May 21, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Greetings, and thanks for reading Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration.

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

1 big thing: Venus can help us understand ourselves

Venus seen by Mariner 10 in 1974. Photo: NASA

Venus is sometimes considered Earth’s "evil twin," and yet we know frustratingly little about it, creating a blind spot in our own history.

The big picture: NASA has prioritized Mars, Earth's other sibling planet. The space agency has launched more than a dozen spacecraft to study the red world over the past 30 years and is planning to eventually send humans there. Meanwhile, in that time, NASA only launched one dedicated mission — Magellan — to Venus.

  • "We had three chances on our solar system — Venus, Earth and Mars — and only Earth could provide a prolonged habitable environment," Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist at NASA, tells Axios via email.
  • "So the big question is — Was Venus ever habitable, and for how long? This can provide a real basis for us to understand the likelihood of other Earths as we start to gather more and more data on solar systems beyond our own."

Details: The missions that have studied Venus, including spacecraft from other nations, provided tantalizing clues. Future missions could help us learn more about the past and future of our own solar system and better characterize planets far from our sun.

  • Scientists think it's possible Venus was the first habitable planet in our solar system, with liquid water on its surface for many millions of years. New missions could confirm this.
  • Venus' oceans boiled away as it became the hot, inhospitable world we see today due to a runaway greenhouse effect — a cautionary tale given human-caused climate change on Earth.
  • Previous missions to Venus revealed volcanoes and hints of plate tectonics.
  • Some researchers have even suggested features of Venus' clouds, which are largely comprised of sulfuric acid, could actually be caused by microbial life that can survive in extreme environments, though that's far from a sure thing.

Meanwhile: As NASA focuses on Mars, the Moon and more distant objects, international space agencies are looking to Venus.

  • Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft is orbiting Venus, beaming home information about its atmosphere after a somewhat harrowing journey to the second planet from the sun.
  • Russia and India have Venus missions in the works as well.
  • In fact, according to NASA scientist Suzanne Smrekar, there's something of a "surge" in Venus research these days by comparison to decades past in part thanks to Akatsuki and Europe's Venus Express mission that ended in 2014.
  • However, the amount of Venus research today still pales by comparison to Mars.

What's next? In the early 2020s, scientists will get another chance to make their case that Venus is worthy of its own NASA mission.

  • Technological advancements could allow a lander to survive on Venus' hot, high-pressure surface for up to 60 days, far more than the previous two-hour record, according to Lori Glaze, head of NASA's planetary science division.
2. Mars is Earth's more popular little brother

Mars seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

One of the underlying reasons for the disparity in Mars vs. Venus missions might be that the rocky, red planet has captured our collective imagination in ways that Venus — with its thick cloud cover and over 800°F surface temperatures — hasn't.

  • "Ever since we learned how forbidding it is on the surface, I think there's been a little bit less of that kind of fantasy about going to Venus," planetary scientist David Grinspoon says.
  • A crewed mission to Mars is viewed as more feasible, freeing us to imagine going there one day.

Why it matters: Science fiction novels and films depict Mars colonies, and permanent Mars settlements are a goal of billionaire space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. NASA is aiming to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

  • How we think about a world in fiction affects how the public understands it. And we think about Mars as playing a role in our transition to a multi-planetary species.

Background: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Percival Lowell popularized the idea that long canals on the Martian surface were the vestiges of an intelligent civilization. While Lowell's explanation turned out to be wrong, he helped bring those ideas to the public. And since then, our obsession has only grown.

  • Today, there are hundreds of movies, TV shows and books related to the planet and our future on it, including "The Martian," "The Expanse" and "The First."
"Mars is a planet that you can see with a backyard telescope. You can see changes on the surface from year to year and season to season. You can see polar caps. There's a sense of it being an Earth-like place."
— Planetary scientist David Grinspoon
3. The politics of NASA's Artemis moonshot

The Apollo 12 lunar landing descending to the surface of the moon. Photo: NASA/JSC

NASA wants to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024 as part of its newly minted Artemis program, but they're having trouble getting congressional buy-in.

What's happening: Last week, the space agency rolled out an amended budget for Fiscal Year 2020, asking for an extra $1.6 billion to get astronauts back on the Moon four years earlier than initially planned.

  • Congress largely agrees with the idea that Americans should go back to the Moon, but they're resistant to funding a program that has no formal spending plan beyond this year.
  • Another sticking point for congressional Democrats is the White House's proposed source of the extra funds: A surplus in the Pell Grants program, which benefits low-income students.
  • Last week, Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who chairs the appropriations panel overseeing NASA, voted a spending bill out of his committee that did not include the $1.6 billion for the moonshot.
“Before NASA expects any funding to accelerate the mission to the moon, it needs to provide the Appropriations Committee with the total cost of landing humans in space in 2024, the estimate of any additional costs incurred for speeding up the timeline as well as the technical details of the plan. Cutting Pell grants to fund this initiative is a slap in the face to millions of need-based students."
— Congressman José Serrano, in a statement to Axios
  • For his part, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says NASA views the requested influx of funding as a “down payment," with the expectation that the agency will need more money to make the 2024 deadline happen.
  • "We’re currently working with the Administration to come up with a complete picture that will be a part of the Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal," a NASA spokesperson told Axios via email.

What they’re saying: “I think the fundamental issue is whether Congress agrees with the White House that acceleration of the lunar program is a good idea. And my intuition is that the answer to that question is yes," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells Axios.

4. New Horizons keeps flying on

Artist's illustration of New Horizons near a Kuiper Belt object. Illustration: JHUAPL/SwRI

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues to speed through the solar system after its historic rendezvous with Pluto and Ultima Thule, scientists on Earth are thinking up ways to do even more with the mission.

Why it matters: New Horizons transformed our understanding of the solar system by revealing ice mountains on Pluto’s surface and beaming back photos of Ultima Thule, a leftover from the dawn of the solar system.

  • If the spacecraft gets a second extended mission, it’s possible it could again reveal another never-before-seen world from close range.
  • “The spacecraft is healthy and has plenty of power to go on exploring deeper and deeper into the Kuiper Belt and even beyond it,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Axios.

Driving the news: New Horizons scientists just published their first study detailing the Ultima Thule encounter, and the team is planning to ask NASA for another extended mission for the spacecraft next year.

Details: While the Hubble Space Telescope discovered Ultima Thule, the target for the spacecraft’s current extended mission, the team will likely need to rely on New Horizons' onboard cameras to find the next destination, Stern said.

  • They hope to find and fly by another object in Ultima Thule’s region of space, known as the Kuiper Belt, in the early to mid-2020s.
  • New Horizons is expected to have enough juice to function through the mid-to-late 2030s.
  • By that point, it’s possible that the spacecraft will be flying in interstellar space.
5. Out of this world reading list

The Hubble Space Telescope seen from the Atlantis space shuttle. Photo: NASA

As commercial spaceflight takes off, the aviation industry gets protective of airspace (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Dear Hubble: How one telescope transformed astronomy, and us all (Joshua Sokol, National Geographic)

Everything you need to know about Blue Origin (Axios)

NASA’s full Artemis plan revealed: 37 launches and a lunar outpost (Eric Berger, Ars Technica)

Moondust could cloud our lunar ambitions (Ceridwen Dovey, Wired)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: You are here

A visualization of where our sun sits in the Milky Way Galaxy. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

This visualization, produced in 2017, shows exactly where scientists think the Sun is located in our Milky Way Galaxy.

  • "Using infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists have discovered that the Milky Way's elegant spiral structure is dominated by just two arms wrapping off the ends of a central bar of stars," NASA said in a statement.

Our sun is located on the Orion Spur, which is about 10,000 light-years long and considered a "partial arm."

  • Our galaxy is thought to be about 100,000 light-years across and plays host to at least 100 billion stars, but only one of them is our Sun.
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for spending time with me this Tuesday! See you back here next week. 🌠