Sep 1, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The private space industry embraces risk

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The space industry has always accepted some level of risk and failure, but as the commercial space industry matures, companies are using failure to their advantage to try to help their businesses succeed.

Why it matters: By taking on more risk and pushing their systems to the limits, space companies may be able to reach ambitious goals — like building a city on Mars or mining the Moon for resources.

The big picture: A rocket's failure could have once signaled major trouble for a rocket company's business, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, experts say.

  • Instead, after a setback, some space companies now have the flexibility to use that failure and return to flight more quickly and with a better launcher than before.

What's happening: Companies are taking more risks to work out bugs in a system faster and to ultimately make a better product.

  • SpaceX is testing its Starship designed for interplanetary missions by staging test flights quickly, effectively allowing them to fail and iterate so they won't repeat that failure.
  • Instead of working to build the perfect rocket on the first try, small rocket builder Astra is using an iterative process to create a better rocket through risk and failure.

Where it stands: The industry at large is also giving commercial companies more leeway when an accident does occur, according to Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

  • A Rocket Lab rocket failed to deliver a payload to orbit in July, but the company bounced back fast with a successful return-to-flight mission on Sunday.
  • That quick turnaround is notable because earlier failures from other companies sidelined those businesses for several months.
  • Stallmer added that new sensors and other pieces of technology are allowing companies to track everything happening on a rocket and quickly identify the root cause of an accident.

Between the lines: Risk and failure tolerance are the signs of a maturing private industry.

  • Risk tolerance could also be a way for companies to break through in an increasingly crowded market.
  • "You have to accept a higher amount of risk," industry analyst Peter Marquez told me, drawing a comparison to investing in riskier stocks for a higher return.

Background: During the early days of the space program, failure was key to the development of systems that would take people to orbit and eventually the Moon.

  • Longtime government contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which likely took more risks earlier on, are now in mature positions in the industry where high-profile failures could spell problems for their businesses.
  • But upstarts are incorporating those ideas about risk into their businesses now, capitalizing on failure and using it as a means to an end.

Yes, but: "It's not that failure is more tolerated" from a business and technical perspective, United Launch Alliance's Tory Bruno told me. "It's that the nature of the industry, the nature of the payloads that we're putting into space as an industry has changed."

  • The money from commercial payloads and even inexpensive government ones can likely be recovered relatively quickly, making that type of mission failure less serious than others that may include expensive spy satellites or other multibillion-dollar tools.
  • And some missions — like SpaceX's first human flight for NASA earlier this summer — are too high-stakes to tolerate high risk.
2. Tory Bruno's vision of the future

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: NASA

United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno believes humanity's push to explore the solar system could one day reduce poverty on Earth.

Why it matters: ULA is the workhorse of the space industry, with a high rate of success for the rockets it flies and big government and commercial contracts. It is well-positioned to one day act as the ride for companies and nations hoping to push farther into deep space.

  • While Bruno's presence in the space industry may not be as flashy as other leaders like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, he is an influential figure who will help shape the coming decades of space exploration.

The big picture: Humanity's future in space will hinge on exploring and mining the Moon and possibly other bodies for resources like water, according to Bruno.

  • "At first, it will help us to alleviate poverty here on Earth, but it will also be a great democratization of space where ordinary people are living and working in this cislunar economic region I envision. ... My personal role in all of this is to help make this practical through the transportation system," Bruno told me.

State of play: ULA has had a big year, winning a huge and hard-fought national security contract with the U.S. government that is likely worth billions of dollars through the 2020s.

  • The company is also working to build its new Vulcan Centaur rocket using Blue Origin-built engines to end its reliance on Russian rocket engines.
  • The rocket's first flight could launch as early as next year.

Between the lines: One way to bring about cheaper access to orbit and beyond is by reusing expensive rocket parts instead of effectively discarding them after one flight.

  • After putting Vulcan Centaur through its paces, ULA plans to eventually recover the rocket's engines, not the full booster, in order to make back some of the cost of the rocket.
  • "We're not recovering the full value booster. That's the downside, but the upside is that we get to do it pretty much every time," Bruno said, adding that to land a full booster requires reserving fuel to come back to Earth, but ULA's recovery methods have no such requirement.
3. Merging galaxies

Two quasars. Credit: Silverman, et al.

Scientists have spotted pairs of quasars — supermassive black holes feeding on huge amounts of material — in merging galaxies light-years from our own.

Why it matters: By learning more about these types of rare mergers, scientists may be able to piece together details about how galaxies grow and evolve over billions of years.

  • “In spite of their rarity, they represent an important stage in the evolution of galaxies, where the central giant is awakened, gaining mass, and potentially impacting the growth of its host galaxy,” Shenli Tang, an author of the study about these quasar pairs, said in a statement.

What they did: The team used three telescopes atop Maunakea in Hawaii to identify three quasar pairs in distant merging galaxies after hunting through thousands of previously identified quasars in a database.

  • Astronomers previously identified quasar pairs, but simulations predicted far more than what's been observed in part because these objects are difficult to see. (Both quasars shine brightly due to the gas heating up around the feeding black hole and can be hard to distinguish from one another.)
  • The new discoveries of these quasar pairs — detailed in a study in The Astrophysical Journalsuggest about 0.3% of all quasars are actually these dual quasar pairs.
4. Out of this world reading list

NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps. Photo: NASA

NASA's Jeanette Epps gets another space station assignment after canceled trip (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Satellite megaconstellations could have "extreme" impact on astronomy (Mike Wall,

DOJ charges NASA researcher for hiding relationship with China (Fadel Allassan, Axios)

Lockheed Martin, York Space to produce 20 satellites for Space Development Agency (Sandra Erwin, Space News)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Comet NEOWISE up close

Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI/Caltech

Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet visible from the Northern Hemisphere since the 1990s — may not be easily seen by observers on the ground anymore, but the Hubble Space Telescope managed to capture an exceptional view of it in August.

  • This photo shows the comet's diffuse atmosphere obscuring its small, icy nucleus after the object passed just 27 million miles from the Sun in July.
  • “Hubble has far better resolution than we can get with any other telescope of this comet,” Qicheng Zhang of Caltech, said in a statement. “It lets us see changes in the dust right after it’s stripped from that nucleus due to solar heat, sampling dust as close to the original properties of the comet as possible.”
Miriam Kramer

Big thanks to Alison Snyder and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. ☄️