Jun 30, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,418 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

1 big thing: China's commercial space industry charges ahead

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China’s commercial space ambitions stretch far beyond the industry’s current domestic focus, with plans to use private space capabilities to help bring Chinese influence to the world.

Why it matters: Space is a cornerstone of the global race for tech supremacy, and China wants to dominate from both a governmental and commercial standpoint.

  • China's future in space could be, in part, defined by private companies that help to wield the country's soft power and influence on Earth.

The big picture: SpaceX and other providers have made launches affordable for some nations and companies, but space remains out of reach for others.

  • Chinese launch companies and manufacturers see that gap in access as an opportunity.
  • "Space, as the Chinese like to phrase it, contributes to all aspects of comprehensive national power ... so absolutely commercial space if it's done by the Chinese has several advantages," Dean Cheng, a space analyst focusing on China at the Heritage Foundation, told Axios.

Where it stands: At the moment, the Chinese space industry is mostly focused on working to get a foothold regionally and provincially before potential global expansion, experts say.

  • "There is a sense that there's more entrepreneurship and innovation that could come from the private sector," Bhavya Lal, of the Institute for Defense Analyses, told Axios.
  • "Many in policy circles believe that the Chinese need to develop this commercial space sector because there isn't as much innovation in state-owned enterprises."
  • In December, the space industry in China established the China Commercial Space Alliance to help advocate for new policy, research and regulation, and to help foster international collaboration among nations involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Between the lines: According to a 2019 report, there are about 80 commercial space companies in China.

  • The industry may be due for a shakeout in the coming years, with about 20 launch providers like LandSpace, LinkSpace and others competing in similar markets, according to the report.
  • Lal, one of the authors of that report, expects that culling could occur within the next 5–10 years.
  • "I think that maybe we are at a stage that the Chinese government is just letting these companies fight it out," Lal said, adding that once the consolidation occurs, the Chinese government may then try to find new ways to exert influence and support those that rise to the top.
  • Rocket launches were delayed from earlier this year due to orders limiting the spread of COVID-19, potentially straining the growing industry.

Background: Chinese companies have been able to move faster after learning from U.S. successes in commercial space.

  • SpaceX's first successful orbital launch occurred about six years after its founding; the Chinese launch company iSpace performed its first successful orbital launch three years after it started.

The bottom line: China is already using its state-owned enterprises to peddle influence around the world when it comes to space, but in the future, private space companies could add a new dimension to that power.

2. Quantum nanosatellite success

A miniaturized source of quantum entanglement. Photo: Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore

A nanosatellite can be used to produce a detectable quantum signal in space, researchers report.

Why it matters: Researchers envision creating global quantum communications networks, but quantum signals can't currently be transmitted long distances, my colleague Alison Snyder writes.

  • Constellations of small, relatively less-expensive satellites that beam the signals from space to receivers on Earth have been proposed as a way to circumvent the problem.

How it works: In an entangled pair of photons, the state of one photon is linked to that of the other regardless of how much distance is between them — a principle of quantum mechanics that researchers want to use to distribute quantum keys for communications.

  • If a message sent with a quantum key is intercepted or attempted to be intercepted, the state of the photon would be changed and the key would no longer work.
  • Photons can be carried on fiber-optic cables but not for long distances because the signal can be scattered or absorbed by the cables.
  • Researchers instead want to use satellites as nodes for distributing quantum signals.

What they did: Aitor Villar from the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore and his colleagues built a miniature source for entangling photons and put it aboard a CubeSat, a roughly 10 x 10 x 30-centimeter nanosatellite.

  • The source could withstand being launched on a rocket and produced a signal with the reduced power available on a nanosatellite in low-Earth orbit, they report in the journal Optica.
  • The system, which weighs 2.6 kg and is called SpooQy-1, shines a blue laser diode on nonlinear crystals to create the entangled photon pairs.

What it solves: A team led by Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, China, has generated quantum signals on satellites, but a single satellite cannot currently cover the entire globe.

What's next: The researchers are now working on a system to send the entangled photon pair from the CubeSat to a ground receiver.

Go deeper: Subscribe to Alison's weekly Axios Science newsletter here.

3. A new kind of satellite constellation

Artist's illustration of a Chameleon satellite. Image: Hypergiant Industries

A planned network of satellites — called the Chameleon Constellation — represents a new, flexible way of building and using fleets of satellites.

Why it matters: At the moment, it takes years, if not decades, to build and deploy satellite constellations in part because of the software and hardware development that needs to happen on the ground ahead of launch.

  • Chameleon, built by Hypergiant Industries in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, however, is designed to be updated depending on what people on the ground need.
  • "This new constellation exemplifies modern software development techniques in space," Ben Lamm, Hypergiant Industries founder, told Axios via email.

Details: Hypergiant unveiled its Chameleon prototype this week, with plans to launch its first satellite of this kind to orbit as part of a Cygnus spacecraft supply run to the International Space Station expected early next year.

  • After testing that prototype, the company aims to build the constellation up to 24–36 spacecraft that will be able to communicate with one another in space and beam data to ground stations on Earth.

The big picture: The satellites will be designed to use machine learning to analyze data fed to the spacecraft from other space-based assets, Lamm said.

  • "Another use case is that the constellation could be real-time retasked for other use cases such as imaging or communications," Lamm added. "Think of it as a group of satellites that work together and can change their function based on the need from the ground."
4. Dusty star systems giving birth to planets

The dusty new planetary systems. Photo: Thomas Esposito/UC Berkeley

A series of photos of young stars with disks of planet-forming debris around them shows the rich diversity of how distant worlds form in our galaxy.

Why it matters: Researchers have been piecing together how our solar system came to be for decades, but being able to look out at other stars with their own new systems of planets can help turn back the clock to understand the evolution of our solar system and others like never before.

What they found: Taken over the course of four years by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) in Chile, the photos represent some of the sharpest images of their kind yet taken.

  • Scientists are able to use these images to see gaps in the disks of debris around stars that represent newly forming planets clearing space for themselves in orbit.
  • The instrument captured 26 images of debris disks, and 25 of them had these holes that likely indicate planet formation around their stars.
  • 75 of the 104 stars GPI observed as part of the project had no disks that could be detected by the instrument, and three stars likely had protoplanetary disks, precursors to planetary formation, according to a statement from Berkeley.

The big picture: “If you dial back the clock for our own solar system by 4.5 billion years, which one of these disks were we?" Paul Kalas, one of the authors of the new study detailing the images, said in the statement.

  • "Were we a narrow ring, or were we a fuzzy blob?” Kalas said. “It would be great to know what we looked like back then to understand our own origins. That is the great unanswered question.”
5. Out of this world reading list

Mary Jackson, NASA's first Black female engineer. Photo: NASA/Bob Nye

NRO’s commercial imagery purchases could reach $400 million by 2023 (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

A massive star has disappeared without a trace (George Dvorsky, Gizmodo)

One rocket launch can’t unify America (The Verge)

NASA names headquarters after first Black female engineer Mary W. Jackson (Fadel Allassan, Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Saharan dust from orbit

Photo: NASA

Astronauts on board the International Space Station were treated to a bird's eye view of the Saharan dust cloud making its way across the Atlantic Ocean last week.

  • Robotic NASA satellites have also been keeping an eye on the dust cloud, tracking it from the Sahara Desert to North and Central America.
  • Meteorologists are now tracking another plume of Saharan dust heading for the U.S. in the coming days.
Miriam Kramer

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