Mar 3, 2020

Axios Space

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1 big thing: Earth's gentle start

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The early Earth and other rocky planets may have formed quickly and gently, not violently through collapse and collision, as previously thought.

Why it matters: The details of Earth's formation are a long-standing mystery tied to how life may have arisen.

  • Specifics about planet formation are also key as scientists look out to other solar systems with worlds that might be habitable.

What's happening: A study published in Science Advances last week suggests that the proto-Earth may have hosted water before the Moon-forming impact occurred.

  • Other studies from NASA's New Horizons team found that Arrokoth — a world 1 billion miles past Pluto — also seems to have formed gently over time instead of quickly through collisions.

The big picture: Scientists think they have a pretty good understanding of how the giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn formed, but these new studies and years of research before them are forcing scientists to re-examine how rocky worlds like Earth, Mars and Mercury grew.

  • The gas giants likely formed by gobbling up pebbles, quickly becoming the dominant forces in their parts of the solar system.
  • Scientists are now trying to suss out the role this kind of growth may have played in the way that Earth and other small inner solar system worlds grew.

The intrigue: If Earth and other rocky worlds did grow through pebble accretion, it might have implications for when our planet was habitable.

  • "In principle, if we didn't have the Moon-forming impact, life could have formed much earlier on the Earth, probably," Martin Schiller, co-author of the Science Advances study, told Axios.

What's next: Scientists creating models of planetary formation are focusing on building our solar system from the ground up to test the various theories around how the inner planets — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — formed.

  • Even if these rocky planets grew by pebble accretion, it's possible that dozens of protoplanets and asteroids that grew from that process collided in a violent cascade much in the same way that classical models show.
  • However, it's also possible that pebble accretion would have left the early inner solar system with just five objects — early Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon and Mars — with only one huge collision between the early Moon and Earth in the early solar system.
  • "It's really fun because we're reinvestigating all of the things that we had taken for granted and modeled in the past," planetary scientist Kevin Walsh told Axios.
2. Blue Origin's big 2020

New Shepard takes flight in December 2019. Photo: Blue Origin

Blue Origin is planning to launch another test flight of its suborbital New Shepard space system as early as this month, with human test flights expected before the end of the year.

The big picture: The Jeff Bezos-backed rocket company pumped the brakes on its test flight program last year but is now gearing up to launch its next round of flights ahead of its first tests with human passengers.

"[We’ll have] about three to four more flights before we go fly people. So we're still on target for this year for doing that, but there’s a lot of work to be done."
— Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith to Axios

Context: Blue Origin sees its suborbital space business as key to the company.

  • By testing its human spaceflight systems with New Shepard, Blue Origin plans to translate what it learns into the development of orbital vehicles, like the New Glenn rocket currently being built.
  • The company also sees New Shepard as an important source of inspiration for the public as it works to make Bezos' dream of millions of people living and working in space a reality.

The big questions: Blue Origin has yet to announce a price for tickets, and it's not clear when New Shepard will enter commercial service.

3. Earth's new moon

Gemini Observatory's image of 2020 CD3. Photo: NSF/AURA/G. Fedorets

A likely "mini-moon" found orbiting Earth last month is moving away from our planet now, but it could be a harbinger of new small moons to come.

Why it matters: Objects like this one — which is thought to be a washing machine-sized asteroid captured by Earth's gravity — could allow scientists to one day study space rocks without needing to head all the way out to the asteroid belt.

  • "Because they have such similar orbits to the Earth ... they don't take as much energy to get to, on average, so they could be good places for us to send spacecraft," asteroid researcher Amy Mainzer told Axios.

What's happening: The mini-moon, named 2020 CD3, has likely been orbiting Earth for the past year, but it's taken until now for scientists to spot the small object.

  • The Catalina Sky Survey discovered 2020 CD3 on Feb. 15, marking only the second time in history that an object like this has been spotted.
  • According to NASA, the mini-moon has orbited Earth at least three times, with orbital periods that swing between 70 and 90 days, bringing it as far away as four times the distance between the Earth and our Moon.
  • The object's closest approach to Earth was about 25,000 miles from the planet's surface on Feb. 13.
  • 2020 CD3 is now expected to leave Earth behind early this month, escaping the planet's gravitational pull and moving into orbit around the Sun.

What's next: Scientists think there is likely some kind of mini-moon orbiting Earth at any given time.

  • Observatories expected to come online in the next few years will likely be able to spot far more of these objects than scientists are able to study today.
  • Space-based small satellite missions might even be able to one day meet up with a mini-moon to get a close-up look at it.
4. 1 fun thing: Want to be an astronaut?

This could be you. Photo: NASA

Applications are now open for every fifth grader's dream job: NASA astronaut.

Why it matters: The space agency doesn't put out a call for new astronauts unless they have a need to fill.

  • "With 48 astronauts in the active astronaut corps, more will be needed to serve as crew aboard spacecraft bound for multiple destinations and propel exploration forward as part of Artemis missions [to the Moon] and beyond," NASA said in a statement.

Details: Applications opened on March 2 and will run through the end of the month.

  • Requirements include a master's degree in a STEM field, passing a physical exam, U.S. citizenship and two years of work experience that can be translated to life as an astronaut.
  • NASA will likely select its astronaut candidates from this round of applications in 2021, when they can start training to become full-fledged members of the Astronaut Corps.
  • In a first, the space agency will also administer an online exam that could take two hours to complete.

Background: NASA's most recent class of astronauts just graduated after being selected in 2017.

  • That class of 11 was selected from more than 18,300 people who applied in 2015, the highest number of applications ever received by NASA for the astronaut program.

Go deeper: Shoot your shot and apply to be an astronaut.

5. Out of this world reading list

Photo: DARPA

How Christina Koch could become a spaceflight legend (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Commercial satellite docks with another to demonstrate orbital servicing (Alan Boyle, GeekWire)

Boeing didn’t perform full end-to-end test of its astronaut capsule (Chabeli Carrazana, Orlando Sentinel)

First SLS launch now expected in second half of 2021 (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

DARPA launch challenge ends with no winner (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: The black hole and the asteroid

Gif: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/MIT/Harvard

Sometimes the best photos are taken by accident. NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was exploring an asteroid not far from Earth when it unexpectedly caught sight of a black hole 30,000 light-years away.

  • OSIRIS-REx detected the black hole using an instrument designed to measure the effect solar particles are having on its target asteroid, Bennu.
  • The spacecraft was able to spot the black hole as it ate material from its companion star, causing the system to glow in X-ray light.
  • Japan's MAXI telescope first discovered the black hole system — named MAXI J0637-430 — in November 2019, with NASA's NICER also detecting the X-rays emitted by the binary not long after.

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