March 31, 2020

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1 big thing: Tracking epidemics from space

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Data from Earth-gazing satellites is key for scientists hoping to understand and track disease outbreaks, including the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: A satellite's view can allow health researchers to understand the context of an outbreak in a way other tools cannot, and it has the potential to help scientists predict when and where the next infectious disease outbreak may occur.

What's happening: Companies like Planet and Maxar are able to track empty parking lots, roads and businesses to understand the economic impacts of the pandemic.

  • Satellites are also able to see the flow of people from one place to another, which could allow scientists to trace outbreaks of the disease in densely populated areas.

Details: Scientists are in the midst of collecting data about possible ecological factors that may have led to the current pandemic.

  • The data may also feed models that can help explain how the coronavirus transmits between people and spreads around the world.
  • "We'll look at that data, and we'll really be able to map out, not just the spread of the disease from the migration patterns of people but the recovery process," public health researcher Timothy Ford of the University of Massachusetts told Axios.

The big picture: Satellite data can also help scientists predict when and how viruses may jump from animals into human populations.

  • Photos from space reveal where people are encroaching on animal habitats.
  • Satellite photos are also used to track vegetation, rainfall and other factors in the four-corners region of the U.S. that put the area at a high risk for hantavirus outbreaks.
  • Previous studies have also shown how environmental factors that play into outbreaks of diseases like Ebola can be seen and predicted using data gathered from orbit.

Yes, but: Robust models require multiple data points and it will likely take more than a dozen outbreaks of these types of coronaviruses to accurately predict when and where the next might occur.

  • "I can definitely say to you that we don't have enough information about SARS-like coronaviruses yet, and hopefully we won't because it would take 15 or 20 more such emergence events," Townsend Peterson, a researcher at the University of Kansas who uses remote sensing data, told Axios.

What's next: Scientists hope to eventually use machine learning and AI to help automate outbreak prediction by quickly analyzing the wealth of data beamed back from orbit.

  • "With the advances in computational capacity and in modeling, people are coming up with new ways to look at these big data sets," Lindsay Campbell, a professor at the University of Florida, told Axios.
  • Governments and commercial companies are also making their data available to researchers so that scientists can find new ways to understand how environments change over time, possibly contributing to health outcomes.

2. The end of OneWeb

Earth seen from space by night. Photo: NASA

OneWeb's bankruptcy, announced Friday, could mark the beginning of a shakeout for companies hoping to make a profit using constellations of small satellites to beam internet to people on Earth.

The big picture: Analysts have been concerned that the market for satellite internet likely can't support more than one or two companies aiming to develop these constellations.

  • OneWeb's exit places SpaceX as the front-runner to get its own satellite internet business up and running, with Amazon's Kuiper still in the early stages and a handful of other companies at varying stages of development.

Details: U.K.-based OneWeb has launched 74 satellites, and its bankruptcy — which was in part due to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic — may mark a turning point for the market, industry analyst Tim Farrar told Axios.

  • The pandemic will likely create a complicated environment for even well-situated companies looking to raise funds for their satellite internet constellations.
  • "I think it's going to be very difficult for people to raise money to move forward," Farrar told Axios.

Between the lines: OneWeb was the most high-profile satellite internet company advocating for other companies with large satellite constellations to go above and beyond in their efforts to reduce the creation of space junk.

  • With OneWeb's exit, it's unclear whether those conversations about using space responsibly will continue to have a place of prominence.

The bottom line: OneWeb's bankruptcy doesn't mark the end of the line for the satellite internet market at large, but it could be a harbinger of things to come, with some analysts predicting a shakeout is inevitable.

3. Militarizing space

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the last year, countries including the U.S., France, Russia and Japan took steps toward further militarizing their uses of outer space, according to a new report from the Secure World Foundation.

Why it matters: As space becomes increasingly key for militaries, nations are starting to find new ways to protect their military and research satellites, raising concerns that they might develop ways of destroying enemy satellites and making some parts of space unusable.

Details: Last year, France established its own offensive and defensive posture in space, as it looks to counter any threats to its own space-based assets.

  • Japan, which has long been involved in scientific endeavors in space, has also recently started to develop the ability to track satellites in orbit to protect its own military interests.
  • A Russian satellite has reportedly spied on a U.S. spy satellite from orbit, and the country is believed to be spoofing and jamming position, navigation and timing signals in Crimea and Syria.
  • The U.S. also performed its own tests of new military technology in orbit, including the release of small satellites from the secret, uncrewed X-37b space plane.

The big picture: Space-faring nations have shied away from using destructive means to respond to threats to their satellites, but that could change in the future.

  • Experts are particularly worried that the destruction of a satellite could create large amounts of space junk that would endanger functional spacecraft and make wide swaths of certain orbits unusable.
  • "Right now, there appears to be a norm against using kinetic capabilities, but I fear that could change, particularly in a future high-stakes conflict between a couple of space powers," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.
  • "Policymakers might consider all options on the table, including ones that have devastating long-term effects."

Between the lines: Demonstrating the ability to destroy a satellite may now become a signal to other nations that a country has major capabilities in space.

  • India's test of an anti-satellite system last year may set a new standard for other nations hoping to establish themselves in orbit.
  • "It may have established the norm that destroying a satellite is how you publicly signal you’re now a space power," Weeden said.

Bonus: World of the week

Pluto's icy mountains seen by New Horizons. Photo: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

Ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and a heart that may conceal a subsurface ocean of liquid water await us on Pluto.

Context: Scientists expected the dwarf planet to be cold and dead so far from the Sun, but when the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto in July 2015, they found a world rich with geology.

Details: Pluto's low gravity but high ice mountains make it the perfect destination for some solid climbing.

  • The cold dwarf planet plays host to five moons, with its most notable being Charon, which acts as something of a "double planet" with Pluto.
  • One day on Pluto is the equivalent of about 153 hours on Earth, and it takes 248 years to complete an orbit of the Sun.
  • "If Earth was the size of a nickel, Pluto would be about as big as a popcorn kernel," NASA said.

The big picture: Pluto's surprising geology has given scientists a new understanding of the diversity of bodies in our solar system, showing that even distant, cold worlds can play host to exciting new features.

4. Out of this world reading list

The site for Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan China in 2017 (L). The hospital built in 2020. Photos: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

NASA tasks SpaceX with sending cargo and supplies to future lunar space station (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Virgin Orbit to begin mass producing ventilators (Michael Sheetz, CNBC)

Coronavirus raises interest in remote spacecraft operations (Jeff Foust, Space News)

The coronavirus pandemic, as seen from space (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A brightening comet

Gif: Matthijs Burgmeijer

A video taken by amateur astronomer Matthijs Burgmeijer shows a comet with the potential to become visible to the naked eye in just a few weeks streaking brightly across a background of stars.

  • The comet — named Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) — was discovered in December and since then has brightened beautifully as it started to fly closer to the Sun.
  • Comet ATLAS is expected to make its closest approach to the Sun in late May, potentially brightening to the point where observers in the Northern Hemisphere can see it without a telescope or binoculars.
  • Southern Hemisphere skywatchers should be able to see the comet after it swings around the Sun and before it heads out of the inner solar system, Burgmeijer told Axios.

But, but, but: Understanding comet behavior isn't an exact science, and Comet ATLAS might break apart before it brightens enough to put on a truly spectacular show.

  • "We simply have to wait and see how it will develop over the coming weeks," Burgmeijer said. "Comets are notoriously unpredictable."

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