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1 big thing: The future of asteroid tracking

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Scientists continue to find dangerous asteroids in Earth's vicinity, but to fully capture the threat these nearby space rocks pose, they need tools that aren't in operation now and may not be for years to come.

Driving the news: Last week, an asteroid large enough to destroy a city buzzed Earth not long after scientists first spotted it.

Why it matters: Astronomers have detected less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects thought to be 459 feet in size or greater.

  • Asteroid strikes are exceedingly rare, but if one of these relatively large space rocks were to impact a populated area, it could cause significant citywide or regional damage.

Where it stands: Because of that danger, Congress mandated that by 2020 NASA find at least 90% of large asteroids that could hit Earth. NASA isn't on track to meet that goal but has found about 90% of all near-Earth asteroids that are 3,281 feet in size or greater.

  • A report released by the National Academies in June suggests the best way for NASA to meet that goal is to use a space-based infrared telescope like NEOCam.
  • However, that new mission reportedly doesn't have the funding it needs.
  • NASA's NEOWISE telescope currently in orbit today does hunt for asteroids in infrared light, but it's nearing the end of its operational life and it wasn't designed for this purpose.
  • Public polls find Americans believe asteroid tracking should be a top priority for NASA.

How it works: Detecting asteroids in infrared light is effective because many of the space rocks are dark to the naked eye but shine brightly in thermal infrared.

  • A space-based system is also well-suited for this work because it doesn't rely on it being nighttime on Earth to scan the skies, NASA scientist Tom Statler told Axios.
  • Instead of simply looking in optical or infrared wavelengths of light, it might also one day be possible to use artificial intelligence to pick out the signal from the noise to find those space rocks.

The catch: Experts think there's no one method that will find, track and characterize all of the potentially dangerous asteroids near our planet, but instead it will be necessary to use both ground-based and space-based telescopes.

  • Asteroid tracking also requires a fair bit of follow-up observation, so ground-based systems will be needed for those follow-ups even if a new telescope is launched to space.

What's next: Scientists are trying to figure out what can be done if a dangerous asteroid is found speeding on a collision course with Earth.

  • In 2021, NASA is planning to launch its DART mission to intercept a space rock and test asteroid deflection technology.
  • "To avoid an impact, you would need to change the arrival time of an asteroid by 7 minutes; either speed it up by 7 minutes, or slow it down by 7 minutes," planetary astronomer Andy Rivkin of Johns Hopkins University told Axios.

The bottom line: The risk of an asteroid strike is low, but the consequences would be high if one were on a collision course with Earth.

  • "It's something to be smart about, but it's not a matter of fear," Statler said.
2. Protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope

Some of the telescopes atop Mauna Kea. Photo: Julie Thurston Photography

The protest this week on Mauna Kea opposing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is, at its heart, about who has a say in how science is done.

Why it matters: The TMT is designed to be larger and more sensitive than any other optical telescope in use today, and it could revolutionize how astronomers conduct their work.

  • Many in the scientific community support its construction.
  • However, protestors consider the plan to build the huge telescope on a Hawaiian mountain — which already is home to more than a dozen telescopes — a further desecration of the sacred place.

The big picture: The protestors blocking access to the summit of Mauna Kea since construction was expected to begin the week of July 15 say the efforts made to reduce the environmental impact of the TMT aren’t enough.

  • "We are taking a stand not only to protect our mauna and aina, our land, who we have a genealogical connection to," Kaho'okahi Kanuha, one of the leaders of the protests, told CNN on July 22. "We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this, there is not very much we can fight for or protect."

Background: This conflict isn’t a new one. Construction was expected to begin on the TMT in 2015, but protests stopped that work, and the project was thrown into turmoil after Hawaii’s Supreme Court repealed the telescope’s permit.

  • The TMT then received a new permit allowing it to move forward this year.

What they’re saying: An open letter signed by nearly 1,000 scientists says the conflict over the telescope stems from a way of doing science that’s rooted in outdated traditions that don’t respect the rights of the indigenous communities.

“[T]he message is that only people willing to assimilate into science’s cultural traditions are welcome to participate in science’s empirical work.”
— Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, cosmologist, University of New Hampshire to Axios

What to watch: At the moment, the standoff shows no sign of ending, and national political attention is now directed at the conflict. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are voicing their support for the protestors.

3. The mechanical mind of a space robot

Curiosity on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

To build more capable space robots, researchers are making them more autonomous so they won't need to rely on precise instructions from the Earth for every minute movement, Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

The big picture: As robots travel farther away from their operators, moving them around requires dealing with an ever-worse lag, because of how long it takes the signal to get back to Earth.

  • Science missions like NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars get around this by moving quite slowly and methodically, but if space agencies one day want to build a structure or repair a spacecraft remotely with robotic tools, that kind of slow movement isn’t ideal.

What's happening: Several startups, as well as NASA, are trying to find the right combination of human control and autonomy that would allow robots to perform complex tasks in space.

  • NASA wants to refuel or fix up orbiting satellites that weren't designed to be serviced.
  • SE4, a startup in Tokyo, has a system that blends human control and autonomy, making use of an operator wearing a VR headset that allows them to see what a robot sees and control it remotely.

How it works: The SE4 system, which is being demonstrated today at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, abstracts away some of the small details of the operator's actions, focusing instead largely on the intention.

  • For example, instead of giving specific directions about the number of degrees the robot would need to move, the operator can use bigger-picture commands, like "align these two parts" and "now screw this in."
"We want human minds to ride these robots into remote locations and learn things. We could have them going outside and doing operations without endangering human lives, yet humans will be gaining knowledge and experience."
— Lochlainn Wilson, CEO of SE4

What's next: By 2022, SE4 wants to remotely build a lunar base — somewhere on Earth. It'll be a proof of concept for its eventual aspirations to do construction on the actual Moon.

4. A new clutch of planets

Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger

Three newly discovered planets just 73 light-years from our own are helping scientists learn more about the diverse solar systems that populate our galaxy, according to a new study in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Key takeaway: The 3 worlds all reside in the TOI-270 star system, a solar system that is very different from our own.

  • Two of the planets — TOI 270c and TOI 270d — are about half the size of Neptune, and the other is slightly larger than Earth.
  • The “sub-Neptunes” represent a type of planet that doesn’t exist in our solar system.

The big picture: Scientists hope to study solar systems wildly different from our own in order to gain a better understanding of just how unique our solar system is in the grand scheme of things.

Details: The three newfound planets — found by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) — orbit a star that is much smaller and dimmer than our Sun.

  • TOI 270b orbits the star every 3.4 Earth days and is just slightly larger than Earth, but it’s extremely hot at 490°F (254°C) on average.
  • TOI 270c is slightly farther from its star, with an almost 6-day orbit, and it is likely covered by a dense atmosphere.
  • The sub-Neptune that’s farthest from its star — TOI 270d — may have an upper atmosphere conducive to some forms of life, but below its clouds, the surface is probably uninhabitable, scientists say.

Go deeper: An orrery of TESS' planets

5. Out of this world reading list

A Falcon 9 rocket launch on July 25. Photo: SpaceX

Clashing measurements make the universe's expansion a mystery (Leila Sloman, Scientific American)

LightSail 2 unfurls, next step toward space travel by solar sail (Shannon Stirone, New York Times)

SpaceX's Starhopper set fire to about 100 acres of wildlife refuge (Dave Mosher, Business Insider)

Einstein's disappointing success (Alison Snyder, Axios)

SpaceX rocket launches experiments, supplies to the ISS for NASA (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Cosmic bubbles

NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/J-T Li et al/STScI

A galaxy 67 million light-years from our own is blowing bubbles out into space.

  • The "superbubbles" at the center of the NGC 3079 galaxy are thought to come from its supermassive black hole or young stars.
  • The bubbles "provide evidence that they and structures like them may be the source of high-energy particles called 'cosmic rays' that regularly bombard the Earth," NASA said in a statement.
  • The infrared light (purple) in the photo was captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which is celebrating 20 years in space this month. The Hubble Space Telescope captured the other part of the image in optical light.

The big picture: Cosmic rays themselves are thought to come from objects outside of our solar system or even from distant galaxies, and scientists are still working to understand this mysterious form of radiation.

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