Sep 8, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The hunt for dark matter expands

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The hunt for dark matter — the mysterious substance that makes up the majority of matter in the universe but hasn't been directly observed — is turning to new places and looking for new candidates.

The big picture: Regular matter — the stuff that makes up you, me and everything we know and see out in the universe — is only 15% of the total matter in the universe.

  • About 83% is dark matter, but scientists still don't understand its properties, nor have they detected it directly, though they see evidence of it in the way galaxies are structured and cluster.

What's happening: Much of the direct hunt for dark matter today takes place in high-powered, underground detectors designed to sniff out WIMPs — weakly interacting massive particles — that are the most likely dark matter candidates.

  • New studies, however, suggest there might be other ways of probing the nature of dark matter to figure out what it is, whether that's WIMPs or something else entirely.
  • By creating a simulated universe, the authors of a study published in the journal Nature last week were able to reveal what could be clumps of dark matter that may surround galaxies, suggesting that future experiments might be able to unveil that dark matter using powerful telescopes.
  • Some scientists are now advocating for new, powerful tools in space and on Earth to continue hunting for dark matter by looking in different places.

State of play: "There's just this huge variety of dark matter models that are being talked about now that weren't talked about all that much while everybody was trying to find WIMPs with underground detectors," cosmologist Katie Mack told me.

  • Some of those models include the possibility that primordial black holes — the first black holes to form after the Big Bang — could actually be a form of dark matter while others suggest that different particles, like axions, could be dark matter.
  • The LISA telescope, expected to launch in the 2030s, could also hunt for a dark matter signal in a brand new way: through gravitational waves, the ripples in space and time sent out by colliding black holes.

Yes, but: It takes time and significant money to bring new detectors online, and funding agencies may not be willing to invest in a project without the field's overwhelming support.

  • "You have to go into this investigation — from designing and planning and then building stuff — by first assuming what you think the dark matter is," Sownak Bose, one of the authors of the Nature study, told me.

What's next: It's still possible the current generation of detectors could find dark matter in the coming years.

  • But time is running out for them.
  • At some point in the next decade, direct detectors will hit what's known as the "neutrino floor," where observations will be obscured by neutrinos streaming from space.
  • After that, underground detectors won't be able to meaningfully continue the hunt, making it necessary to look for dark matter in other ways if it hasn't been identified yet.
2. Cybersecurity in space

Earth seen from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

A new space policy directive issued by the Trump administration last week calls on the space industry to develop cybersecurity measures to protect essential satellites in orbit.

Why it matters: GPS, communications and other satellites are integral to U.S. national security. As other nations continue to develop their space capabilities, experts are warning that key U.S. assets in orbit could be vulnerable to attacks.

Details: The new policy directive loosely defines best practices when it comes to cybersecurity and the space industry.

  • The directive also outlines a plan for the U.S. government to work with companies to help adopt those best practices and create norms around cybersecurity.
  • The policy suggests space-based assets should make use of encryption when sending commands to satellites and when satellites are sending information to Earth and make efforts to protect satellites from tampering, jamming and spoofing.
  • "We're not trying to impose new government-driven, top-down requirements and standards, but are in fact trying to work with and leverage the private sector," a senior administration official speaking on background said.

Yes, but: Many companies have already instituted their own protocols for cybersecurity and their assets in space, so it's not yet clear exactly what this directive will change.

  • The White House also has yet to lay out an enforcement mechanism for those companies that ignore the best practices.
3. The rusty Moon

Photo: NASA/JPL/Northwestern University

Researchers have found rust on the Moon, complicating our picture of how Earth's natural satellite has evolved over the course of billions of years.

Why it matters: Understanding the Moon and its composition is key not just for scientists working to learn more about how planetary systems form and change over time but for future explorers who hope to make use of lunar resources.

What's happening: A new study in the journal Science Advances details findings from India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter that shows hematite — a type of rust — has formed on the Moon.

  • Scientists were surprised by the findings because rust requires oxygen and water to form on Earth. Researchers have known for years that the Moon does have water, but oxygen is in pretty short supply on the airless body.
  • The study suggests the oxygen needed for the chemical reaction to create rust is actually spilling over from Earth's atmosphere driven by the planet's magnetic field to the surface of the Moon.
  • From there, fast-moving dust slamming into the Moon might stir up small amounts of water that interact with oxygen and iron, producing the hematite found by the orbiter.

The big picture: It's possible these kinds of chemical interactions could be at play on other bodies like asteroids as well.

  • "It could be that little bits of water and the impact of dust particles are allowing iron in these bodies to rust," Abigail Fraeman, a Jet Propulsion Lab scientist and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.
Bonus: Starship flies again

Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX's Starship took flight Thursday on a quick 150-meter hop above Boca Chica, Texas.

Why it matters: The prototype Starship — which looks very much like a flying water tower — is designed to prove out the technology SpaceX needs in order to fly people and payloads to deep space destinations like the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Details: The test ship appeared to pass its hop with flying colors, and the company's founder Elon Musk said a Starship prototype could fly to orbit as early as next year.

  • But, but, but: Delays are all too common in the space industry, so take that particular prediction with a grain of salt.

Go deeper: Watch the 1-minute test flight video

4. Out of this world reading list

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Rocket Lab launches its first Photon satellite (Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Business Insider)

Chinese reusable experimental spacecraft releases object before returning to Earth (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

"Mighty mice" sent to space offer hope of maintaining muscle mass (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

A new type of black hole (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A typhoon from space

Photo: NASA/Chris Cassidy

Astronauts living above the Earth aboard the International Space Station bear witness to some of the worst natural disasters on the planet from 250 miles up.

  • NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy captured this view of Typhoon Haishen in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday when it was likely the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane.
  • The powerful typhoon hit the Ryukyu Islands off the coast of Japan on Sunday, leaving thousands without power, according to CNN.
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. ⚫️