Sep 10, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The coming cost of moving satellites

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With thousands of small satellites expected to launch to orbit in the coming years, the risks of collisions will likely increase and a fight could break out over who should bear the cost of managing greater space traffic.

  • Some experts say the burden of moving satellites out of harm's way could increasingly fall on the operators of larger spacecraft, not those managing mega-constellations of internet-beaming small satellites.

Why it matters: The operators of these future mega-constellations — like SpaceX or Amazon — may have a higher tolerance for risk than those managing just a handful of expensive spacecraft, experts say.

  • That could raise the cost of operating weather, Earth imaging or other types of satellites in lower orbits by forcing them to expend precious fuel more often.
  • "If they [mega-constellation operators] lose one of their satellites, no biggie. They have 10,000 more," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios in an interview.
  • But there isn't that kind of redundancy for larger spacecraft.

Driving the news: The European Space Agency (ESA) just shifted one of its satellites to avoid a possible collision with a SpaceX's Starlink satellite.

  • According to SpaceX, a computer error prevented the company from seeing that odds of a collision were relatively high, but the breakdown in communication is a good example of problems that could crop up in the future.
  • "Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails — an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic," Holger Krag, the head of space safety at ESA, said in a statement.

State of play: Current means of tracking satellites by the U.S. Air Force and others have worked well until now, but experts say there's an urgent need for better monitoring and communication around what's in orbit.

  • "We don't even agree on where stuff is," Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineer and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Axios.
  • The Air Force's models simplify the trajectory of satellites, which means operators could make an unnecessary or incorrect maneuver that puts them in more harm, says Jah.

Better tracking is only half of the battle. Establishing a global, accurate space traffic management system with established rules of the road is also necessary, according to some experts.

  • OneWeb, a company hoping to launch hundreds of satellites in the coming years to provide global internet, is advocating a design-based approach to reducing space junk.
  • SpaceX's Starlink satellites have the ability to perform collision avoidance maneuvers autonomously, acting on data from the Air Force's tracking system, without input from operators on the ground.

What to watch: The Trump administration, through its Space Policy Directive-3, hopes to put the Department of Commerce in charge of many space traffic management duties.

2. What we know about India’s lunar lander

The nearside of the Moon. Photo: NASA/Goddard/ASU

India's attempt to land on the Moon last week first appeared to be unsuccessful but reports now suggest its Vikram lander is actually intact on the lunar surface.

What’s happening: Mission Control lost touch with the Vikram lander when it was just above the Moon's surface, indicating that something went wrong during its descent.

  • Today, India's space agency confirmed in a statement that the lander was found by the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter circling the Moon, but they haven't been able to communicate with it.
  • "All possible efforts are being made to establish communication with lander," the statement reads.
  • According to an unconfirmed report from India Today, the lander is also reportedly in one piece but made a “hard” landing and is “tilted."
“Any non-optimal [landing] could destroy vital electronics making communication unlikely. But we live in hope,” geologist Clive Neal of the University of Notre Dame told Axios.

Context: The lander, which carried a rover with it, was expected to function on the Moon's surface for 2 weeks, before darkness descended, plunging the spacecraft into lunar night, when temperatures can dip as low as about -300°F.

  • Scientists think the Moon’s south polar region could be rich in water-ice, and Vikram was designed to investigate that idea.
  • Researchers think that it might be possible in the future to mine water from the Moon in order to enable exploration, so characterization missions to learn more about what kind of resources are actually there are key.

The big picture: India has been working toward establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in space.

Go deeper: Axios Deep Dive — The Moon

3. A video of a black hole

The first-ever photo of a black hole. Photo: EHT Collaboration

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration hopes to produce the first-ever moving image of a black hole by the end of the 2020s.

Why it matters: Still images of black holes can give scientists a lot of information about the mysterious and fundamental objects. But videos can help them drill into the details of how black holes consume matter and affect the galaxies they find themselves within, EHT project director Shep Doeleman said.

  • Black hole videos could help astrophysicists push the bounds of physics as we know it today, potentially finding new tests for general relativity.

Background: The EHT released its first image of a black hole in April. That image — which reveals the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy M87, about 54 million light-years away — was the result of more than 10 years of planning and work.

  • The EHT works by using a group of radio observatories that coordinate their observations over the course of a night, taking meticulous care to look at the same part of the sky.

What’s next: The EHT is now working on adding 2 more telescopes to its collaboration of radio observatories by next year, and the scientists behind the project plan to find a way to image Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

  • Doeleman said that the team is also hoping to image the magnetic fields around black holes to learn more about their structures and basic natures.
  • "That is going to be a whole new ball game, as they say. That's going to allow us to really study how black holes eat and how they digest all the matter that's funneling into them," Doeleman told Axios in an interview.

The EHT collaboration won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize last week for its work to image a black hole for the first time.

4. Out of this world reading list

Titan as seen by the Cassini orbiter. Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

SpaceX's plans for launching Mars-rocket prototypes from South Texas (Dave Mosher, Business Insider)

Einstein’s general relativity reveals new features of a pulsar (Emily Conover, Science News)

Some of Saturn moon Titan's methane lakes may sit in 'explosion craters' (Mike Wall,

The Silicon Valley heavyweights who want to settle the Moon (Ashlee Vance, Bloomberg)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: After a star explodes

Photo: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al./STScI

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has watched the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A change over the course of its 20 years in space.

  • A new photo and video illustrate the evolution of the object located 11,000 light-years from Earth.
  • The time-lapse video shows hot gas expanding outward within the remnant, and it gives scientists the opportunity to watch a well-studied object change over time.

Background: Cassiopeia A "was featured in Chandra's official 'First Light' image, released Aug. 26, 1999, and marked a seminal moment not just for the observatory, but for the field of X-ray astronomy," NASA said in a statement.

Miriam Kramer

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