Aug 4, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The U.S. is at risk of attacks in space

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Other nations are catching up to U.S. capabilities in space, potentially putting American assets in orbit at risk.

Why it matters: From GPS to imagery satellites and others that can peer through clouds, space data is integral to U.S. national security.

  • Those same assets make for appealing targets by bad actors, and experts are concerned weapons testing in orbit could lead to U.S. satellites being attacked in the future.
  • "As the number of spacefaring nations grows and as some actors integrate space and counterspace capabilities into military operations, these trends will pose a challenge to U.S. space dominance and present new risks for assets on orbit," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in a 2019 report.

Driving the news: Russia reportedly conducted two anti-satellite tests this year, including one last month, without destroying actual satellites.

  • India tested its own anti-satellite weapon last year, which did create a cloud of debris.
  • These tests and others — including GPS jamming — have become more regular as nations around the world rely more on space for war-fighting.
"We often talk about how the first space war was the first Gulf War, because that was a time that the United States was really able to employ space architecture to support military actions on Earth. It was pretty eye-opening for a lot of nations because after that you've seen slowly nations around the world investing more heavily in space."
— Kaitlyn Johnson, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The state of play: The U.S. is, in part, vulnerable to space-based attacks because it operates a small number of extremely expensive spy satellites that can see the Earth in exquisite detail.

  • While the U.S. has found new ways of protecting its satellites throughout the years, experts say the structure of the fleet has remained largely the same.
  • "The architecture hasn't really been forced to innovate or grow because nobody else could do what we could do and nobody else could really challenge what we could do — that's fundamentally changing," Joshua Huminski, National Security Space Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress director, told me. "There have been these inbuilt vulnerabilities because we've been so far ahead of everyone else."
  • The established arrangement of expensive spy satellites is known to other nations, making them potential targets for those countries as they build up their own space defense strategies.

The big picture: Norms of behavior have largely prevented nations from using destructive weapons against one another in space.

  • But as anti-satellite and other counter-space threats become more common, experts say the U.S. needs to work to foster international partnerships that will help prevent destructive tests and attacks in the future.
  • "[W]ith these kinds of rules of the road, you can better distinguish between a good action in space ... versus something that is either sneaky or, trying to be hidden or could lead to a counter-space action," Johnson said.

What's next: The U.S. government has taken notice of technological advances by commercial companies that could aid in national security.

  • One possibility is that the Defense Department may host their own payloads on private spacecraft in order to distribute instruments more widely, making them harder to target.
  • And the U.S. is buying imagery from private companies like Planet and Maxar, which helps diversify its data sources and move away from being solely reliant on expensive, government satellites.

What to watch: The newly established Space Force branch of the military is tasked with helping to shore up national security interests in space, but experts aren't yet sure how it will accomplish that broad mandate.

2. Project Kuiper moves ahead

Earth seen from space. Photo: NASA

The FCC has given conditional approval for Amazon to move ahead with its plan to launch thousands of internet-beaming satellites to low-Earth orbit.

The big picture: Multiple companies, including SpaceX, see the potential to make millions of dollars in revenue once their constellations are fully deployed.

What's happening: The FCC approved Amazon's plans for a 3,236-satellite constellation called Project Kuiper with the stipulation that the company needs to launch the first half of its constellation by 2026 and it must be complete by 2029.

  • The commission's approval is also contingent on Amazon submitting an updated plan for how it will reduce its risk of creating orbital debris with its constellation.
  • Amazon announced last week that it will invest $10 billion in Project Kuiper in part to help address high-speed internet access issues that many in the U.S. are facing today.
  • "We have heard so many stories lately about people who are unable to do their job or complete schoolwork because they don’t have reliable internet at home," Dave Limp, senior vice president at Amazon, said in a statement.

Where it stands: Amazon is behind SpaceX in deploying hardware, with SpaceX's Starlink constellation already boasting more than 500 satellites in orbit so far, but the Jeff Bezos-backed company's large investment in Kuiper could help them catch up.

Yes, but: There are major risks involved in developing and deploying these constellations.

  • OneWeb — one of the first companies aiming to build a satellite network like this — filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after it wasn't able to raise the funds it needed.
  • It's also not yet clear if the market exists to support more than one of these constellations.
  • Experts have also expressed concern that these small satellites could clutter up low-Earth orbit, increasing the likelihood of creating more space junk that could pose risks to other satellites.
3. Tracking illegal fishing from orbit

Satellite image of a large-scale lighting vessel in North Korean waters. Credit: Planet

Satellites tasked with keeping an eye on the Earth have helped researchers uncover large-scale illegal fishing operations in North Korean and Russian waters.

Why it matters: Satellite data is giving researchers and governments a bird's eye view of what's happening on Earth, allowing interested parties to see more than they could by just monitoring land and sea from the ground.

Details: More than 900 fishing boats coming from China in 2017 and 700 in 2018 were found illegally fishing in waters off North Korea, according to the study published in Science Advances last month detailing the findings.

  • Those vessels caught more than $440 million worth of Pacific flying squid, according to the study.
  • The satellite data — provided by the company Planet and others — also helped the scientists spot 3,000 North Korean ships fishing in Russian waters in 2018.
  • The study's authors used machine learning and radar data that can pierce clouds to get a holistic view of what was happening at sea.

The intrigue: North Korean "ghost boats" — empty ships or ships with human remains aboard — have been washing up on Japanese shores for years, and the authors of the study now think that these illegal fishing operations are related.

  • Illegal Chinese fishing in North Korean waters may be displacing North Korean fishing boats, which are then fishing in farther-afield areas that they aren't equipped for.
  • "It really indicates that this illegal fishing is not just an ecological or conservation problem, but it also represents a huge crime measurement," Jaeyoon Park, one of the authors of the new study, told me.
Bonus: Bob and Doug are back on Earth

The Crew Dragon splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On Sunday, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico after a two-month mission aboard the International Space Station supplied by SpaceX.

Why it matters: The smooth, successful landing ushers in NASA's new age of space exploration marked by partnerships with private companies, allowing the agency to become a buyer of services in orbit instead of a provider.

What's next: Hurley and Behnken are now back in Houston with their families.

  • NASA astronaut Megan McArthur — Behnken's wife — will also fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon for an upcoming mission to the orbiting laboratory.

Go deeper.

4. Out of this world reading list

The Atlas V rocket launching Perseverance to Mars Thursday. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Book excerpt: How the universe will end (Katie Mack, OneZero)

NASA astronauts made prank calls after historic SpaceX splashdown (Mike Wall,

Virgin Galactic delays commercial flights to 2021 (Jeff Foust, Space News)

NASA's Perseverance rover launches on a trip to Mars (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Deep space butterfly

Photo: ESO

A nebula thousands of light-years from Earth shines like a butterfly in a new photo taken by the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

  • The cosmic gas bubble, named NGC 2899, owes its unique, symmetrical appearance to two stars located in the middle of the nebula.
  • "After one star reached the end of its life and cast off its outer layers, the other star now interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here," the European Southern Observatory said in an image description.
Miriam Kramer

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