Feb 18, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,401 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

Please send your tips, questions and specific places to hunt for aliens to miriam.kramer@axios.com.

1 big thing: Trump's improbable moonshot

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA is unlikely to meet its deadline of sending astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, even with a large influx of funding.

Why it matters: The Artemis mission to send people back to the Moon is the Trump administration's flagship space policy, and its aggressive, politically-motivated timeline is its hallmark.

  • However, Congress isn't sold on the idea that NASA should or can return to the Moon in four years and has been reluctant to fund that plan, instead favoring a 2028 landing instead.
  • If President Trump isn't re-elected, Artemis' future hangs in the balance, as new administrations have changed goalposts for NASA to differentiate themselves from those that came before.

What's happening: The Trump administration is requesting about $35 billion over the next four years for the Artemis program.

  • That money would go toward funding the development of a lunar lander, advanced spacesuits and other technology needed to get people back to the lunar surface.
  • The budget also allocates money for a lunar Gateway — a small space station orbiting the Moon that would act as a jumping off point for missions to the surface.

Yes, but: Even if that amount of money is allocated for the Moon mission, it still won't guarantee a lunar landing in four years.

  • The technological hurdles NASA will need to overcome in order to make a Moon landing happen in 2024 are extreme and will likely require more time in development than anticipated.
  • "Everything has to basically go perfectly — all the prior missions, all the testing, all the development," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios. "So, I think it's a really uphill slog to get to a 2024 landing."

Between the lines: Some say that shifting Artemis' plans could give the space agency a good shot at getting people to the lunar surface in four years.

  • Instead of spending time and resources on a lunar Gateway, going directly to the Moon from Earth could be quicker and more efficient.
  • However, NASA wants to be sure not to repeat the mistakes of Apollo and instead plans to focus on going to the Moon to stay, not just for a short-term political win.
  • The Gateway — which already has interest from international partners — could be a big enough investment to make sure the program has staying power, whereas a more direct approach could potentially be more easily canceled.

What's next: NASA's plans for Artemis may change significantly in the coming months to make sure the agency meets its deadline.

  • "I have no quarrel with those who say this is going to be incredibly hard. ... My job is to prove them all wrong," Doug Loverro, NASA's new head of human spaceflight, told Axios.
  • Loverro is reviewing the agency's current plan and is expected to release his conclusions in the coming weeks.

Go deeper: NASA's moonshot whiplash

2. An extraterrestrial data dump

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A privately-funded hunt for intelligent extraterrestrial life has turned up empty so far, but a newly-released trove of data could aid in the search.

The big picture: The search for alien life has gone mainstream in recent years, with multiple scientific ventures looking for radio signals that could signify the presence of intelligent civilizations somewhere else out there.

What's happening: The $100 million Breakthrough Listen project released almost 2 petabytes of data last week, including a survey of radio signals from various parts of our galaxy.

  • The project also searched for "technosignatures" emitting from the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov that came through the solar system last year, but didn't find any.
  • The new data includes the results of a hunt for signs of life around 20 stars that could, in theory, detect our planet in the way that scientists on Earth see other worlds.
"Because I purposely looked at nearby targets, my search was sensitive enough to locate a transmitter on par with the strongest transmitters on Earth. We can infer that there is nothing as strong as our Arecibo telescope beaming a signal toward us."
— Sofia Sheikh, who conducted the analysis, said in a statement

The intrigue: Only about 20% of Breakthrough Listen's total data has been analyzed so far, so it's still possible some exciting new findings could come from the raw data as scientists continue to pore over it.

3. SpaceX and space tourism

NASA astronaut Suni Williams inside a mockup of a Crew Dragon capsule. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX has penned a deal with the space tourism outfit Space Adventures to launch private citizens to orbit aboard the company's Crew Dragon capsule.

Why it matters: SpaceX is building and testing the Crew Dragon to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, but this announcement shows they're thinking about orbital space tourism as a possible driver of revenue for them in the future.

Details: The mission is being billed as a "free-flyer" Crew Dragon mission that will allow as many as four people to take a trip to orbit, possibly breaking the altitude record for private individuals in the process, according to Space Adventures.

  • It's not yet clear how much the flight will cost.
  • Space Adventures is a known quantity in space tourism. The company arranged eight missions to the International Space Station for paying customers.

The big picture: A number of companies are looking to capitalize on the idea that paying customers will want to fly to space.

  • Virgin Galactic became the first human spaceflight-focused company to go public, and say they'll fly the company's founder Richard Branson to suborbital space sometime this year.
  • Axiom — a company hoping to build a commercial space station in orbit — expects to host private tourists on their station and plans to make use of both SpaceX and Boeing's systems to fly people there.
  • Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to launch suborbital flights for paying customers, with their first expected later this year.

Yes, but: SpaceX hasn't flown any people to orbit, so the true test of consumer trust will happen when the company launches its first astronauts in the coming months.

4. Cosmic rays change Titan's atmosphere

Hazes above Titan's atmosphere. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Galactic cosmic rays from outside of the solar system may change the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Titan is one of the most intriguing objects in the solar system — with a thick atmosphere and liquid lakes of hydrocarbons — and scientists think it could harbor the ingredients necessary to support life in some form.

What they found: The new study in the Astrophysical Journal reveals that certain molecules in Titan's atmosphere are likely broken apart not only by the Sun's ultraviolet light, but by cosmic rays as well.

  • This means that scientists may need to factor cosmic rays into models of how Titan's atmosphere came to look the way it does, potentially changing how we understand the world and even its habitability.
"Figuring all this out is a really big deal because it will teach us about how planets make organic chemicals in their atmosphere ... Maybe we could learn about what types of organics (potential life building blocks and food!) got made on early Earth or are being made on other worlds beyond our Solar System."
— Michael Malaska, a researcher unaffiliated with the study, to Axios via email

Yes, but: It's still not a sure thing that cosmic rays are having this effect on molecules in Titan's atmosphere, and new data is needed to confirm the finding.

The big picture: Titan will get a close-up mission of its own when NASA's Dragonfly launches in 2026.

  • The mission will use a drone to fly to various points of interest on Titan's surface, hunting for signs of life and characterizing the moon's atmosphere from within.
5. Out of this world reading list

Starlink launch on Feb. 17. Photo: SpaceX

China quietly rolls out new rocket to launch mystery satellite (Andrew Jones, Space News)

Why SpaceX wants a tiny Texas neighborhood so badly (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Northrop Grumman sends cheese and sweets to International Space Station (Orion Rummler, Axios)

SpaceX didn't stick what would have been its 50th Falcon landing (Orion Rummler, Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: The Pale Blue Dot at 30

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thirty years ago, a probe headed for distant space turned around and took a final photo of Earth.

  • Known as the "Pale Blue Dot," the image has lived on, and last week NASA released a newly-processed version of it that shows our world and everyone on it as a bright pixel nestled in a sunbeam.
  • Today, Voyager 1, which took this photo on Feb. 14, 1990, is flying through interstellar space. While its cameras are turned off to conserve power, the probe is still able to send back data from 13.8 billion miles away.
"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives."
— Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in their book, "Pale Blue Dot"
Miriam Kramer

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