Jun 8, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: A renaissance for Venus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA is sending missions to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years, breathing new life into the scientific quest to understand the oft-ignored planet.

Why it matters: Understanding Venus is thought to be key to learning more about how habitable worlds form within our own solar system — and outside of it.

  • For years, researchers focused on Venus have been forced to make do with incomplete data collected by spacecraft sent there decades ago.
  • "I know there are a lot of people that would have liked to have been doing Venus research, but the resources haven't been there. Missions bring resources and bring more interest," David Grinspoon, a Planetary Science Institute scientist working with one of the missions chosen by NASA, told me. "We expect an infusion of young researchers."

Catch up quick: NASA announced last week that it would be sending two new missions — DAVINCI+ and VERITAS — to Venus, marking the first time the space agency has sent dedicated missions to the world in more than 30 years.

  • DAVINCI+ will send a probe through Venus' atmosphere to gather data about how the planet turned into the cloudy world it is.
  • VERITAS plans to map the planet's surface using radar to help figure out whether Venus still has active plate tectonics and volcanic activity.
  • Both missions are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030.

The big questions: Scientists think Venus could have evolved in one of two ways. One theory posits the world once had a magma ocean that effectively ruined it from the start, creating the thick atmosphere enveloping the planet today.

  • The other theory holds that Venus was habitable, with water on its surface, before extreme volcanic eruptions created the runaway greenhouse effect seen there today.
  • DAVINCI+ and VERITAS should be able to collect data to help figure out exactly which model is correct.
  • But even these two missions, while exciting, won't be able to answer all of the questions researchers have about Venus' history, Venus researcher Paul Byrne of North Carolina State University told me.
  • "It's going to enable us to ask questions we haven't thought of because we're going to find stuff we haven't imagined, and it's going to basically help us get reintroduced to Venus," Byrne added.

The intrigue: Last year, scientists announced the possible detection of phosphine in Venus' upper atmosphere, a sign that life could exist in the temperate cloud tops of the planet.

  • While it's not clear if NASA picked these missions directly because of the phosphine discovery, the two missions will be able to sniff out the stinky gas in the Venusian atmosphere, if it's there.
  • "It's definitely good for the phosphine question because it will definitely be able to tell us if there's phosphine or not," Clara Sousa-Silva, a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics who was one of the authors of the phosphine study, told me.
  • Sousa-Silva and other scientists will continue to search for phosphine using other methods ahead of the new missions, however.

The big picture: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS aren't the only Venus-focused missions. Japan's Akatsuki is already studying the world from orbit, while Russia and India are both planning missions to the planet.

Yes, but: While the Venus community is rejoicing, some other communities of scientists are having their own dreams deferred.

  • One mission that was under development — to Neptune's moon Triton — would have been the first dedicated mission out to the system ever.
  • Another would have sent a probe to study Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io.
2. Relativity Space raises funds

Artist's illustration of the Terran R rocket. Image: Relativity Space

Relativity Space has raised $650 million to help fund its plans to build a fully reusable, 3D-printed rocket.

Why it matters: Relativity is part of a growing number of launch companies looking to capitalize on governments and other companies hoping to send their wares to space in the coming years.

Details: The fully reusable rocket — named Terran R — is expected to be 216-feet tall and able to launch 44,000 pounds of cargo to low-Earth orbit, slightly less than a SpaceX Falcon 9's capacity.

  • The smaller Terran-1 rocket, the company's first, is expected to take flight from Cape Canaveral later this year and is about 85% printed, according to Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space.
  • "Right now for Terran 1, the print time is on the order of three to four months. It's getting faster, and it will certainly be faster by the second one, the third one and fourth one," Ellis said, adding the company plans to be able to print the Terran R in under 60 days.
  • Relativity Space's funding round was led by Fidelity Management & Research Company, with new investors including BlackRock, Centricus, Coatue and Soroban Capital.

Yes, but: The future market for this kind of launch service still isn't crystal clear.

  • Companies see huge demand for launch today, but as more rockets come online in the coming years, it could make it more difficult to stand out to customers in a market crowded with rides to space.
3. Creatures on the space station

A squid ahead of its flight to space. Photo: NASA/Isaac Watson

Squids and tardigrades are now safely ensconced on the International Space Station after their flight to space this weekend.

Why it matters: The tiny creatures will be used for experiments that could help scientists learn more about how various organisms might behave in space.

What's happening: SpaceX flew the experiments and other cargo to the space station using a Dragon cargo craft that docked to the orbiting laboratory Saturday.

  • Scientists behind the squid experiment are planning to study if the relationship between bobtail squid and a certain bacteria that colonize a special organ of the creature may change in microgravity.
  • The researchers hope to use the data to learn more about how human health might be affected during long trips in space.
  • The tardigrade experimenters aim to learn more about how the creatures can survive in the extreme environment through generations.
  • “We want to see what ‘tricks’ they use to survive when they arrive in space, and, over time, what tricks their offspring are using,” Thomas Boothby, principal investigator of the experiment, said in a statement. “Are they the same or do they change across generations? We just don’t know what to expect.”
4. Out of this world reading list

A view from Blue Origin's space capsule. Photo: Blue Origin

The mysterious origin of the northern lights (Jennifer Gray, CNN)

Astra to acquire propulsion company Apollo Fusion (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Jeff Bezos is going to space this summer (Yacob Reyes, Axios)

How the Blue Origin seat auction works (Robert Pearlman, CollectSpace.com)

U.S. report does not rule out existence of alien technology in UFOs (Oriana Gonzalez, Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Mars from above

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The chaotic details of the Martian landscape are revealed in this photo taken from above by the Ingenuity helicopter during its sixth flight on Mars at the end of May.

  • The little drone was flying about 33 feet above the surface of the planet when the image was captured.
  • Its flight didn't go perfectly according to plan, however. About 54 seconds after Ingenuity took off, a glitch caused the helicopter to make unnecessary correction maneuvers.
  • The craft did manage to land, safely, however, allowing mission managers to plan for Ingenuity to fly another day.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🚀