May 12, 2020

Axios Space

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1 big thing: The pandemic's risk to astronomy

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing back major astronomy projects and threatening to unravel some of the gains made toward increasing diversity among researchers in the field.

Why it matters: Depending on how long the crisis lasts, it could affect our understanding of the cosmos for years to come by delaying scientific efforts that will help find new asteroids and gather data about distant stars and galaxies.

What's happening: NASA announced in March that it would put the building of the James Webb Space Telescope — the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — on hold due to the coronavirus, likely adding an additional delay to the already years-delayed mission.

  • Construction of the Extremely Large Telescope and the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile have also been put on hold, delaying the much-anticipated projects.
  • The Event Horizon Telescope — which uses a network of radio telescopes around the world to take photos of black holes — was forced to cancel its observing season this year.
  • Both LIGO observatories in the U.S. are on pause to protect staff, putting off the hunt for new signals from gravitational waves rippling the fabric of space and time.

Yes, but: Astronomy, unlike some other fields of science, is well-suited to remote work in general.

  • Some telescopes are remotely operated as a rule, with researchers directing observations from various parts of the world and others having gone to more remote observing due to the pandemic.
  • Still, most observatories need people on-site to maintain them, and due to social distancing and new safety requirements, the coronavirus is complicating these efforts.

What to watch: Astronomy and astrophysics have also made strides toward diversifying its researchers in recent years, but the coronavirus pandemic could threaten that progress.

  • Contractors, researchers, university and observatory staff, and adjunct professors from historically underrepresented groups in astronomy could be most vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic.
"The more risky we seem as a career choice, our diversity numbers will drop. It'll just be the people who feel economically safe and culturally safe making that choice, and we'll lose our inclusiveness again. I think that's bad for the science because we need all points of view."
— Megan Donahue, the president of the American Astronomical Society, to Axios

Astronomers are also worried about the funding landscape for the field after the worst of the crisis passes.

  • Space science is particularly dependent on government spending for large projects and other initiatives, but if that kind of funding dries up after the pandemic, it could create a ripple effect across the entire field for years to come.
  • If government funding runs dry, hiring, current jobs and future missions could all see effects, astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Axios
  • "That's going to have a long-term ripple effect on employment in the field," McDowell added.

The bottom line: The field of astronomy is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but the true toll of the crisis may not appear until years down the road.

2. Exclusive: A new way to control satellites

HIVE. Photo: Hypergiant Industries

A new tool for satellite operators could allow one ground controller to keep an eye on dozens of spacecraft at once.

Why it matters: Today, satellite operators are only able to control three to five satellites at a time. With potential mega-constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites coming online, companies and governments will likely need to find ways to scale up their operations rapidly.

  • The new tool called Hyper Intelligent Vehicle Enhancement (HIVE) from Hypergiant Industries aims to make satellite operation more flexible and able to respond to crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

How it works: According to Hypergiant, HIVE software can be used on top of existing platforms to streamline them and make them remotely operable using tablets or phones.

  • "This software is built to reduce the cost of operations, support nominal and safe manned and unmanned spaceflight operations, and decrease training time while increasing productivity for the satellite operators of tomorrow," Hypergiant founder Ben Lamm told Axios. "In essence, it is satellite command and control in the palm of your hand."
  • Hypergiant also hopes to incorporate social media feeds and FEMA databases into the tool to alert operators when a major event like an earthquake or other disaster occurs to help people make decisions about where to task their satellites to look.
  • "We want people to be able to operate their entire constellation from their phones or tablets while in the field," Lamm added.

What's next: The Air Force has already signed on to use the tool, according to Hypergiant, and the company is in talks with other agencies and commercial entities as well.

3. Brines on Mars may not be habitable

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

Seasonal flows of extremely salty water on Mars could be longer-lasting and more frequent than initially thought, though they likely aren't suitable to life as we know it, according to a new study in the journal Nature Astronomy this week.

Why it matters: If these brines on the Red Planet are not habitable for microbes as we understand them, then scientists may not need to worry about potentially contaminating these regions during future missions, opening up new avenues of exploration on Mars.

What they found: Seasonal brines on Mars don't get warmer than about -55°F, a much colder temperature than life is known to thrive in.

  • Those liquids can form on about 40% of the Martian surface for as long as six hours, according to the study.

Yes, but: While the study shows it's unlikely that Earth-originating microbes could find safe purchase in Martian brines, that doesn't mean space agencies should send rovers to explore these parts of Mars from very close range.

  • It's still possible that some type of yet-to-be-discovered life on Earth could find a way to live in even this extreme environment on Mars.
  • "My hope is that our work motivates such further research into extremophiles on Earth," Edgard G. Rivera-Valentín, an author of the new study, told Axios via email.
Bonus: World of the week — Ganymede

Ganymede as seen by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1979. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The largest moon in our solar system, Ganymede, plays host to a large iron core and a subsurface ocean that might be the kind of place scientists could one day find alien life in the solar system.

Background: The moon, which orbits Jupiter, was discovered by Galileo in 1610 along with three other moons, collectively known as the Galilean moons today.

  • "The discovery of the four Galilean satellites eventually led to the understanding that planets in our solar system orbit the Sun, instead of our solar system revolving around Earth," NASA said.

Details: Ganymede's surface is a bizarre looking mix of terrains, with about 40% of it cratered and dark and 60% marked by light, patterned grooves, according to NASA.

  • Those lighter regions — which are thought to be created by water coming up from below the crust — are younger than the dark regions.
  • The European Space Agency's JUICE mission, expected to launch in 2022, will study Ganymede in an attempt to learn more about the large moon's subsurface ocean, crust, formation and possible habitability.
4. Out of this world reading list

Artist's illustration of two stars orbiting a black hole. Image: ESO/L. Calçada

Cygnus cargo ship leaves space station for free-flying fire mission (Tariq Malik,

How to see Comet SWAN in night skies (Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

Richard Branson to sell part of Virgin Galactic stake (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Newfound black hole lurks just 1,000 light-years from Earth (Axios)

Tom Cruise, NASA planning to film a movie in space (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Shadows on an asteroid

Photo: JAXA/U. Tokyo/Kochi U./Rikkyo U./Nagoya U./Chiba Inst. Tech./Meiji U./U. Aizu/AIST

Asteroids are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of our solar system, the debris that didn't get incorporated into the planets as they formed billions of years ago.

  • A new photo taken by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft shows what the robotic explorer saw as it descended to the surface of the asteroid Ryugu to collect a sample from the ancient object.
  • That little piece of the asteroid is expected to make it back to Earth by December.

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