Jun 25, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Greetings, and thanks for reading Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration. At 1,609 words, this week's newsletter will take you about ~6 minutes to read.

Please send your scoops, tips, questions and warp drive designs to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: The search for life as we don't know it

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The most comprehensive search for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe has come up short so far, despite generating more than 1 petabyte of data. But such efforts are just getting started.

The big picture: The project — known as Breakthrough Listen — observed more than 1,300 relatively nearby stars over the course of 3 years, listening for any signs of radio waves that would signal the presence of technologically advanced aliens.

  • This only amounts to a tiny sliver of what could be studied.
  • If you compare the volume of space we're able to search for signs of advanced technology to the volume of Earth's oceans, then "so far since 1960, we've searched about one hot tub's worth of the ocean," says longtime SETI researcher Jill Tarter.

Where it stands: The $100 million Breakthrough Listen project, founded by Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, launched in 2015.

  • It is expected to survey 1 million stars, 100 nearby galaxies and the galactic plane for technosignatures that presumably only an advanced society could send into space.
  • The entire project will last a decade.
  • On June 18, Breakthrough Listen publicly released the data it has gathered so far in the largest data dump of its kind.

The catch: Scanning the skies for radio signals from out there isn't easy. In order to pick up on whatever relatively faint signals might be emitted, scientists need to use sensitive radio telescopes on Earth to hear them.

  • That might get harder in the future, however, as more large constellations of satellites are launched, making it even more difficult to listen for any faint signals.

Meanwhile, it's not a sure thing that we have the capability to hear the calls of an advanced alien civilization.

  • "So there's always that possibility that we're just, you know, not at the point where we can pick up the signals easily. There may be lots and lots of signals, but we can't pick them up," SETI Institute's Seth Shostak told Axios.

Background: It's also possible — in fact more likely — that scientists will find life in another way that has nothing to do with hunting for technosignatures.

  • Last week, NASA's Curiosity rover sniffed out methane on Mars, which could be a tantalizing hint of microbial life currently on the red planet.
  • Scientists also hope to one day search water-rich moons like Enceladus or Europa that might harbor microbial life today.
  • NASA's next generation telescopes could give scientists a glimpse of distant planets that might have environments ripe for life.

What's next: There is an increase in SETI efforts around the U.S. and internationally.

  • Breakthrough Listen, for its part, has a deal to eventually use China’s huge FAST radio telescope and others to aid in the search.
  • "I always think SETI is kind of a reflection on our own capabilities as a civilization, and the things we're able to look for are limited by the technology that we have," Breakthrough Listen scientist Danny Price told Axios.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Milner's dual Israeli-Russian citizenship.

2. SpaceX's most difficult launch yet

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket takes flight on June 25. Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While most of us were sleeping early Tuesday morning, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket roared to life on its third-ever flight and most ambitious mission yet, bringing 24 satellites to orbit for a variety of government and research customers.

The big picture: The launch itself was a technical challenge that Elon Musk called the "most difficult launch ever" for the company. The Falcon Heavy's upper stage had to relight multiple times in order to deposit the 2 dozen satellites into 3 different orbits over the course of several hours.

  • In addition, the company attempted to land the main rocket booster and 2 side boosters back on a drone ship and on land, respectively. The ship landing failed narrowly.
  • The launch was a rocket ride-share put together by the Air Force for the agency's first Falcon Heavy flight.
  • Instead of buying discrete rides to space for each of the 2 dozen spacecraft, it was more efficient to load and launch all of them via the heavy-lift rocket at once.
  • Spacecraft launched include a number of cubesats, a satellite carrying human ashes, an atomic clock designed by NASA and other payloads.

Where it stands: One of the more fun spacecraft that flew aboard the Falcon Heavy was the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 solar sail. Once deployed from its carrier spacecraft Prox-1 in July, the craft’s solar sail is expected to unfurl and surf sunlight.

  • Instead of using limited propellant to move through space, the solar sail travels on the momentum created by photons streaming out from the Sun.
  • It’s even possible people on the ground will be able to see the solar sail with the naked eye, depending on the craft’s orientation.

Separately, NOAA’s COSMIC-2 mission — which also launched last night — is aimed at improving the accuracy of weather forecasts, particularly on short timescales.

  • The group of 6 satellites will measure beams as they're bounced from GPS networks and other sources through the atmosphere and into space, to determine key characteristics of the air.
  • “Temperature, pressure, humidity are really key for numerical weather [models]," Steve Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for Satellite and Information Services, told Axios' Andrew Freedman before launch.

Go deeper: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket launches 24 satellites to orbit

3. A mission to a pristine comet

Comet 67P in deep space. Photo: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

A newly selected European Space Agency mission expected to launch in 2028 is designed to get up close and personal with a comet.

Why it matters: If all goes according to plan, the new mission — named the Comet Interceptor — will give us an unprecedented look at a pristine comet that has never visited the inner solar system before and hasn’t been altered by the heat of the Sun.

  • “Pristine or dynamically new comets are entirely uncharted and make compelling targets for close-range spacecraft exploration to better understand the diversity and evolution of comets,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a statement.

The big picture: Comets like these are thought to be preserved leftovers from the dawn of the solar system and could help unlock how Earth got its water.

Details: Comet Interceptor is designed to lie in wait in space until a pristine comet is spotted as it moves into the heart of the solar system.

  • Once the target is set, the spacecraft — which is comprised of three modules that can separate from one another — will then move to map and study it.

One fun thing: Because of the mission design, it’s also possible that the spacecraft could intercept a visitor from outside the solar system.

  • If scientists spot another interstellar asteroid or comet like Oumuamua — the asteroid from another solar system that shot through ours in 2017 — the spacecraft could target that object instead.

Background: This won’t be ESA’s first mission to a comet. The space agency also studied Comet 67P from close range with its Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander. That comet, however, is far from pristine, having flown toward the Sun many times.

4. Virgin Orbit is getting closer to a launch

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl 747 in flight. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit is moving ever closer to launching a rocket to space for the first time.

Why it matters: The company is one of a number of private spaceflight companies aiming to capitalize on what it sees as a boom in demand for small spacecraft launches.

  • The company’s unique flight profile hinges on its LauncherOne rocket mounted beneath the wing of an ex-Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 jet.
  • During a launch, the rocket is designed to drop from the wing and ignite its engine, lofting relatively small payloads to orbit from high altitude.
  • This saves on fuel, since the rocket doesn't have to travel through the thickest parts of the atmosphere.

Driving the news: On Sunday, Virgin Orbit — which was spun off from Richard Branson’s human spaceflight-focused Virgin Galactic — conducted another test flight of its "Cosmic Girl" plane. The company also flew another test flight last Thursday, and it’s gearing up for more.

  • The 2 tests over the last week were both “heavyweight” captive carry flights, meaning that LauncherOne was weighed down to simulate its expected heaviest weight at launch, but it never detached from the plane.
  • “All the design is done, all of the parts have been manufactured, every bit has been tested as a bit, so there’s no need to wait around,” Virgin Orbit vice president of special projects Will Pomerantz told Axios. “We’re all fired up, and ready not just for our first flight but to get into commercial operations. It’s intense, but fun.”

What’s next: For now, Virgin Orbit is staying mum on when it's planning to fly the first full test flight.

  • In the immediate future, the company will need to conduct a “drop test,” where it drops the heavyweight rocket from the plane, letting it fall in order to test all its components without actually lighting up the rocket itself.
  • Virgin Orbit also has plans to launch from Japan and the U.K. when it starts flying.
  • The fact that its launcher is mobile allows it to operate in multiple countries.

Yes, but: While some experts have raised the concern that something of a “rocket bubble” is forming, Virgin Orbit is usually cited as a promising company in this space for its innovative launch mechanism.

5. Out of this world reading list

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Titan would make a great vacation spot (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

3 space station crew members return to Earth (Bill Harwood, CBS News)

Boeing to move space headquarters to Florida (Jeff Foust, Space News)

NASA's Curiosity finds more methane on Mars (Axios)

Scientists find two nearby, Earth-sized planets (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: The warm, glowing rings of Uranus

Uranus' rings glowing. Photo: Edward M. Molter and Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley

Uranus is something of an oddball. A new study finds even the planet’s rings are unusual by comparison to those found in the rest of our solar system.

Why it matters: By learning more about Uranus' rings, scientists should be able to start piecing together how they formed.

  • The planet’s rings glow brightly in new thermal photos taken by telescopes on Earth.
  • The study suggests Uranus’ rings are actually warmer than expected at -320°F.
  • Uranus’ brightest ring, known as the “epsilon ring” isn’t composed primarily of dust, like Saturn’s rings, but instead seems to be made from larger rocks, however, it's not exactly clear why that is.
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for spending time with me this week. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. The truth is out there ... 👽