Starlink's streaks

The Andromeda Galaxy with a Starlink streak crossing it. Photo: Caltech/ZTF

Twilight images taken by a telescope in California increasingly have streaks from satellites in them, according to a new study examining the effect of SpaceX's Starlink satellites on the night sky.

Why it matters: SpaceX has launched hundreds of internet-beaming satellites to orbit in recent years, stoking fears from some scientists that the small, relatively low-orbiting satellites could make astronomy harder.

  • The Elon Musk-founded company is planning to launch another clutch of 49 Starlink satellites tonight at 7:04pm ET.

What they found: The new study, in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, found that 5,301 streaks from Starlink satellites popped up in photos taken by the Zwicky Transient Facility near San Diego from November 2019 to September 2021.

  • That's an increase from 0.5% of twilight images being affected in 2019 to nearly 20%.
  • The team behind the study found the Starlink streaks mostly appeared in twilight images, which are key to finding potentially dangerous asteroids and comets that come from the same part of the sky as the Sun.
  • "We don't expect Starlink satellites to affect non-twilight images, but if the satellite constellation of other companies goes into higher orbits, this could cause problems for non-twilight observations," Przemek Mróz, one of the authors of the new study, said in a statement.
  • If SpaceX does eventually manage to create a constellation of about 10,000 satellites, the authors of the study expect every twilight image taken by the ZTF to have a streak from a Starlink satellite in it.

But, but, but: Those satellite streaks may not actually matter all that much for scientific observations with the telescope.

  • "There is a small chance that we would miss an asteroid or another event hidden behind a satellite streak, but compared to the impact of weather, such as a cloudy sky, these are rather small effects for ZTF," Tom Prince, another author of the study, said.
  • However, other observatories, like the Vera Rubin Observatory — expected to start science operations next year — could have more outsized effects from Starlink due to its sensitive optics.
3. NATO reveals how it will operate in space

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

NATO will consider an attack against a member country's assets in space as an assault on the alliance, and such actions could lead to a coordinated armed response from all members if necessary, according to NATO's first formal, public space policy released Monday, my colleague Jacob Knutson writes.

Why it matters: The policy reflects the increasing importance of space to more countries. It also normalizes NATO's intentions in space as China, Russia, India and other countries push forward on their science and military ambitions in orbit and beyond.

Details: The policy expands on NATO's 2019 classified space policy and a communique released by the heads of member states last year, which said an attack against one member in space will be considered an attack against all.

  • The new policy from NATO goes further and defines its key roles in space, including coordinating allies' space capabilities to help NATO's deterrence and defense efforts in other operational domains: land, maritime, air and cyberspace.
  • Of note: NATO said it is not aiming to become "an autonomous space actor" with its own capabilities but will rather rely on member countries that voluntarily provide "space data, products, services or effects that could be required for the Alliance’s operations, missions, and other activities."

What they're saying: NATO has yet to define what constitutes an attack, says Kaitlyn Johnson, a space policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • It's unclear how it would respond to forms of satellite warfare that temporarily disable or blind targets without permanently damaging them.
  • "I think the alliance is intentionally being vague about this to leave its options open," she said.
4. A bubble of stars

An illustration of the local bubble surrounding Earth. Image: CfA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

Our Earth and Sun sit almost exactly in the middle of a 1,000 light-year-wide cosmic bubble of plasma, gas and dust propelled by the explosions of surrounding stars, according to a new study.

Why it matters: By studying the bubble from Earth's vantage point, scientists have the chance to observe stars forming and evolving in a process fed by dying and exploding stars that created this bubble.

What's happening: The new study in the journal Nature suggests supernovas that exploded about 14 million years ago created the cosmic bubble we now sit within.

  • That bubble has allowed for the formation and evolution of young stars around Earth, according to the study.
  • The bubble is "coasting along at about 4 miles per second," Catherine Zucker, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement. "It has lost most of its oomph though and has pretty much plateaued in terms of speed."
  • The Sun ended up in the middle of the bubble by luck as its path through the galaxy brought us into the center of it instead of remaining on the outskirts, according to João Alves, another author of the study.

The big picture: Our bubble isn't the only one. Now, scientists want to learn more about how these interstellar bubbles interact with one another.

  • "Where do these bubbles touch? How do they interact with each other? How do superbubbles drive the birth of stars like our Sun in the Milky Way?" Zucker said.
5. Out of this world reading list

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Astronauts experience "space anemia" when they leave Earth (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

Infamous Mars meteorite contains organic molecules, but they aren't proof of life (Charles Q. Choi, Space.com)

NASA safety panel recommends agency review how it manages human spaceflight programs (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Virgin Orbit launches first satellite mission after SPAC merger (Loren Grush, The Verge)

6. Weekly dose of awe: An extreme eruption

Gif: NOAA/GOES West

Scientists keep an eye on natural disasters from space using satellites —and sometimes people — in orbit.

  • On Jan. 13, the GOES West satellite caught sight of this volcanic eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano in Tonga, which created a tsunami and gravity waves.

Go deeper: Tonga remains cut off after the massive eruption and a tsunami. Here's what we know (CNN)

Big thanks to Alison Snyder and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe. 🧑🏾‍🚀