Nov 5, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: Help wanted on Earth for economy in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A space economy conjures visions of thousands of people living and working in orbit and beyond, but the jobs that will keep the space industry afloat in the coming years will be located on Earth.

The big picture: The space industry could be worth $805 billion by 2030, according to estimates from UBS.

  • UBS predicts that space tourism will account for about a $3 billion slice of the market by then.
  • But the bulk of the economy will depend on Earth-bound workers — satellite operators, data analysts, software engineers and other technicians who will be in high demand as the space industry transitions from a government-dominated realm to an essential, commercial enterprise.

What's happening: Multiple companies are aiming to launch constellations of thousands of satellites to orbit in the coming years and will likely need people on the ground to operate them.

  • A new online course offered by Arizona State University is designed to teach satellite operators to work with these companies and the government.
  • Private companies and the government have brought Qwaltec in to train their satellite operators in the past, but with the expected boom in the market, the company decided to develop a standardized course, Qwaltec CEO Shawn Linam told Axios.
  • The growth expected in the satellite industry could spur manufacturing as well, as thousands of relatively small, inexpensive satellites will be needed for these mega-constellations.

Where it stands: SpaceX has dozens of job openings ranging from rocket engineering to spacesuit sewer in their facilities across the country.

  • Blue Origin along with other, smaller and less high-profile hardware and analysis companies are also looking to hire talent as demand for satellites and their data increases.

But, but, but: The space industry's transition to the future space economy could be overshadowed by an aging workforce.

  • The Space Foundation estimated the U.S. awarded 6% of STEM degrees globally in 2016, while China awarded eight times that.
  • Satellite companies used to pull their talent from the military or broadcast companies, but those pipelines are drying up today, Robert Bell, executive director of Space & Satellite Professionals International, told Axios.
  • Space companies and government agencies are also facing more competition from tech giants, Bell added.
"We've almost flipped from where it was, where you wanted people to retire because you wanted to open up the slots — now, we've got the slots open, but we can't find enough people to fill them."
— Mary Lynne Dittmar, CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration
2. Voyager 2's journey in interstellar space

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes — which launched in 1977 and are now traveling through interstellar space — may be complicating scientists' understanding of our solar system's structure.

Why it matters: Mapping the structure of our solar system places it in context with the rest of the galaxy, allowing scientists to learn more about the evolution and even future of our cosmic neighborhood.

Driving the news: A series of studies about Voyager 2 published in Nature Astronomy this week reveals contradicting information about the behavior of particles coming from the Sun and those in the interstellar medium.

  • Before Voyager 1 left the heliosphere — the part of space dominated by the influence of the solar wind — it detected particles from the interstellar medium leaking into the heliosphere.
  • Voyager 2, on the other hand, continued to detect solar particles leaking into interstellar space even after leaving the heliosphere, according to project scientist Ed Stone.
  • Voyager 1 also flew through what's now known as a stagnation region before reaching the heliopause — the boundary where the solar wind is overtaken by the interstellar medium. Voyager 2, however, didn't encounter that region.

Yes, but: Scientists still aren't sure what could account for these differences between Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which are expected to have enough power to continue beaming back data for about five more years.

  • It's possible the differences could be the result of the Sun's 11-year solar cycle during which the star's activity increases and decreases, Voyager scientists have said.
  • Researchers will also need far more data points before being able to definitively understand the structure of the heliosphere, and there is talk of sending a spacecraft purposefully out to interstellar space to fill in the gaps.
3. Inching toward U.S. launches again

Boeing's Starliner during a test of its abort system in New Mexico. Photo: NASA

SpaceX and Boeing are working to clear a number of safety hurdles before the end of the year ahead of launching their first crews of astronauts to the International Space Station.

Why it matters: The two companies have been tasked with flying people to space from U.S. soil, ending NASA's reliance on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to the station.

  • The Commercial Crew Program has been plagued by technical delays and budget shortfalls, but Boeing and SpaceX are now expected to fly astronauts aboard their Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time early next year.

State of play: On Monday, Boeing launched a successful test of its abort system designed to pull astronauts to safety in the event of a rocket failure at launch.

  • As the capsule was descending to Earth after the engine firing, one of three parachutes didn't deploy, which didn't invalidate the test, according to NASA.
  • For its part, SpaceX has performed 13 successful tests of its new parachutes for its Crew Dragon.
  • SpaceX has tested an updated version of its abort system on the ground since the company made changes to it after a failure on a test stand in April. It is also expected to perform a full ground test and an in-flight abort test in the coming weeks.

What's next: Neither Boeing nor SpaceX is expected to fly people to orbit before the end of the year, as initially expected. Instead, NASA now estimates that both could fly as early as the start of 2020.

  • Boeing's uncrewed test flight of its system is expected to launch Dec. 17, with its first crewed flight expected sometime after that.
  • SpaceX already completed an uncrewed test flight to the station, but it’s not yet clear when the company will fly its first crew to orbit.
4. Out of this world reading list

An Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus to the space station. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

'Improbable planet' somehow survives being swallowed by red giant star (Chelsea Gohd,

Do we need a special language to talk to aliens? (Daniel Oberhaus, Wired)

From dung beetles to seals, these animals navigate by the stars (Fiona McMillan, National Geographic)

China tests grid fins with launch of Gaofen-7 imaging satellite (Andrew Jones, Space News)

Space station receives spacewalking gear, new baking oven (Stephen Clark, Spaceflight Now)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: InSight from orbit

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Even the most distant robotic explorers on Mars are never totally alone. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of the space agency's InSight lander on the Martian surface in September.

  • The remarkably clear photo taken by the MRO shows off the lander's circular solar panels on the sides of the spacecraft.
  • "The dark halo surrounding the spacecraft resulted from retrorocket thrusters scouring the surface during landing, while dust devils created the dark streaks that run diagonally across the surface," NASA said in an image description.

The intrigue: InSight's "mole" — designed to burrow below the Martian surface to learn more about the heat being emitted by the planet's interior — backed about halfway out of its hole, according to NASA, and mission managers are now working to figure out why and how to get the mole digging once more.

Miriam Kramer

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