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1 big thing: The UAE's long view to Mars
As the U.S., China and others focus on launching rockets and putting boots on the Moon, the tiny Gulf nation of the United Arab Emirates is set on building a settlement on Mars in 100 years.
Driving the news: Last week, the UAE sent its first astronaut, Hazzaa al-Mansoori, to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
- Instead of building its own rockets, the country's young space agency is focused on launching a probe to Mars in 2020 and buying services — like al-Mansoori's seat aboard the Soyuz — elsewhere.
- Focusing on ambitious goals like Mars missions are usually the purview of established space powers like the U.S. or China, Simon Seminari of Euroconsult told Axios, so the UAE is projecting its own power by punching above its weight class.
The big picture: The UAE's space program resembles a startup spaceflight company like Virgin Galactic more than NASA or Roscosmos.
- "They could take the normal path and then that would just put them where the U.S. and Russia were 50 years ago, or they could start a new path, and they can be in front of everybody in 50 years," Peter Marquez, a consultant that has worked with the UAE on its space program, told Axios.
The intrigue: The UAE — which launched its space program in 2014 — invested about $383 million into the agency in 2018, according to Euroconsult.
- The nation plans to launch its Earth-imaging Falcon Eye-2 satellite in the coming year, though the first Falcon Eye satellite was destroyed in a launch failure in July.
- The agency is also building its Mars Science City, a research area designed to simulate Mars and determine what tech is needed to establish a Martian settlement around 2117.
"They also want to leap ahead of where everybody is and start developing the capabilities that people are going to need in 100 years," Marquez said.
Yes, but: The UAE's approach to space travel isn't without its risks, however.
- The nation is speeding toward its ambitious goals, but if something goes wrong or gets delayed, it might force the agency to outsource more work instead of fostering its own technically capable workforce, Marquez said.
The impact: For now, the space agency’s plans for a Martian outpost are more about inspiring people to get involved in the challenge, said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.
- "We don't even know if humans can live off the planet," Weeden told Axios. "But a lot of people would like to think we can."
2. Relativity gets funded
Relativity Space just raised $140 million to fund its plan to 3D print its rockets.
Why it matters: The company is working to break into an increasingly crowded launch industry by sending relatively small satellites to orbit. This funding round puts Relativity on track to launch its first rocket — called Terran 1 — by 2021.
State of play: 5 new investors and a number of previous funders are now backing the company, which has so far announced a handful of commercial customers for rides to space aboard Terran-1.
- Relativity hopes to be able to 3D print rockets in 60 days and tailor them to the specific needs of their small and medium satellite customers.
But, but, but: While the funding round is expected to help Relativity get up and running, the long-term sustainability for small satellite launchers is still very much an open question.
- Dozens of companies are still working to get their rockets flying, and it's not yet clear which companies will end up coming out ahead in the burgeoning industry.
- "The business plans of a lot of these companies launching satellites is untested and is largely driven by venture funding, which is typically focused on high-risk and high-reward opportunities," Manny Shar, head of analytics for Bryce Space and Technology, told Axios via email. "The potential for failure is significant, while the potential for success is largely unproven."
3. Interstellar comets on the way
A comet discovered at the end of August is just the second interstellar object spotted on a path through our solar system, but scientists think it may be a harbinger of more to come.
- According to a new study accepted for publication by The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomers should expect that at least a few, large interstellar objects will fly through our solar system each year.
Why it matters: These objects, which include this year's 2I/Borisov — formerly called C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) — and 2017's 'Oumuamua, represent the best chance scientists have to study material from distant solar systems at close range.
- By learning more about comets and asteroids from elsewhere in the galaxy, researchers might be able to figure out just how unique our solar system is.
Details: The new study suggests that interstellar objects may be flung out of their solar systems during the planet formation process.
- The authors of the study found that planets that form far from their star may eject a fair amount of material from their home solar systems, sending them out through interstellar space.
- “This idea nicely explains the high density of these objects drifting in interstellar space, and it shows that we should be finding up to hundreds of these objects with upcoming surveys coming online next year,” Gregory Laughlin, an author of the study, said in a statement.
- It's also possible there could be hundreds of smaller interstellar objects that pass through the solar system each year, according to the study.
Yes, but: This study is based on limited data, outside experts told Axios, and it will take new tools coming online in the coming years to truly characterize how many of these interstellar objects pass through the solar system annually.
- "With LSST [Large Synoptic Survey Telescope] up and running in a few years (hopefully) we will be able to test whether this theory is right, and I look forward to that," Ye Quanzhi, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, told Axios via email.
4. Out of this world reading list
How trolling Iran with classified satellite imagery could backfire on the U.S. (Sandra Erwin, Space News)
NASA is now accepting proposals for landers to take people to the Moon (Loren Grush, The Verge)
NASA's planet hunter spots black hole shredding a star (Ashley Strickland, CNN)
Elon Musk reveals SpaceX's Starship prototype (Axios)
5. Your weekly dose of awe: the Large Magellanic Cloud
The Large Magellanic Cloud — a dwarf galaxy only 163,000 light-years from our own — shines in a photo taken by the VISTA telescope in Chile.
- "For millennia, the Magellanic Clouds have fascinated people in the Southern Hemisphere, but they were largely unknown to Europeans until the Age of Discovery," the European Southern Observatory said in a statement.
- VISTA has been observing the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud for about 10 years.
- The telescope's surveys of the dwarf galaxies are focused on tracking star formation and the clouds' structures.