Jan 7, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Happy New Year, and welcome back to Axios Space. At 1,320 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

Please send your tips, questions and supernova predictions to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: This will be the defining year for U.S. spaceflight

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

2020 is a make-or-break year for the U.S. to reassert its dominance in human spaceflight as Boeing and SpaceX race to launch NASA astronauts to orbit.

Why it matters: Up-and-coming space powers like India and China are making plays at sending astronauts into space while launching increasingly ambitious missions to the Moon, as NASA has been riding on its Cold War-era achievements in human spaceflight.

What's happening: Since the end of the space shuttle program, NASA has relied on Russian rockets for rides to the International Space Station.

  • If Boeing and SpaceX succeed, it will allow NASA to breathe the rarefied air reserved for uncontested space superpowers once again.

Yes, but: Hiccups for Boeing and SpaceX in 2019 could make a 2020 crewed launch for either company more difficult.

  • Boeing's Starliner spacecraft had to abort docking with the International Space Station during an uncrewed test flight due to issues as the vehicle reached orbit.
  • It's not yet clear how those technical problems might affect Boeing's planned crewed mission to the station, which was expected early this year.

Here's what else we're watching as the U.S. tries to solidify its 21st-century dominance in space:

Moon missions: NASA is developing its Artemis program to bring people back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

  • India is planning to send its own astronauts to orbit by 2022, and China is building a space station that's expected to be operational in two years.
  • All three of those programs will need to make significant progress in the next year in order to meet their ambitious timelines.

Space tourism: Companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are also expected to start flying commercial suborbital missions sometime this year.

  • "This is a potential new space industry that has been anticipated and planned for 15 years and everyone's waiting to see if it will actually pan out," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told Axios via email.

Moneymakers: SpaceX and OneWeb are expected to launch more of their internet-beaming satellites to orbit, proving out the business case for these mega-constellations and showing just which companies may capitalize on it.

  • New rockets designed to launch small satellites and experiments to orbit are also expected to come online in the next year, with Virgin Orbit planning its first orbital launch early this year.
  • However, analysts are warning of a shakeout when it comes to small launchers, potentially throwing cold water on this sector of the industry.

Science: Four Mars missions are planned for 2020, with the U.S., China, the United Arab Emirates, and a joint mission between Russia and Europe expected to launch later in the year.

  • The U.S. astronomy community at large will set its priorities for the coming decade this year, developing a key document that will help rank the highest-priority missions and scientific targets — like planets circling stars far from the Sun — in the next 10 years.

The bottom line: 2020 is shaping up to be one of the most consequential years for the space industry in recent memory, but technical issues and delays threaten to potentially undo that optimism.

2. Four years to the Moon

Earth rising above the Moon. Photo: NASA

NASA is racing against the clock to get its astronauts' boots back on the Moon in four years.

  • The agency's new head of human spaceflight Doug Loverro told Axios he isn't afraid to change up the plan to meet that ambitious deadline.

Why it matters: The Artemis program to the Moon is the Trump administration's flagship space mission, designed to show off U.S. capabilities in space and eventually prove out the technology needed to send humans to Mars.

  • However, the program's 2024 deadline for a lunar landing is ambitious and lacking in congressional support.

State of play: In an interview with Axios, Loverro said he's not afraid to make hard decisions when it comes to Artemis.

  • "I'm looking at everything in the program with a fresh set of eyes, and I expect that we will have some substantial changes because of that," Loverro said.
  • Loverro is now studying the current architecture for Artemis and he hopes to share conclusions by March.

Details: He said he's also keeping an eye on SpaceX and Boeing's progress toward crewed flights while making sure that Artemis reaches its milestones this year.

  • "I think both Boeing and SpaceX are well on the road to flying, and I have high confidence that we'll be able to fly crew to ... the station this year," Loverro said.
  • On the Artemis side, this year, NASA should begin a major test of its Space Launch System rocket designed to launch astronauts to the Moon.
  • The agency's Orion capsule will also continue its testing in preparation for its first launch with the SLS expected in 2021.
3. A supernova to be

Betelgeuse as seen by ALMA. Photo: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/E. O’Gorman/P. Kervella

Astronomers are speculating that one of the most famous stars in the night sky could explode as a supernova in the not-too-distant future.

Driving the news: Scientists have been watching as Betelgeuse, which is located in the constellation Orion, has dimmed more than expected, potentially signaling that it's about to explode.

Why it matters: Being able to observe a nearby supernova would be a rare opportunity that would allow researchers to gather priceless data on an event that only happens two or three times per century in the Milky Way.

  • A network of instruments on Earth will be on hand to detect the supernova, which may even be visible in daylight.

How it works: When a star goes supernova, subatomic particles called neutrinos shoot out from its collapsing core before the light from the explosion is visible.

  • A network of seven detectors — called SNEWS (pronounced "snooze") — is on the lookout for those neutrinos, acting as an early warning system for supernova.
  • Being able to detect these neutrinos allows for hours of lead time before the supernova is visible.
  • "[W]e're talking about some of the most intense environments in the universe. You really can't find anything more energetic than these explosions," Indiana University's Justin Vasel told Axios.

But, but, but: There's no guarantee that the star's explosion is imminent. It's possible that Betelgeuse's dimming is a normal part of its stellar cycle and isn't actually a sign of exciting things to come.

Go deeper: A giant star is acting strange, and astronomers are buzzing (National Geographic)

4. Speeding up spacecraft development

Earth from space. Photo: NASA

York Space Systems is offering a new series of missions using its standardized spacecraft to fit the needs of a variety of customers.

Why it matters: As more companies and government entities work to launch small satellites to orbit, this kind of standardization could help to cut down on development time, getting experiments, technology demonstrations and other payloads qualified for spaceflight more quickly.

  • "We were able to get the spacecraft assembled and integrated and delivered for launch within about four months," York Space Systems' Melanie Preisser told Axios of the company's satellite launch in May 2019.

Details: Once a customer has developed a payload — like an imaging sensor — they will bring it to York, which will then manage testing and integration onto one of the company's spacecraft for the Hydra Mission Series.

  • The service costs about $3 million to orbit, according to York, with some customers paying as little as $300,000.
  • Once in orbit, the satellites will beam encrypted information back to customers on Earth.
  • York expects its first mission in the Hydra series to launch in December 2020.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear exactly how large the small satellite market will be going forward, potentially limiting the customers for this kind of standardized spacecraft in the future.

5. Out of this world reading list

A SpaceX rocket takes flight. Photo: SpaceX

Mysterious radio signal from space seems to have suddenly vanished (Leah Crane, New Scientist)

Watch what SpaceX's first-ever astronaut launch will look like (Jackie Wattles, CNN)

The truth and consequences of Spaceport America (Loren Grush, The Verge)

2020 space events calendar (New York Times)

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A giant galaxy

Photo: NASA/ESA/B. Holwerda (University of Louisville)

A new photo from the Hubble Space Telescope shows off a spiral galaxy located 232 million light-years away and thought to be the largest in our known, local universe.

  • The galaxy, named UGC 2885, is about 2.5 times wider than our galaxy and contains 10 times more stars.
  • The brightest stars in the foreground are actually in our own galaxy and were in the view of the telescope as it observed UGC 2885.

Background: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's life in space. Its successor — the James Webb Space Telescope — is expected to launch in 2021.

Miriam Kramer

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