Aug 27, 2019

Axios Space

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1 big thing: Creating 'Planet B' in Earth's image

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Remaking Earth on another planet is likely not possible, and experts say the current talk about it perpetuates a problematic idea that we could one day leave Earth's problems behind.

Driving the news: SpaceX founder Elon Musk yet again waded into the world of terraforming — transforming a planet to make it like our Earth.

  • He declared on Twitter that a series of nuclear explosions above Mars could create "artificial suns" to warm the world and make it habitable.
  • Musk has long said he hopes to help humanity become a multiplanetary species, insulated from catastrophes that would make Earth uninhabitable for humans.
  • Terraforming Mars could be one avenue that would lead to humans living on another world for the long term.
“We have a small team engaging the broader scientific community on how best to enable a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, and we welcome the efforts of others who share this goal," a SpaceX spokesperson told Axios via email.

Background: Scientists and science fiction writers alike have been drawn to the idea of finding ways to thicken Mars' atmosphere and make the planet habitable.

  • Carl Sagan, for example, speculated about terraforming Mars in a 1971 paper, and in 1991, NASA scientists published a study in the journal Nature looking at ways to make Mars livable.
  • Scientists now are also thinking about terraforming on a smaller scale using a lightweight material known as aerogel to create zones of habitability.

But, but, but: The best available data today shows that attempting to terraform the entirety of Mars would be prohibitively expensive and may not work at all.

  • According to a study published in 2018 in the journal Nature Astronomy, Mars doesn't actually have enough easily accessible carbon dioxide to be able to create an atmosphere hospitable to humans.
  • Musk has floated the idea of reflecting light at Mars using orbiting satellites, but that would require millions of mirrors and the logistics would be extremely complicated, experts told Axios.

If somehow those problems could be overcome, terraforming an entire world could take hundreds of years, according to some estimates, and it would likely require hundreds of billions of dollars.

  • Even if scientists were able to create a habitable Mars, it wouldn't necessarily stay that way forever.
  • Due to Mars' small size, whatever atmosphere is created around the planet will likely dissipate after hundreds of thousands of years.

There are also ethical questions about whether humans should endeavor to fundamentally change Mars on such a grand scale.

  • If life is found on the red planet, explorers and researchers would need to be careful not to disturb it, experts say, and that could make terraforming or even living on Mars in habitats very difficult.

The bottom line: Musk's focus on terraforming is entertaining for his followers on social media, but some scientists are frustrated that he perpetuates the idea that there is a "Planet B" that we could create for ourselves.

  • "Frankly, it’s more dangerous to imagine that Mars could serve as a backup planet," Bruce Jakosky, a Mars researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Axios via email. "It might make us collectively less concerned with taking care of our home planet."

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from a SpaceX spokesperson.

2. Astranis gets a ride to space

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching to space. Photo: SpaceX

Satellite internet startup Astranis is planning to launch its first commercial satellite to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2020, the company announced Monday.

  • The satellite is designed to improve broadband internet service in Alaska starting in March 2021.

Why it matters: Unlike SpaceX or Amazon — which plan to use many small satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide internet to large swaths of the world — Astranis is focusing its efforts on satellites that can deliver internet to relatively wide areas with one spacecraft at a time to start.

"You can get some service, effectively immediately, to the places that most need it, and really provide a focused beam of bandwidth on those places."
— Astranis CEO John Gedmark to Axios

According to Gedmark, the satellite going up next year is expected to reduce internet costs for Alaska’s Pacific Dataport and Microcom customers by up to 3 times, delivering broadband for about $100 per month or less.

  • Astranis' satellite for Alaska sits somewhere between SpaceX's Starlink satellites — which are about 500 pounds each — and huge, traditional telecommunications satellites.
  • The company hopes to eventually launch dozens more to bring broadband to underserved populations in other parts of the world.

Yes, but: Astranis plans to launch its satellites to geostationary orbit — about 22,000 miles above Earth's surface — which could create a delay in response time for customers using the internet service.

  • “If they are underserved or have no connection at all, then they just want internet as fast as possible. … Really, 95 percent of what people do in today’s world is not latency-sensitive,” Gedmark told GeekWire's Alan Boyle in January.
3. Mars' spacecraft take a summer vacation

Mars seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

The robots responsible for exploring Mars from the surface and orbit are about to go on holiday.

The big picture: Every 2 years, Mars and Earth reach a point in their orbits known as solar conjunction, when the 2 planets are on opposite sides of the Sun, making communications more difficult.

  • Scientists on the ground will stop sending commands to the spacecraft in the vicinity of the red planet from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7, according to NASA.

Details: The Curiosity rover won't drive during the blackout, and the agency's InSight lander will stop moving its robotic arm, NASA said.

  • The Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN orbiter will all continue circling the planet without new instructions from Earth.
  • Other spacecraft orbiting Mars like the European Space Agency's ExoMars orbiter, will also have some interruptions during the next few weeks.

Yes, but: The rovers and orbiters won't just be resting on their laurels during conjunction.

  • MAVEN will still collect science data, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey will be in touch with the immobile Curiosity and InSight.
  • Odyssey will also attempt to send some data collected from the spacecraft on the planet's surface back to Earth before the end of conjunction.

The bottom line: Those pretty Mars photos we're used to seeing every few days are going to slow down for a while, but come mid-September, we should all expect to get our weekly fix of red planet images again.

4. Out of this world reading list

A Russian Progress spacecraft above the Earth, attached to the space station. Photo: NASA

NASA astronaut Anne McClain accused by spouse of crime in space (Mike Baker, New York Times)

Soyuz docks with the International Space Station on 2nd attempt (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

How cities are cutting down on light pollution (Karen Lightman, Axios Expert Voices)

India's Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft scouts the Moon in new photos (Meghan Bartels,

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Amazon fires from space

Photo: NASA worldview/EOSDIS

The scale of what can be seen from space is reserved for mega-phenomenon and actions — the eyes of hurricanes, the lights of billions of people by night and the fires burning in Brazil.

  • This photo, taken on Aug. 20 by the Suomi NPP satellite, shows fires in several Brazilian states like Amazonas, Rondônia and Mato Grosso, NASA said.
  • According to a report from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research published Saturday, 1,200 new fires started in the Amazon rainforest in the last week.

Why it matters: It's normal for parts of the Amazon to burn this time of year, but the fires this year are particularly destructive according to some estimates. These fires are thought to be caused by a combination of deforestation, drought and farming.

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