Feb 11, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,235 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 4.5 minutes to read.

Please send your tips, questions and charged solar particles to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: It's the Sun's time to shine


The Sun is getting a long-overdue close-up thanks to a number of new missions designed to reveal the inner workings of our nearest star.

Why it matters: The mechanisms that govern the solar wind, the Sun's 11-year cycle and magnetic fields are still largely a mystery.

  • Understanding those behaviors is necessary for forecasting space weather — and protecting satellites in orbit and the power grid on Earth.

What's happening: The Solar Orbiter spacecraft — a joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency — launched Sunday night.

  • Once in place around the Sun, it will snap photos of the star's polar regions for the first time and give scientists a better understanding of its magnetic fields.

The big picture: The Solar Orbiter and two other recent Sun-centered missions are allowing scientists to study how space weather — like solar flares — is generated and spread across the solar system.

The bigger picture: Learning more about the Sun could also help researchers piece together how other sunlike stars act and whether those solar systems might harbor habitable planets.

  • "The only way we can really understand that complex relationship [between a star and its planets] is if we understand the one that we're directly affected by — the Sun and the Earth," NASA solar scientist Alex Young told Axios.

Details: The Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, is studying the solar wind, picking apart the small particles not far from the Sun to understand how the star's atmosphere works.

  • The National Science Foundation's Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is a microscope for the Sun, gathering detailed observations about the star's surface from Earth.
  • When the Parker Probe's and Solar Orbiter's orbits align, they'll be able to study the same stream of particles from the Sun at different points in space.
  • About 10 other spacecraft also continue to stare at the star from farther away, adding to those observations.

Yes, but: All this new data doesn't immediately translate into better predictions of space weather.

  • Current space weather models don't completely account for the behavior of the Sun's magnetic fields and the intricacies of how solar flares shoot from the star.
  • The data gathered by the new telescopes will be fed into those models, but it may take years to fully integrate the new information.
2. NASA's brand new budget

The Moon, AKA the apple of NASA's eye. Photo: NASA

The Trump administration is going all-in on NASA's Artemis program to get astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Driving the news: The White House is asking Congress for a 12% boost to the space agency's budget for 2021, and it estimates NASA's Moon to Mars initiative will cost about $71.2 billion from 2021 to 2025.

The big picture: The budget request is a huge leap in funding for NASA, with much of it going to the agency's plans to establish a long-term presence on the Moon in the hopes of sending astronauts on to Mars eventually.

"[T]hey're putting money into significant lunar lander development, service operations, modernizing spacesuits. ... Tick off all the things you need to do to land on the Moon in the next few years, this budget is doing it."
— Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society to Axios

Winners: Aside from the Artemis program, the budget also provides funding for the development of multiple robotic Mars missions that could pave the way for human exploration of the red planet.

  • Those missions include a 2026 launch of a robotic probe to bring samples back from the Martian surface and a new Mars Ice Mapper that will characterize the planet's ice.
  • The budget also funds the Orion spacecraft and the agency's long-delayed Space Launch System rocket as well as technology needed for a small Gateway space station in lunar orbit.

Losers: The Trump administration is attempting to cancel funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is slated to be the space agency's next flagship astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope's expected launch in 2021.

  • The budget request also cuts funding for the SOFIA telescope — which flies on a modified Boeing 747 aircraft and observes cosmic objects in infrared light — and would cancel two missions to monitor Earth's climate.
  • The request would also end funding for the agency's STEM Engagement office, instead moving that money toward its exploration goals.

Be smart: It's unlikely the president's budget will get enacted in its current form no matter how friendly to human exploration it is.

  • Congress has reinstated funding for WFIRST and STEM education initiatives when the administration has tried to cancel funding in the past, and this time will likely be no different.
3. Exclusive: NewSpace Networks launches

Sunrise from orbit. Photo: NASA

NewSpace Networks — which is emerging from stealth mode today — will focus its efforts on making data collection and communication from space cheaper and easier through software, not engineering new satellites and rockets.

Why it matters: The price of launching satellites to orbit has gotten cheaper in recent years, but it still costs millions, if not billions, of dollars for companies to deploy and operate their own constellations of satellites.

  • "What we want to do is take what's being deployed, lever it up to make it more efficient and more usable," NewSpace Networks co-founder Robert Cleave told Axios.
  • Cleave and his co-founders all worked for Vector, a small launch company that suspended operations and filed for bankruptcy last year.

How it works: At the moment, getting data back from satellites is a cumbersome process involving ground stations, satellite links and an extensive infrastructure of fiber-optic cables and antennas on Earth.

  • NewSpace Networks hopes to work with satellite and ground operators to make their networks run more efficiently and find ways to help them stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
  • The company wants to create tools that will move information through networks of communications satellites from one point to another as quickly as possible, even in remote locations like in the ocean or in the Arctic.
  • They're also looking to more efficiently process data, saving time, money and opening the door to using information from orbit in new ways.
  • NewSpace Networks is now looking to raise $200 million to put toward these efforts.

But, but, but: The company's founders say it likely won't be easy to convince the old guard of the space industry that this kind of innovation is useful and necessary.

  • "It's to its detriment as an industry to not embrace new technologies," co-founder Shaun Coleman told Axios. "I think probably our single biggest issue is getting the industry to adopt and embrace good, new technology."
4. Out of this world reading list

Boeing's uncrewed Starliner back on Earth after flight. Photo: NASA

SpaceX plans a spinoff, IPO for Starlink business (Ashlee Vance and Dana Hull, Bloomberg)

Trump seeks $15.4 billion for U.S. Space Force in 2021 budget (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

Telescope detects fast radio burst hitting Earth every 16 days (Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Gizmodo)

Iran's space program again fails to put satellite into orbit (Ursula Perano, Axios)

Boeing's troubled Starliner mission could have been much worse (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A stellar fight

Photo: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Olofsson, et al.

There's no match for the drama of a confrontation in deep space. Astronomers spotted this gas cloud created when one dying star became a red giant, growing large enough to encircle a companion star.

  • The companion star then fell toward the dying one, forcing it to slough off its outer layers of gas, according to the European Southern Observatory, exposing its core.
  • "With detailed images of the environment of HD101584 we can make the connection between the giant star it was before, and the stellar remnant it will soon become,” Sofia Ramstedt from Uppsala University, Sweden, said in a statement about the photo.
Miriam Kramer

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