Jul 21, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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  • Please send your tips, questions and maps of the universe to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or if you received this as an email, just hit reply.
1 big thing: Space's big year is being blunted

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

This was supposed to be the year for the space industry, but the ambitious plans of companies and agencies are threatened by the pandemic and its economic fallout, exacerbating the growing pains of a promising industry.

Why it matters: The U.S. has historically dominated the global space industry, which some have projected could be worth up to $1 trillion by 2040.

  • Delays and setbacks can come at a huge cost — both financially and symbolically — in the global space race.

What's happening: The industry has put up some solid wins this year — like SpaceX's first crewed launch to the International Space Station and the UAE's launch of its first Mars mission — despite the pandemic.

  • And Earth-observing satellite companies are aiding in coronavirus relief efforts.
  • The work of many rocket companies and government contractors has also been deemed essential due to national security concerns, keeping many in the industry in business through shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

Yes, but: Boeing was also expected to get astronauts to the launch pad this year, though that's looking increasingly less likely after a troubled uncrewed test flight left the company with a series of fixes it needs to implement ahead of another test.

  • Since the U.S. government's redundancy in space depends on both SpaceX and Boeing having the capability to launch astronauts, the delay represents a broader setback.
  • A company spokesperson says Boeing is "successfully managing" the challenges of the pandemic and is making progress toward repeating the test.
  • OneWeb, a company that had been working to create a constellation of internet-beaming satellites declared bankruptcy in part due to the pandemic and its inability to fundraise because of it.
  • Virgin Orbit's first test flight ended in failure this year, and the company has been working to aid in the pandemic response, retasking some of its employees to build ventilators that can be used in emergencies.

Between the lines: A new Space Capital report released Monday shows that venture capital investment in the space industry actually increased about 4% in the first half of 2020, by comparison to the first half of 2019. Total investment in the industry in the second quarter of 2020 is down by 23% compared to the same time last year.

  • The parts of the industry that did see major investment largely centered around applications — like uses for GPS and the Internet of Things.
  • Space infrastructure — which includes satellite and rocket manufacturing — saw a steep 85% decline in investment from the first quarter to the second quarter of the year.
  • Government contracts also helped space companies continue their work, and it remains to be seen how long that kind of assistance will continue.
  • The up-and-comers predicted to drive growth in the industry are being most impacted.
"In downturns and times of uncertainty, companies with high capital requirements and long development timelines before they reach revenue, are typically the fastest and hardest hit. This is true with space infrastructure."
— Chad Anderson, Space Capital managing partner, via email

What to watch: Industry experts are going to keep a close eye on the November election and the federal budget to see exactly how NASA and other agencies will fare.

  • "Generally, the view is that technology and national defense are going to be on the agenda no matter who wins the election. ... But the implementation will certainly likely change depending on which administration we see in power," space industry analyst Carissa Christensen tells me.
2. The science we can learn from Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE seen from the ground. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The new comet gracing skies in the Northern Hemisphere provides scientists with an opportunity to learn more about these mysterious, icy objects from relatively close range.

Why it matters: Comets are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of the solar system. Learning more about their nature could help scientists piece together answers about how our part of space formed and even how water was delivered to Earth billions of years ago.

Driving the news: Comet NEOWISE can now be seen with the naked eye by observers on the ground, but NASA scientists and others are training powerful telescopes in space and on Earth on the comet.

  • "We now have a really spectacular look at it. We can really study it up close with many, many different instruments and cameras. So it offers the opportunity to gather a lot of extra data," Amy Mainzer, the NEOWISE project's principal investigator, said during a press briefing.
  • Scientists are planning to gather data about the light signature emitted by the comet in order to learn more about its chemical makeup.
  • Many comets break up when they make their close approaches to the Sun, so studying Comet NEOWISE's survival could help shed some light on why the structures of some comets were built to last while others weren't.

The big picture: It's rare for a comet this large and bright to come this close to Earth, and this comet won't be back around again for about another 7,000 years.

  • NASA's Parker Solar Probe and astronauts on the International Space Station have already caught glimpses of the comet.
  • The space agency may also plan to get a look at it with the Hubble Space Telescope and other large telescopes once the comet moves a bit farther from the Sun, making observation safer for the sensitive observatories.
3. Piecing together cosmic history

The map of cosmic history. Image: Anand Raichoor (EPFL), Ashley Ross (Ohio State University) and the SDSS Collaboration

A new, sweeping analysis fills in 11 billion years of the history of our universe in unprecedented detail.

The big picture: Previous studies have illuminated the very earliest days of the universe and others have detailed the cosmos' more recent history, but until now, there's been an 11 billion year gap in knowledge of our roughly 13.8 billion year old universe.

Details: A collaboration — called the extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (eBOSS) — collected data about 2 million galaxies and quasars.

  • That information, which traces the 11 billion year gap, was combined into a map with other data that pieces together the expansion history of the universe from just 300,000 years after the Big Bang to now.
  • It took about 10 years for the astronomers working on eBOSS to gather enough data to come out with these results.
  • "What makes this so difficult is simply that the volume is so large, the signals we are seeking are so weak, and the galaxies are so faint," Kyle Dawson, eBOSS principal investigator, told me via email. "Even with an advanced instrument such as the BOSS spectrograph, it took us a decade to observe enough faint galaxies and quasars to make the measurements that we are reporting today."

The intrigue: The new analysis further complicates measurements of the rate of the expansion of the universe — a value known as the Hubble constant.

  • The eBOSS map suggests that the expansion rate — thought to be spurred on by dark energy — is actually about 10% lower than the rate found when measuring the distances to other galaxies using different means.
  • That number closely hews to others that are in line with the standard model of cosmology, but other means of measuring the Hubble constant have diverged in recent years, complicating that picture.
4. Out of this world reading list

The James Webb Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn

How to photograph Comet NEOWISE this week (Chris George, Digital Camera World)

SpaceX launches South Korean satellite with same booster that flew astronauts (Caroline Glenn and Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel)

NASA jettisons Apollo moon landing stats to reach 300th US spacewalk (Robert Pearlman, CollectSpace)

NASA's next great space observatory delayed until October 2021 (Axios)

Spacecraft snaps closest-ever photos of the Sun (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: 51 years ago on the Moon

Photo: NASA

On this day 51 years ago, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were leaving the Moon behind, rocketing up to Michael Collins in lunar orbit to make their way back to Earth.

  • The two astronauts spent a little over 21 hours on the lunar surface.
  • This iconic photo — snapped by Collins — shows Armstrong and Aldrin's lunar lander ascending with Earth in the background on July 21, 1969.
  • Every human alive at the time except for Collins is in this photo.
Miriam Kramer

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