Jul 9, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Greetings, and thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,224 words, this week's newsletter will take you <5 minutes to read.

Tomorrow, we’re launching Axios Cities, a new weekly newsletter written by Axios' immensely talented Kim Hart. I highly recommend that you sign up here.

Please send your scoops, tips, questions and space-themed pet names to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: The Moon's water mystery

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public and private space enterprises are aiming to extract water from the Moon, which they hope to turn into rocket fuel to fly missions farther into our solar system. However, it's not yet clear how much water is available on or below the lunar surface.

Why it matters: If NASA and others can extract water from the Moon, it would change exploration as we know it.

  • Heavy rocket fuel would no longer have to be launched from Earth. Instead, resources from the Moon would effectively supply a stopover where spacecraft could fuel up for farther afield missions.
  • That lunar water could be broken apart into oxygen and hydrogen, two elements needed for rocket fuel today.
  • The fuel could then be transported to a depot in orbit that's easily accessible for ships that need to fill up before flying into deeper space.

But, but, but: While scientists are pretty sure there's some water on the Moon, it's still not clear how much or whether it could be accessed easily and used as fuel.

What's happening: NASA plans to send astronauts to the south pole of the Moon in 2024 as part of its Artemis mission.

  • "It's been dawning on the scientific community slowly, since the early 1960s, that the lunar poles might provide such an [ice-rich] environment," Ian Crawford of Birkbeck, University of London told Axios.
  • The craters in the poles are thought to be potentially rich in ice because they are permanently in shadow. But scientists still don't know much about the ice that might be there.

NASA plans to find out how much ice is on the Moon in the coming years, with new missions like the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft expected to launch in 2020.

  • If water is found and the agency can learn how to harvest it, NASA could potentially go on to mine resources from other bodies — like Mars, which would make missions to and from the Red Planet easier and cheaper.

Flashback: The LCROSS experiment slammed into the Moon in 2009 as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter watched, catching a glimpse of water spewing from the impact site in a permanently shadowed crater.

  • While the presence of that small amount of water is promising, it was just one sample from one area.

Where it stands: In addition to NASA, some private spaceflight companies, like Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, are focusing efforts on lunar water.

  • The company's Blue Moon lander is expected to one day be fueled by hydrogen and oxygen extracted from water found on the Moon.
  • "Ultimately, we're going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the Moon and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the Moon," Bezos said in May at a press event unveiling Blue Moon.
2. What the Moon can teach us

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Moon is one of the most deeply studied objects in our solar system, and yet there is a lot we don't know about our nearest neighbor.

Why it matters: Most of our lunar knowledge comes from the samples brought home during the Apollo era and robotic spacecraft sent to the Moon.

  • Future missions could help researchers piece together the solar system's early history.
  • They could even give us an idea of what Earth was like around the time life developed.
  • "I hope people think of the Moon not as just this remote object in space," NASA scientist Noah Petro told Axios. "It's really an intimate part of the Earth."

Where it stands: Scientists think that around 4 billion years ago a major event in the history of the solar system — the Late Heavy Bombardment — took place. Tons of debris from the outer solar system smacked into the inner planets.

  • While there's still some debate about whether that event occurred, scientists think that if it did happen, it was right around the time that life started to pop up on the early Earth.
  • Understanding what exactly went on during those chaotic days is key to figuring out how life may have evolved on Earth — and when.

The big picture: Understanding the Moon is important for more than just our understanding of Earth.

  • Additional Moon rock samples could help trace the position of our solar system in the Milky Way through the course of the millennia by looking at the signatures left behind in Moon dirt.
  • "As the Sun has been going around the galaxy, we'll have been passing in and out of dense interstellar clouds and close passes to exploding stars, all of these potentially recording in the lunar soils," Crawford said.

Go deeper: Read the full story on the stream

3. What's next for Orion

A test of the Orion abort system. Photo: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O’Connell

The Orion spacecraft — designed to bring astronauts to deep space destinations — is slowly but surely preparing for its first mission to the Moon.

Why it matters: Orion is a major part of NASA's Artemis plans, which are expected to bring astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

Driving the news: The spacecraft passed a key test last week: NASA staged a test of the capsule's abort system, which is designed to pull a crew away from a failing rocket in the moments after launch.

  • That in-flight abort — which NASA says was a success — marks one of Orion's final major milestones ahead of its first crewed mission to the Moon.

Details: The next big test for Orion will be what's known as the Artemis-1 mission, when the capsule — sans astronauts — and huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket fly together for the first time.

  • For that mission — formerly called Exploration Mission-1 — NASA is planning to send Orion on a trip around the Moon and back to Earth, testing the systems the craft will need in space.
  • The first crewed Orion mission is planned for 2022, with the 2024 landing to follow.
  • For the 2024 mission, Orion is expected to fly to the Moon and dock with NASA's yet-to-be-built Gateway space station in lunar orbit. From there, astronauts delivered to Gateway will descend to the Moon's surface aboard a lander.

Yes, but: While Artemis-1 is expected to fly as soon as next year, the timeline is in doubt due to serious delays with both Orion and SLS, leaving little room for further setbacks if NASA intends to meet its 2024 deadline.

4. Out of this world reading list

A photo from the DSCOVR spacecraft showing the Moon and Earth. Photo: NASA/NOAA

DSCOVR spacecraft in safe mode (Jeff Foust, Space News)

NASA won’t launch a mission to hunt deadly asteroids (Tim Fernholz, Quartz)

Neutron star collisions are essential to our origin story (Katie Mack, Cosmos)

A startling spike on Mars (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Virgin Galactic is going public (Dion Rabouin, Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A total solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse in Argentina. Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Last Tuesday, a total solar eclipse darkened skies above South America, delivering some pretty astounding views to anyone lucky enough to see it.

  • While total solar eclipses occur somewhere on Earth once every 12–18 months, any single place only experiences totality every 360 years or so.
  • Totality plunges an area into an eerie twilight that convinces nocturnal animals to wake up and allows stars to shine in the middle of the day.

Researchers used those brief minutes of totality in South America to take a look at the Sun's atmosphere and monitor changes — like the temperature dropping — on Earth.

Miriam Kramer

Thanks for spending time with me this week. See you next week, as we move ever closer to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. 🌖