Aug 11, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The risk of branding NASA's wins

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump, like some of his predecessors, is branding NASA's recent wins as political, presidential accomplishments even though they are the result of efforts that span administrations.

Why it matters: Experts warn that partisan politicking with NASA can lead to whiplash that leaves the agency scrambling to chase new goals whenever a new administration arrives in Washington.

  • Moonshot whiplash is particularly troubling for NASA because the long-term nature of its work means its most high-profile programs stretch across multiple administrations.
  • As space becomes more important to national security and more geopolitical powers establish a presence in orbit, achieving big goals will be more important than ever.

State of play: Trump has worked to present himself as a strong supporter of NASA and the space industry at large, often framing his administration's space-related programs and policies in opposition to President Obama's space legacy.

  • Trump last week tweeted that NASA was "closed and dead" before he became president, but the agency wasn't shut down before he got into office.
  • He also claimed credit for SpaceX's successful crewed launch for the space agency, which began in earnest under a program funded by the Obama administration.
  • Trump is using space as a campaign issue, most notably in an ad that was pulled because it violated NASA policies that restrict the use of astronaut images in advertisements.

What to watch: How Joe Biden proceeds with NASA's Artemis Moon program — Trump's flagship space policy — if he is elected in November remains to be seen.

  • While a draft of the Democratic Party platform specifically calls out the importance of a human return to the Moon, Trump's politically motivated 2024 deadline for the crewed landing will almost certainly be changed if Biden is elected.
  • The 2024 goal for Artemis was, in part, born from a desire to lower the "political risk" of a big program that would usually stretch across multiple administrations, risking cancellation, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said.
  • "I don't think the 2024 goal has a chance in hell of surviving. I mean, Congress doesn't want to pay for it now," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told me.

The backstory: Trump is far from the first president to refuse credit to his predecessors for the space advancements they put in motion.

  • When Obama came into office, he canceled the George W. Bush-era Constellation program back to the Moon in favor of sending astronauts to an asteroid instead.
  • While there were technical and other challenges with Constellation, many experts agree the cancellation was at least in part politically motivated.
  • And credit taking in space stretches further back. "At the time of Apollo 11, Richard Nixon never mentioned Kennedy," Logsdon said.

The bottom line: NASA's high-profile human spaceflight wins — like the International Space Station and Commercial Crew Program — have been the result of consistent policies carrying over from one administration to others.

  • If space accomplishments continue to be politicized, that consistency may soon be a thing of the past.
2. SpaceX, ULA win huge defense contracts

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes flight. Photo: SpaceX

The Space Force's announcement last week that United Launch Alliance and SpaceX will launch expensive spy satellites and other military payloads brings a long and often fierce battle for government funds to an end — at least for now.

Why it matters: This type of government money — particularly in light of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic — is key for space companies that often work on thin margins.

The state of play: ULA was awarded the bulk of the funds — $337 million — for two missions due to launch in 2022, with SpaceX winning $316 million for one mission launching that year.

  • Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin both submitted bids for this competition — called the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement — but neither company received funds this time around.
  • SpaceX and ULA are already providing national security launches for the government, while Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin are building new, yet-to-be-flown rockets, called OmegA and New Glenn respectively, that would be used for these launches.

Background: Space companies fought hard for these contracts, working to gain the upper hand over their competitors.

  • Blue Origin filed a protest in 2019, saying the government's methods for picking winners were flawed and favored ULA and SpaceX.
  • SpaceX, which didn't receive money as part of an award in 2018, argued that put the company at a disadvantage for winning a Phase 2 contract.

What's next: "We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S. security," Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a statement.

  • All four companies will also have a chance to compete under Phase 3 of the competition.
3. The Perseid meteor shower peaks this week

A perseid meteor in 2019. Photo: Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images

The Perseid meteor shower — one of the best cosmic shows of the year — hits its peak this week, and interested observers with dark skies around the world should be able to see it.

Details: The peak of the shower is expected to occur late tonight and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

  • The best time to catch sight of some streaking meteors is right after the Sun sets until the Moon rises just after local midnight, according to Sky & Telescope.
  • "These 'shooting stars' can appear anywhere and everywhere in the sky — you don't have to look at the radiant to see them," Diana Hannikainen, Sky & Telescope's observing editor, said in a statement. "So the best direction to watch is wherever your sky is darkest, usually straight up."
  • The best place to see the shower is as far from city lights as possible, with a clear view of the sky. Be sure to give yourself at least 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and don't ruin your night vision by looking at your phone.

Context: The Perseid Meteor Shower happens each year as Earth passes through the dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the Sun every 133 years.

4. Seeing Earth as an alien planet

Earth seen from orbit at night. Photo: NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope observed Earth as future tools could one day see a distant, alien planet.

Why it matters: These kinds of analogous experiments using Earth in place of an exoplanet (a world orbiting another star) give scientists a chance to see what a habitable planet may look like through telescopes if one is eventually found.

What they did: Researchers used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the Earth during a total lunar eclipse, allowing the storied telescope to detect ozone, a gas thought to be key to the evolution of life, in our planet's atmosphere.

  • The scientists behind the observations — detailed in a study due to be published in the Astronomical Journal — used the Hubble to look at light that had been filtered through Earth's atmosphere reflected from the Moon.
  • That allowed the researchers to parse out the makeup of our planet's atmosphere in much the same way as future missions could when observing a planet passing across the face of its star.
  • "We want to make sure we know what the Earth, the only habitable and inhabited planet we know of, looks like using the same methods astronomers use for exoplanets," Allison Youngblood, one of the authors of the new study, told me via email.

What's next: Scientists don't yet have the tools in orbit to confirm the discovery of a habitable planet orbiting a distant star, but future missions could one day confirm another Earth-like planet out there in the galaxy.

5. Out of this world reading list

A bright crater on Ceres. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The feds want these teams to hack a satellite — from home (Sarah Scoles, Wired)

U.S. Space Force unveils doctrine explaining its role in national security (Sandra Erwin, Space News)

This giant crater on Ceres may be the most fascinating place in the solar system (Meghan Bartels, Space.com)

SpaceX is manufacturing 120 Starlink internet satellites per month (Michael Sheetz, CNBC)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Storms on Jupiter

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill © CC BY

Jupiter's atmosphere roils with extreme storms.

  • NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting the giant planet has found a new kind of "shadow lightning" coming from clouds rich in ammonia instead of water like on Earth, according to NASA.
  • This new photo shows bright clouds standing out against Jupiter's atmosphere and scientists think the clouds are the thunderstorms responsible for this new lightning.

How it works: "At these altitudes, the ammonia acts like an antifreeze, lowering the melting point of water ice and allowing the formation of a cloud with ammonia-water liquid," Juno scientist Heidi Becker, who also co-authored a study about the lightning in Nature said in a statement.

  • "In this new state, falling droplets of ammonia-water liquid can collide with the upgoing water-ice crystals and electrify the clouds. This was a big surprise, as ammonia-water clouds do not exist on Earth."
Miriam Kramer

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, David Nather and Bryan McBournie for editing this week's edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🌕