Jun 11, 2019

Axios Space

Greetings, and thanks for reading Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration. At 1,637 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 6 minutes to read.

Please send your scoops, tips, questions and favorite planets to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: NASA's murky commercial space future

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA's plans to create a robust economy in low-Earth orbit where private spaceflight companies can flourish could eventually leave the agency's astronauts stranded on Earth with nowhere to go.

Why it matters: NASA hopes to play a lead role in developing a private spaceflight economy, including private sector astronauts. The agency sees this as a way to free it up to focus on farther afield goals like bringing humans back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.

  • But if private industry takes over human spaceflight destinations in low-Earth orbit and funding and political support for NASA missions to the Moon or Mars dissipates, there may be no point in having a government-sponsored human spaceflight program at all.

Driving the news: On Friday, NASA announced it would create a market for private human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit.

  • The agency wants American companies to fly their astronauts first to the International Space Station starting in 2020 and then later to space stations that companies operate themselves.

The catch: By largely giving up control of human spaceflight in orbit, a region of key importance for Earth science and other discoveries, NASA risks that its human spaceflight program might be more heavily impacted by political whims.

  • Today, NASA uses the International Space Station, in part, as a testbed for further exploration of the solar system.
  • With the ISS aging toward obsolescence, NASA may be carrying out that research on private space outposts in the future.
  • But if, at the same time, the deep space missions get delayed or canceled, it's harder to see where NASA astronauts fit into that broader landscape.
"If the private sector takes over low-Earth orbit, and the political support for exploration dissipates, then what's the rationale for a government program?"
— John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, to Axios

Between the lines: It's realistic to imagine NASA's exploration goals will shift in the near or long term. The space agency is constantly facing political whiplash when new administrations take over and impose new spaceflight goals.

  • The impetus for getting private companies into the human spaceflight game stems in part from the need to cut NASA's costs of launching to orbit.
  • The agency currently spends about $1.8 billion of its $3 billion to $4 billion space station budget on transportation.
  • If launch costs were reduced, that would free up money for NASA's broader exploration goals.

But, but, but: It's not yet clear exactly how much demand there will be in the private sector for human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit. A 2017 report looking at the market for a privately run space station found there isn't an obvious, profit-driven demand for such a facility in orbit, at least not yet.

2. The fading International Space Station

The International Space Station in darkness. Photo: NASA/JSC

For better or worse, sometime in the next decade, the International Space Station program will likely reach the end of its life, bringing a unique and successful venue for international diplomacy to an end.

Why it matters: The ISS has been a source of international collaboration in space since the first module launched in 1998, but when the program ends, there may be no publicly funded replacement on the way.

Details: Even if the private space stations NASA is now banking on never become a reality, eventually the ISS’ major components will reach the end of their technical lifespans in orbit.

  • "[T]he idea here is to start early so that there could be potentially a private sector space station that serves NASA's needs," NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier said during a NASA press conference at Nasdaq headquarters in New York on Friday.

The impact: When the space station ends, international collaboration in space could look very different. In fact, it could give way to growing competition instead.

  • U.S. space rival China is planning to have its own space station in orbit by around 2022, but it's unclear exactly what kind of collaboration U.S. companies might be able to have with the nation.
  • The private space stations NASA's betting on might one day play host to astronauts from other countries aside from the U.S. as well, potentially democratizing human spaceflight around the world.
  • NASA still plans to collaborate with other space programs on human spaceflight when the station ends. For example, the agency is working with Europe and Japan on its Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.

Yes but: Private sector space stations are less likely to play a large role in space diplomacy, since they'll be aiming for profit.

  • The ISS has acted like a peacekeeping force in the past. (In 2014, for example, Russia and the U.S. were at odds on Earth, but the two countries still needed to cooperate in space.)
  • It remains to be seen if a private space station will be able to fill that role as well.
3. Check out Jupiter this week

Jupiter as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL/SScI

Look up this week to see Jupiter putting on a show for observers on Earth.

The big picture: The largest planet in our solar system is at its brightest this week. Jupiter is currently in a favorable alignment with Earth and the Sun, allowing the planet to shine brightly through the night and making observing the planet unusually rewarding.

Details: You can spot the huge planet with your naked eye at dusk and through the night all month, according to NASA.

  • Your view gets even better if you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. By using one of these tools, stargazers will be able to see the planet’s four largest moons — Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io — and possibly Jupiter’s distinctive bands of clouds.
  • Look east after sunset, and you should spot the bright planet shining above the horizon.

Be smart: Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a planet and a star when looking with your naked eye, but there’s a shortcut to avoid that confusion.

  • If an object is twinkling, it’s a star. But if it doesn’t twinkle, it’s probably a planet.
  • A satellite, on the other hand, moves across the sky without blinking, while a plane’s flashing lights give it away.
4. A little black hole

NGC 4395 seen in infrared light. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The black hole in the center of the dwarf galaxy 14 million light-years away is much smaller than scientists initially estimated, according to a new study in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Why it matters: Black hole researchers think galaxies as large as our own host supermassive black holes at their centers, but it’s not exactly clear how they got to be the huge and mysterious objects they are now.

  • By studying smaller black holes — like the one in the center of the galaxy NGC 4395 — scientists should be able to turn back the clock to learn more about how supermassive black holes grew early in the universe’s history.

What they found: The new study found that NGC 4395's black hole is about 40 times smaller than initially predicted, clocking in at about 10,000 times the mass of our Sun. (For reference, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is thought to be about 4 million times the mass of the Sun.)

What they did: The scientists behind the study used what’s known as “reverberation mapping” to weigh the black hole in the galaxy’s center.

  • This method relies on keeping an eye on the radiation emitted by the disk of matter surrounding the black hole, known as an accretion disk.
  • As that radiation passes through space, it hits another area of the galaxy known as the “broad-line region.”
  • The radiation unsettles the atoms in that region, causing them to change their state briefly and creating a bright flash that astronomers can measure.
  • The scientists were able to time how long it took for the radiation from the accretion disk to hit the broad-line region, enabling them to estimate the distance between the two and get a sense of the black hole’s mass.

The big picture: Intermediate-mass black holes like the one found in NGC 4395 have long been something of a curiosity in astronomy. Though researchers think they've tracked the origins of small black holes to the end of a star's life, the origins of these intermediate-mass black holes are still mysterious.

5. Help name an exoplanet

An artist's impression of a Jupiter twin orbiting a distant star. Image: ESO/L. Benassi

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the body responsible for assigning official names to cosmic objects discovered by humanity — wants people around the world to help name planets and stars far away from our own solar system.

Why it matters: The IAU initiative can help democratize what’s usually an opaque naming process.

  • “Each nation's designated star is visible from that country, and sufficiently bright to be observed through small telescopes,” the IAU wrote in a news release.

Details: So far, nearly 100 countries have signed up to take part in the naming program, and more can still join until July 30.

  • The IAU wants each country to organize a national campaign for the naming, where citizens can participate by offering suggestions for what the exoplanets and stars should be called.
  • Each country’s national committee will ask the public to vote on a few names. The winner will then be submitted to the IAU.
  • The IAU will announce the newly chosen names in December.

Go deeper: Find out if your country is participating in the program and what star and planet it has been assigned here.

6. Out of this world reading list

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo: NASA

Physicists debate Hawking’s idea that the universe had no beginning (Natalie Wolchover, Quanta)

New legislation calls for protection of Apollo 11 Moon landing site (Robert Pearlman, CollectSPACE)

A space tourist reacts to NASA's plans for low-Earth orbit (Dave Mosher, Business Insider)

NASA chief responds to Trump's Moon tweet (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

Here's how much it will cost you for a trip to the Space Station (Axios)

7. Your weekly dose of awe: A vortex on Jupiter

A close-up, color-enhanced look at Jupiter's clouds. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Seán Doran

This color-enhanced photo, taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, shows the swirling storms and bright clouds of Jupiter's distinctive atmosphere.

  • The dark spot near the center of the image is thought to be some sort of vortex.
  • “Nearby, other features display bright, high altitude clouds that have puffed up into the sunlight,” NASA said in an image description.
  • Juno was about 9,200 miles away from the top of the planet’s clouds when the image was captured on May 29.

Interested members of the public can process raw photos taken by Juno’s JunoCam camera and made available by NASA. This one, for example, was edited by Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran.

Thanks for spending time with me this week. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. See you next week! ✨

Editor's note: Item 4 was corrected to say that the black hole in the center of the dwarf galaxy is 14 million light-years away (not 14 light-years).