Axios Space

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July 02, 2019

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1 big thing: New Moon mission brings back old ideas

Illustration of an astronaut looking over a pith hat, binoculars and a rifle.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As NASA pushes to the Moon with its Artemis program, the old Apollo narratives of American exceptionalism and human settlement of space haven't changed significantly.

The big picture: Today's lunar aspirations build on Apollo-era ideas of space colonization, suggesting that creating settlements in the solar system could insulate humanity from existential threats faced on Earth.

  • Spaceflight is now seen, at least in part, as a capitalistic enterprise, where companies can potentially make money from future missions.
  • Those ideas of colonization and settlement that have wormed their way into the American consciousness are meant to inspire people to take up the charge in support of spaceflight.

Yes, but: Colonization on Earth calls to mind the violent takeover of lands and societies, and while there aren't necessarily living beings on the Moon that would be impacted by settlement efforts, that may not matter.

  • Experts say whatever issues with labor practices, exploitation and diversity we have on Earth will likely end up outsourced to space.
  • "Colonise is a problematic word, but, more to the point, we need to grapple with colonisation in space (and on Earth) now, rather than later, because the mindset, values and beliefs behind this word shape corporate behaviours," Swinburne University (Australia) sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos said via email.

Where it stands: People are having discussions around how to make the language used when talking about spaceflight more inclusive.

  • However, “manned spaceflight” and “colony” are still used by many news organizations and on social media today.
  • NASA has made specific efforts to tout its plans to make the Artemis program more equitable than Apollo by making it clear that a woman will be on the first flight to the Moon.

That's not enough for some experts, particularly when the Trump administration's motivations for sending NASA back to the Moon by 2024 appear to hinge on nationalism and politics.

  • "You can choose something — like framing it as sending a woman to the Moon — but ultimately, if your goal is imperialist or about exploiting celestial bodies, then that isn't an inclusive project no matter who's going and what their gender identity is," Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, told Axios.

The impact: The historical narratives around spaceflight can bias how we think about access to space.

  • People with disabilities on Earth, for example, might be more adept at life in space than the typical people chosen for these kinds of missions thanks to their unique experiences on Earth.

The bottom line: Space is a frontier, and while people are trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, old ideas still persist.

  • "If companies believe they have a right to accumulate massive wealth at the expense of Indigenous communities, Black people and poorer nations, that is a colonial mindset," Zevallos said. "If we allow this belief to continue to shape our environment on Earth, the same problems will be transplanted into other worlds."

2. Comparing Artemis and Apollo

The Apollo 11 mission launching to the moon.

The Saturn V launch that sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. Photo: NASA

While the broader narratives surrounding Artemis and Apollo are similar, the missions themselves — and the specific motivations behind them — are very different.

The big picture: The Apollo missions were motivated by a desire to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon by landing on the lunar surface first.

  • NASA hopes Artemis will bring the agency back to the Moon to stay; however, it’s not clear whether Congress will allocate the $20 billion–$30 billion needed to make it happen by 2024.
  • “The program we have executed to return to exploration is in no way comparable to Apollo in intensity or commitment,” John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.

Flashback: Apollo’s mission profile hinged on the huge Saturn V rocket’s power, which created 7.6 million pounds of thrust upon liftoff, making it the most powerful rocket flown to date.

  • Each Saturn V would launch a command module and service module along with the lunar lander toward the Moon. Once in lunar orbit, the lunar module would descend to the Moon.
  • After the mission on the surface was finished, the crew would fly back up to the command module and return to Earth.

Where it stands: Artemis will make use of the huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that, once it’s flying, will produce 15% more thrust than the Saturn V at liftoff.

  • The SLS is expected to launch the Orion crew capsule and service module that will dock to a space station orbiting the Moon known as the Gateway and act as a jump-off point for landers heading down to the lunar surface.

But, but, but: Even though the Saturn V was built more than 50 years ago and the basic components of a chemical rocket haven’t changed all that much in the intervening decades, the SLS is still years behind schedule.

  • According to Logsdon, that schedule difficulty may have been due, at least in part, to NASA’s changing goalposts. The SLS hasn’t had a specific, mission-focused deadline for much of its development, eliminating the sense of urgency the agency had during Apollo.

3. Dragonfly will go to work on Titan

Artist's illustration of Dragonfly on Titan.

Artist's illustration of Dragonfly on Titan. Photo: NASA/JHU-APL

NASA’s newly selected Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s largest moon Titan will mark a new way of exploring the solar system for the space agency.

  • Dragonfly’s unique design will allow scientists to get a full picture of Titan’s various environments over the course of its mission.

The big picture: Instead of staying in one place like a lander or driving along the surface like a rover, Dragonfly will be able to fly through Titan’s thick atmosphere, land and then take off again.

  • This kind of mission will allow scientists to piece together whether the moon could be a friendly place for life today or in the past.

Details: Once it arrives at the moon in 2034 after launch in 2026, Dragonfly will descend through the world’s atmosphere underneath a parachute before flying free using its 4 rotors and heading to its first destination at Titan’s equator.

  • The spacecraft will then land, study the area — which has a number of interesting dunes — and then eventually take off again, taking flights of up to 5 miles, according to NASA.
  • Over the course of its 2.7-year mission, Dragonfly is expected to fly up to 108 miles.
  • The spacecraft will be able to collect and analyze samples from Titan’s surface and beam home photographs to Earth while gathering data about the world’s atmosphere during flights.
  • Eventually, mission controllers want the spacecraft to fly to the Selk impact crater where researchers think there could be evidence of all the components needed for life.

Yes, but: There are always risks when trying something new out in the solar system. NASA is planning to draw from technologies that are currently in use on Earth and Mars to make sure Dragonfly has its best chance at a successful mission.

Go deeper: NASA will send a drone to Saturn's largest moon

4. How galaxies grow

Artist's illustration of a growing galaxy in deep space.

Artist's illustration of a growing galaxy. Photo: Adam Makarenko/W.M. Keck Observatory

A new study in Nature Astronomy describes how the cosmic web — the huge network of gas that effectively connects all galaxies — feeds young, growing galaxies in distant space.

Why it matters: Scientists have long debated exactly how galaxies form, so this new study is another datapoint that could help them figure out exactly why our universe looks the way it does.

  • "For the first time, we are seeing filaments of gas directly spiral into a galaxy. It's like a pipeline going straight in," Christopher Martin, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
  • "This pipeline of gas sustains star formation, explaining how galaxies can make stars on very fast timescales."

What they did: The team used a specialized instrument at the Keck Observatory to watch as gas from two nebulas streamed into two growing galaxies in distant space.

  • Two active galaxies known as quasars lit up the nebulas, allowing the scientists to observe the gas as it flowed into the other galaxies.

5. Out of this world reading list

A view from CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope antenna 29.

A view from CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope antenna 29. Photo: CSIRO/Alex Cherney

The technology, sweat, and anxiety of shooting a rocket launch (Loren Grush, The Verge)

That interstellar asteroid? It wasn't aliens. (Nola Taylor Redd,

Contact lost with three Starlink satellites (Caleb Henry, Space News)

Tracing a fast radio burst (Axios)

NASA tests system to pull astronauts to safety during rocket failure (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Fireworks in deep space

Eta Carinae seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Photo: NASA/ESA/N. Smith/J. Morse

A star system nearing the violent end of its life is seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in a photo released this week.

  • The star system — called Eta Carinae — is located about 7,500 light-years from Earth and has been studied for decades.
  • "The fireworks started in the 1840s when Eta Carinae went through a titanic outburst, called the Great Eruption, making it the second-brightest star visible in the sky for over a decade," NASA said in a press release.

Eventually, Eta Carinae will explode as a supernova, truly ending its life in space, but perhaps dazzling us for a time on Earth when it does.

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