Greetings, and welcome to Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration.
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1 big thing: China's long march to space superpower
China is pushing deeper into space, but its human spaceflight goals don't directly compete with the U.S.
Why it matters: Much of the dialogue around the U.S. and China's orbital ambitions calls to mind a new space race. Rather, Chinese and U.S. interests — particularly when it comes to human spaceflight — run parallel to one another. If the world's two biggest economies and science and technology leaders were to collaborate, it could open up new avenues for space exploration.
- If China is "racing" anyone, it's likely other Asian nations like Japan and India, Dean Cheng, a space analyst focusing on China at the Heritage Foundation, tells Axios.
- "Also, any such competition is more along marathon lines than a sprint," he says.
The big picture: The Cold War era space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union eventually yielded Russia as one of America's closest allies in orbit. The Chinese government is interested in collaborating internationally, but U.S. law prohibits cooperation with China in this high-tech realm.
What's happening: Analysts tell Axios that China has consistently followed through on its space ambitions, lending credibility to its future goals.
- China operates satellites focused on remote sensing, communications and navigation.
- The nation continues to launch people to space, focusing on developing the technology needed to establish a space station in the 2020s.
- It is building small satellites, maintaining launch sites and exploring deep space with the Chang'e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover on the far side of the moon.
- China's space program suffered a setback in 2017 when one of the country's Long March 5 boosters failed. But that rocket is expected to return to flight this summer.
China has publicly maintained that its goals in space are peaceful. However, the nation's military is also working toward shoring up its capabilities in space, driving the U.S. to take stock of its own orbital defenses.
- Competition with China is often cited as a reason for establishing President Donald Trump’s Space Force.
- China is developing its anti-satellite systems, according to outside analysts, but it's not clear if they're designed as offensive measures or deterrents.
China's space plans have not been subject to the same political whiplash that NASA’s have, which has worked to the country's benefit.
- Space development is part of China's overarching desire to develop its own technology and project power. Both civil and military space endeavors are seen as one part of a larger puzzle.
What's next: China's long-term vision for space exploration, however, is murky.
- The Chinese plan to construct a space station in orbit by 2022.
- Whereas NASA has a clear desire to land humans on Mars in the 2030s, which it says is driving exploration of the Moon, China doesn't have a large, unifying deep space mission in its sights yet.
- The closest China seems to have to that kind of mission is a desire to build a moon base on the south pole, according to Xinhua.
"It's not clear that there is an 'ultimate' goal for the Chinese space efforts."— Dean Cheng, Heritage Foundation
2. The mini-space race
Dozens of companies around the world are looking to tap into the market for launching small payloads into orbit. If they succeed, it could reshape the space industry.
Why it matters: Historically, small satellites have hitched rides to space as secondary payloads on large rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. But upstart rocket companies don’t think that small satellites, meant for beaming satellite internet to Earth, for example, should be forced to launch based on the readiness of a larger payload, like a communications satellite.
According to a survey released in 2018, there are 34 small launchers under development, but only a handful are starting to fly.
- Virgin Orbit is working toward the first flight of its rocket, known as LauncherOne. The rocket is designed to launch from under the wing of a Boeing 747, boosting small satellites to orbit from thousands of feet above the Earth. That “mobile launch pad” allows for more flexibility in scheduling.
- Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has launched five times, lofting 25 satellites to space for government and private customers, making it a serious contender.
- Other small launch companies like Firefly Aerospace, Vector and Stratolaunch are also in various stages of development and testing.
But, but, but: Launching small satellites using a small rocket may not actually be the best or cheapest way to get them to orbit.
- If a company doesn’t need its satellite in orbit on a specific schedule, it could save money by waiting to hitch a ride, according to industry analyst Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology.
“There will be a lot of small satellites, but a lot of them don’t need to ride in a taxi,” Christensen told Axios. “A lot of them can take the bus.”
- Even with the potential for huge constellations of internet beaming satellites from SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others, small launchers may not have enough business to sustain them, creating a rocket bubble.
- Still, some customers, such as governments, could be willing to pay a premium to make sure their wares make it to space on time and on a shorter timescale.
The bottom line: The small launch industry could soon see a shakeup, with only a few small launchers remaining while others fold or merge.
3. Skimming Saturn's rings
A new mission concept building on the legacy of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft would study Saturn’s rings, giving us an unprecedented view of the distant world’s most stunning feature.
Why it matters: While Cassini transformed our understanding of Saturn over the course of its 13-year mission, the spacecraft also left the science community with many questions to answer.
- The new mission, called the Saturn Ring Skimmer, would be designed to help scientists reveal why the planet's most defining feature looks the way it does.
- “There are a lot of science questions about what individual ring particles look like and what they do,” the SETI Institute’s Matthew Tiscareno, one of the scientists developing the plan, tells Axios. “We’ve never seen individual ring particles, but with the ring skimmer, we definitely would.”
Details: Some of Cassini’s final orbits in 2017 brought the craft between Saturn and its rings, but the skimmer would be able to show the inner workings of the rings in extreme detail by getting a better view of them compared to Cassini.
- “We’re talking about 50–100 times as close to the rings as Cassini got at least when it was taking [its best] images,” Tiscareno said.
- Tiscareno expects the mission would cost no more than $1 billion, putting it in the same range as NASA’s Pluto-exploring New Horizons mission.
- It’s even possible that the spacecraft will be able to sample dust above the rings themselves to learn more about the composition of the rings using chemical analysis.
- The skimmer could also come equipped with a way to study Saturn’s plasma environment. Scientists are also interested in performing some gravity science to understand exactly what’s going on under the planet’s thick cloud cover.
But, but, but: This spacecraft is still far from a sure thing. The scientists behind the skimmer concept are planning to submit the idea to NASA for further consideration. Team members are also affiliated with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Idaho, the Southwest Research Institute, Harvard University and other institutions.
4. Protecting Earth from asteroids
This week, personnel from government agencies including NASA, FEMA and the Defense Department are gathered in Laurel, Maryland, to simulate a fictional — but ultimately realistic — scenario of what they would do if an asteroid was discovered to be on a collision course with Earth, Axios' Andrew Freedman reports.
Why it matters: Americans say detecting asteroids and other objects that could hit the planet should be a top priority for NASA. The international community is making strides in asteroid science, including last month, when a Japanese spacecraft known as Hayabusa2 sent a bomb down to the surface of Asteroid Ryugu. Other future missions to monitor and eventually alter the orbit of near-Earth objects (NEOs) are planned.
Details: Scientists at the conference are presenting details of how we can better detect NEOs and predict where they're headed. In addition, plans are being solidified for missions that would seek to alter the eventual course of such objects, including the proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission.
- According to NASA, NEOs include asteroids and comets that fly into the inner solar system and come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.
"We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies, that this is about protecting the only planet that we know right now to host life, which is planet Earth."— NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine on Monday
The bottom line: As of March 2019, scientists were aware of at least 794,810 asteroids. Of these, around 20,000 are NEOs, according to the European Space Agency, and 852 of these are in ESA's risk list, requiring further observations.
5. A cosmic phenomenon named STEVE
The Internet’s favorite light in the night sky finally has an origin story.
Scientists have figured out what causes the cosmic phenomenon affectionately known as STEVE — a mauve-colored streak that appears farther south than where auroras typically are visible.
Details: A new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests that STEVE — short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement — isn’t an aurora at all, but is in fact a “skyglow” created by heated and shining particles in the ionosphere.
- STEVE's glow is produced when particles in the ionosphere are heated through friction, causing them to glow, according to a news release accompanying the study from the American Geophysical Union.
- Auroras, on the other hand, are caused by charged particles from the sun slamming into neutral particles in the upper atmosphere, creating their distinctive glow.
- The study drew on satellite data collected when STEVE was aglow in April 2008 and May 2016, and then matched them against photos of the phenomenon.
- A 2018 study showed that STEVE wasn’t an aurora, but it was still unclear exactly what caused the glow.
Background: STEVE rose to prominence in 2018, when news of the new kind of skyglow with the funny name spread on the internet. The unique glow was first noted by a sky-watchers’ Facebook group, with one of the members, Chris Ratzlaff, naming it STEVE, according to NASA. It wasn't until later on that STEVE received its acronym.
6. Out of this world reading list
Gravitational waves hint at detection of black hole eating star (Davide Castelvecchi, Nature)
The race to develop the moon (Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker)
NASA workers told they can be fired for sharing photos after SpaceX accident (Chabeli Herrera, Orlando Sentinel)
NASA's InSight lander detects its first "Marsquake" (Axios)
7. Your weekly dose of awe: A solar system’s shadow
The Serpens Nebula glows 1,300 light-years from Earth. This photo of the nebula released by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018 shows the early days of planet formation around a star like our sun.
The upper right part of the image actually shows the shadow of a ring of ice, rock and dust forming around a star, named HBC 672. That shadow stretches out to about 200 times the size of our solar system.
- “This is an analog of what the solar system looked like when it was only 1 or 2 million years old,” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in a statement. “For all we know, the solar system once created a shadow like this."
Thanks for reading! See you next week. 🛰