Oct 20, 2020

Axios Space

Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: Space gets an environmental movement

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There’s a new, once-unthinkable frontier for environmental regulation: space. As millions of pieces of junk amass in orbit, some experts say space should be considered its own ecosystem like the oceans and forests on Earth — with the protection they receive.

Why it matters: Space junk poses an urgent threat to weather, security, communications and other satellites. Long term, you can’t live or work in space if trash is literally slamming into you.

“If [space] is just a place that you put things that provide a service to you and beyond that, it doesn’t mean anything to you, you kind of hit a wall, and you’re limited in terms of things you can do in space."
— Luc Riesbeck of Astroscale U.S.

Driving the news: Last week, two inoperative satellites nearly collided in orbit, an event that is becoming more common as debris builds up in space.

  • While there are recommendations in place to help govern when and how satellites are deorbited once their operational lives are over, it's not enough, according to experts.
  • Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNN his company is already having trouble finding safe ways to launch its customers' satellites in part because of the huge number of spacecraft and junk already in orbit.
  • A new report on space junk from the European Space Agency last week found the disposal of defunct spacecraft in orbit is getting better, but it is happening at a slower pace than needed.

Between the lines: Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin and others believe the space industry has a lot to learn from the environmental movement, including borrowing the language of sustainability to bring the problem down to Earth.

  • "Orbital debris is not climate change, but the ecosystem requires an environmental protection," Jah told me. "Whatever narratives we have for maritime, land and air, these environmental protection narratives need to have, 'and space.'"

One big question: Where is all the space junk?

  • The U.S. military tracks about 25,000 objects in orbit today, but there are millions of other, smaller pieces of junk that could still threaten spacecraft and people.
  • Scientists also aren't sure exactly where any piece of space debris is at any given time, complicating efforts to clean it up.
  • Quantifying the space junk problem will allow "naming and shaming" of the worst polluters in orbit, a tactic that the environmental movement has also used.

What to watch: Experts are working to come up with new models to understand exactly how different types of spacecraft and materials move in orbit in order to make tracking more effective.

  • Jah is also trying to quantify the "carrying capacity" of certain orbits in order to know exactly how many satellites can and should launch to various parts of space at any time, potentially allowing that to govern when and if certain constellations can launch.
  • Jah and others are also calling for better international collaboration on the space junk problem, with the U.S. lagging behind others like Europe in addressing the issue in innovative ways.
2. Snagging an asteroid sample

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA will attempt to grab a sample from an asteroid tonight.

The big picture: Scientists hope the sample from the asteroid Bennu will allow them to learn more about the early days of the solar system and how it has evolved over billions of years.

How it works: NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at Bennu about two years ago equipped with an arm designed to touch the surface of the asteroid and collect a sample.

  • The sampling tool will kick up some dust by firing nitrogen gas as it comes in contact with the surface, hopefully allowing it to take a relatively large sample of the asteroid before moving away and eventually heading back to Earth.
  • The spacecraft should collect at least 60 grams of material from the asteroid, far more than any asteroid sample nabbed directly from its source before.

But, but, but: This sampling attempt won't be easy. The asteroid is strewn with boulders and obstacles that make grabbing material from its surface more complicated.

  • Initially, scientists expected to find an asteroid with a relatively smooth, sandy surface. Instead, Bennu is a rocky jumble of boulders that could spell troubling during the sampling attempt — also called the touch and go, or TAG, maneuver.
  • "Even within our Nightingale landing site, there still were some obstacles that we would really like to avoid during a TAG attempt," Mark Fisher of Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft for NASA, told me. "We actually changed the design of our flight software while it was up there, and we have basically a patch in place that can tell it to miss particular rocks."

What's next: It takes about 20 minutes for OSIRIS-REx to get commands from Earth, so the spacecraft will need to perform its TAG maneuver without input from people back on the planet.

  • "I'm not thinking of this as seven minutes of terror. That's much more like a Mars EDL — entry, descent and landing. This is much more of a four and a half hours of mild anxiousness," Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations program manager for Lockheed Martin said during a press briefing.
  • NASA will know whether the spacecraft was able to touch Bennu's surface this evening, but mission managers likely won't know whether a sample was successfully taken until next week when they're able to properly check for any extra mass onboard.

Go deeper: NASA will air live coverage of the sampling attempt tonight starting at 5pm ET.

3. Microsoft and SpaceX partner up

Photo: NASA

Microsoft is getting into the space game.

Why it matters: Huge amounts of data pour in from space to Earth each day, and the tech heavyweight sees an opportunity to capitalize on that big data and the growing markets for it.

Details: Microsoft announced today that the company is launching Azure Space to help its customers in a variety of industries and the government make use of space data through cloud computing and connectivity even in remote parts of Earth.

  • The company has penned a deal with SpaceX to deliver broadband via Starlink satellites to new Azure Modular Datacenters that can be used to connect to the internet from remote locales for disaster relief, agriculture and other uses.
  • Farmers "can now make use of space connectivity to be doing those decisions in the field," Tom Keane, corporate vice president of Azure Global, told me.
  • Azure is designed to be an "ecosystem" of partner satellites, ground stations and data centers that will make it more efficient to use data sent from space.

The big picture: Microsoft isn't the only company playing at the intersection of computing and space.

  • Amazon Web Services just launched a space-focused division of its business to help companies use their cloud and other services to efficiently do their work.

The bottom line: The space industry isn't just about what happens in orbit. Companies focused on data processing and usage on Earth are just as integral to the everyday work of satellite operators and data analyzers as the hardware in space.

4. Out of this world reading list

Photo: NASA

First scientist slated to fly to space on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital tourist rocket (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Space Station crewmembers just found an elusive air leak by watching tea leaves (Susie Neilson, Business Insider)

Space Force plans big reveals on its first anniversary (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

Orionids Meteor Shower 2020: Watch It Peak in Night Skies (Nicholas St. Fleur, New York Times)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Venus from close range

Photo: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM

The BepiColombo mission flew by Venus on Oct. 15, snapping these photos and studying the world from relatively close range on its way to Mercury.

The big picture: It's been a big year for Venus, with newly invigorated calls to send dedicated missions to the world thanks to the discovery of a possible sign of life in the planet's clouds.

  • “We’ll have to be patient while our Venus specialists look carefully into the data, but we hope to be able to provide some atmosphere temperature and density profiles, information about the chemical composition and cloud cover, and on the magnetic environment interaction between the Sun and Venus," Johannes Benkhoff, the European Space Agency's BepiColombo project scientist, said in a statement.

What's next: This won't be the spacecraft's last close pass with Venus. BepiColombo will fly just 341 miles above Venus during a 2021 flyby expected next August.

Miriam Kramer

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