December 03, 2019

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,360 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

Please send your tips, questions and supermassive black holes to [email protected], or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: Hunting for asteroids is about to get harder

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Astronomers are worried the influx of new satellites in the coming years could impede the hunt for asteroids near Earth.

What's happening: Companies like SpaceX and Amazon are planning to launch thousands of internet-beaming satellites to low orbits.

  • The new spacecraft are already changing the night sky — SpaceX's Starlink satellites can be seen shooting across astronomers' images.

Why it matters: Scientists have spotted most of the largest known asteroids near our planet, but there are still thousands of smaller, possibly dangerous ones they've yet to find.

  • The rise of mega-constellations could make the hunt for those asteroids harder — and costlier — in the future, some experts warn.
  • Asteroid hunters already have to contend with satellites in orbit, but in the future, they may need to find new ways to account for the satellites streaking through images, including developing new and possibly expensive software, European Space Agency astronomer Rüdiger Jehn told Axios.

How it works: Ground-based telescopes hunt for asteroids by taking photos of the sky over the course of a night in order to pick out faint asteroids near Earth.

  • Some telescopes make use of the time right after sundown and right before sunrise in order to best spot near-Earth asteroids, but that's also the same time when satellites are most visible, with sunlight glinting off of them.

The big picture: For decades, radio astronomers have had to contend with radio signals emitted by satellites, but astronomers working with visible light haven't necessarily had to worry too much about satellites.

  • Some researchers now think it might be too late to exert much influence over how these mega-constellations are designed and how they affect astronomy.
  • "The astronomy community dropped the ball," astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Axios. "We should have been on this 10 years ago and we didn't see it coming."

Yes, but: Companies responsible for these satellites say they want to be sure to protect astronomers' view of the night sky even with thousands of new spacecraft up in orbit.

What's next: If these mega-constellations do interfere with ground-based asteroid detection, it places more importance on launching a space-based asteroid-detecting telescope, experts say.

  • A system able to hunt for asteroids from space would not have to contend with the streaking satellites above Earth.
  • However, ground-based and space-based telescopes complement one another, further emphasizing the need to protect observatories on the ground as well, experts say.

2. For space billionaires, their companies are their gift

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are casting the fortunes they've spent on building new rockets to help humankind escape our home planet as a far greater legacy than funding more terrestrial good deeds, Axios editor-in-chief Nick Johnston writes.

The big picture: They're reframing for-profit businesses — SpaceX and Blue Origin — in philanthropic terms.

Musk spent $100 million to get SpaceX off the ground in 2006.

  • On the other hand, his private charity, the Musk Foundation, started in 2001, gave away $54 million over 15 years to environmental, educational, medical and other causes, according to an analysis by The Guardian. (He has also signed the Giving Pledge.)
  • “We’re faced with a choice: Which future do you want?" Musk said at the unveiling of SpaceX's Starship in September.
  • "Do you want the future where we become a space-faring civilization and are on many worlds and are out there among the stars or one where we are forever confined to Earth?”

Bezos has reportedly funneled $1 billion a year into Blue Origin — compared with recent grants of $98.5 million focused on homelessness and education from his year-old philanthropy, the Bezos Day One Fund, that was seeded with $2 billion.

  • As for space travel, “I think it is important for this planet," Bezos told CBS in July.
  • "I think it’s important for the dynamism of future generations. It is something I care deeply about. And it is something I have been thinking about all my life.”

Both billionaires believe the only way for humanity to survive as a species is to go to space — to provide an insurance policy against damage to Earth or allow harmful activities to be moved off-world.

Keep in mind: SpaceX brings in billions from government and commercial contracts, and Blue Origin is chasing after those contracts to get its launch business up and running.

The bottom line: The Bezos-and-Musk brand of philanthropy says, in effect: “My big contribution to human knowledge and understanding is my space company.”

Go deeper: Read more about philanthropy in our latest Axios Deep Dive.

3. NASA finds India's crashed Moon lander

A before/after showing the Vikram lander's crash site. Gif: NASA/Goddard/ASU

The final resting place of India's failed lunar lander has been found.

The big picture: The Vikram lander was India's bid to become the fourth nation to land and operate a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.

  • The mission failed on Sept. 6 when a thruster issue caused the lander to crash not long before its expected touchdown.

What's happening: On Sept. 26, NASA released a mosaic image taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that included Vikram's presumed crash site.

  • NASA credits engineer Shanmuga Subramanian with tipping off the space agency to the location of the Vikram's debris after examining the mosaic.
  • "After receiving this tip, the LROC [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera] team confirmed the identification by comparing before and after images," NASA said in a statement Monday night.

Background: Vikram wasn't the only lunar lander to fail this year. Israel's Beresheet spacecraft also crashed into the Moon during its attempt at a landing.

  • China, on the other hand, became the first country to land on the far side of the Moon with its successful landing of the Chang'e-4 lander in January.

4. Triple-threat black holes

The galaxy NGC 6240. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA

A galaxy with three supermassive black holes swirling within it could help astronomers piece together just how some of the largest galaxies formed.

Why it matters: The discovery in the NGC 6240 galaxy located about 400 million light-years away marks the first time three supermassive black holes have been found in such close proximity to one another.

  • It gives scientists an unprecedented chance to study the motions of three huge black holes that were once likely parts of three different galaxies as they merge.

What they found: Scientists originally thought the galaxy was host to two supermassive black holes, but new, more detailed mapping revealed the third, they report in a study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

  • They think the strange galaxy formed when three different galaxies with supermassive black holes in their centers collided.
  • Each black hole in the galaxy is more than 90 million times the mass of the Sun, and all are located in a space less than 3,000 light-years across.
  • "We typically observe mergers of two major galaxies, which in turn harbor a black hole each, so two black holes close together happens relatively often," study author Peter Weilbacher of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam told Axios via email.

What's next: After millions of years, the three black holes are expected to merge with one another, potentially creating strong gravitational waves that ripple the fabric of space and time.

5. Out of this world reading list

Layers of haze above Saturn's moon Titan. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Go ahead, take a spin on Titan (Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

Listen to the sound of Earth’s magnetic field as it’s pummeled by a solar storm (Neel V. Patel, MIT Technology Review)

Why Cloud Constellation turned down $100 million (Caleb Henry, Space News)

In a deepfake, Nixon laments a Moon catastrophe that wasn't (Kaveh Waddell, Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: That interstellar comet

Photo: Pieter van Dokkum/Cheng-Han Hsieh/Shany Danieli/Gregory Laughlin

An interstellar comet spotted earlier this year is on its way to its close approach to the Sun this month, giving astronomers a close-up view of the visitor from outside our solar system.

  • A new photo taken by Yale astronomers shows Comet 2l/Borisov's 100,000-mile-long tail and 1-mile-across nucleus in new detail.
  • Astronomers are keeping a close eye on the comet in order to learn all they can about the composition of the interstellar object before it leaves our solar system in the coming months.
  • Images of the comet can help scientists learn about its chemical makeup and how similar or different it is to our own solar system.

So far, scientists have found that the comet appears to look quite similar to those found in our solar system, but as the interstellar visitor gets even closer, telescopes should be able to take more images, revealing not-yet-seen details about the object.

Thanks for spending time with me this week! If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🛰