September 24, 2019

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1 big thing: Space is the next surveillance frontier

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Gathering photos of Earth from space used to be the purview of governments alone, but today, private companies are increasingly performing those operations from orbit.

  • The change has created a new commercial market and enhanced how governments are able to monitor activities on Earth from space.
  • It's also raising questions about privacy on Earth.

The big picture: Some satellite constellations are now able to take high-resolution photos of vast swaths of Earth every day, giving governments and private companies unprecedented and quick views of changes on Earth's surface.

  • "It's a real shift in how surveillance and monitoring is being done," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.

What's happening: The National Reconnaissance Office recently awarded BlackSky Global, Maxar and Planet — three companies with satellites in space looking down at Earth today — "study contracts."

  • These contracts could allow the NRO to figure out new ways of using commercial data from orbit.
  • DARPA's Blackjack satellites — expected to launch in 2021 — are small and relatively inexpensive, seemingly taking a page out of the commercial playbook.

The good: Private, Earth-observing satellites can also be used for disaster management, deforestation monitoring, shipping and other applications.

  • Planet, for example, is able to monitor changes on the ground that take place over a day, information that can be used to monitor crop growth and track other commodities.
  • Other companies like HawkEye 360 track radio frequency signals from space for customers on the ground to identify illegal fishing, track ships and other operations.

The bad: More surveillance means more privacy concerns for individuals on the ground.

  • "There are laws that prevent U.S. intelligence communities from collecting imagery or signals from U.S. property, but there are no laws that prevent commercial companies from doing that," Douglas Loverro, a former Department of Defense official, told Axios.

What to watch: The market for data collected by Earth-observing spacecraft beyond governments is unclear.

  • Some expect it to grow: Last year, Northern Sky Research predicted that, by 2027, demand for Earth-observing data will rise to $6.9 billion.
  • "The more data we collect and analyze and the more we learn will trigger new ideas and technologies to collect entirely new data sets," Ben Lamm, founder of Hypergiant Industries, told Axios via email. "Space is, for argument's sake, endless; so the data we can collect will also be endless."

2. Anatomy of a lunar landing

Chang'e-4 on the surface of the Moon. Photo: Xinhua/CNSA via Getty Images

A team of scientists has reconstructed the exact descent and landing of the Chang’e-4 lunar lander on the far side of the Moon, a new study in Nature Communications shows.

Why it matters: Chang’e-4’s January landing could act as a blueprint for more distant autonomous landings on other objects like asteroids in the future.

  • China's space agency should now have "a lot of confidence in the system that they've produced" which could embolden the agency to take it elsewhere in the solar system, geologist Clive Neal told Axios.

Details: The study’s authors pieced together photos taken by the lander during descent and the Yutu-2 rover after landing in the Von Kármán crater to get a detailed look at how the landing succeeded.

  • Photos — beamed back to Earth by the Queqiao satellite — revealed that the lander touched down on the slope of a crater and was actually “surrounded by 5 craters,” according to the study.
  • The team traced the exact landing location to 177.5991°E, 45.4446°S at an elevation of -5,935 meters.

The big picture: Landing on the Moon is no easy feat, as multiple recent missions have shown.

  • Both Israel’s Beresheet and India’s Chandrayaan-2 landers failed during their descents to the lunar surface this year.
  • “Chang'e-4 is a great reminder that we can succeed with ambitious and scientifically important space missions using increasingly autonomous systems,” Ella Atkins, director of the Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab at the University of Michigan, told Axios via email.
  • So far, only China, the U.S. and the Soviet Union have successfully managed to land and operate spacecraft on the Moon.

3. An eruption on Io

Io seen by the Galileo spacecraft in 1999. Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Loki — a huge volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io — is expected to erupt sometime this month.

Why it matters: Studying this volcano in deep space could help scientists learn more about how volcanoes on Earth formed in the planet's early history, according to planetary scientist Julie Rathbun.

What they found: Rathbun and her colleagues think that Loki actually erupts on a regular schedule, with an event lasting for about 100–200 days at a time.

  • Scientists on Earth are able to monitor these eruptions with telescopes that reveal Loki brightening and fading with each eruption.
  • Today, the volcano erupts once every 475 days or so, but in the 1990s, Loki brightened every 540 days.

But, but, but: Loki isn’t like a typical volcano you find on Earth. According to Rathbun, Loki is like a giant lake of lava on the moon’s surface.

  • “Since the surface of Io is so cold, the lava on top cools and turns solid. Eventually, this crust gets so heavy that it sinks and exposes more molten magma, this is when Loki is brightening and ‘erupting,’” Rathbun told Axios via email.

The big picture: Studying Io’s volcanic environment can also give scientists a better sense of what a volcano-dominated moon looks like, Rathbun said.

  • On Earth, water, plate tectonics, erosion and other large-scale processes shape the geology of our planet, but on Io, volcanism is the main driver, giving scientists a glimpse into a world very much unlike our own.

4. Out of this world reading list


Marking 60 years of Moon crashes and hard landings (Jonathan Corum, New York Times)

Venus may have supported life billions of years ago (Samantha Mathewson,

NASA awards long-term Orion production contract to Lockheed Martin (Jeff Foust, Space News)

NASA is getting serious about finding hazardous asteroids (Eric Berger, Ars Technica)

Area 51 raid was the worst way to spot an alien or UFO (Sarah Scoles, Wired)

5. Last call for Mars

Tracks left by the Curiosity rover on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There’s still time to send your name to Mars aboard a NASA rover expected to hunt for signs of past life on the Red Planet.

What’s happening: NASA is planning to send a computer chip stenciled with millions of names to Mars aboard the agency’s 2020 rover.

  • The deadline to submit your name for the chip is Sept. 30.
  • So far, about 9.6 million names have been submitted.

Background: This isn’t the first time NASA has sent names to Mars aboard one of its spacecraft. The agency sent about 2 million names to Mars with its InSight lander, when it touched down in 2018.

Go deeper: Add your name to the 2020 rover’s chip.

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A bouncing boulder

Photo: ESA/Rosetta/MPS

The track of a lone boulder bouncing on Comet 67P can be seen in this photo taken by the European Space Agency's Rosetta orbiter.

  • The boulder appears to have bounced across the surface of the comet, leaving imprints on the ground.
  • “We think it fell from the nearby 50 m-high cliff, and is the largest fragment in this landslide, with a mass of about 230 tonnes,” Jean-Baptiste Vincent of the DLR Institute for Planetary Research, said in a statement.

The new photo is part of a collection of images scientists are still studying, years after the end of the Rosetta mission in 2016.

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