Aug 18, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,265 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

  • Programming note: I'm taking a week off to catch my breath. See y'all back here on Sept. 1.

Please send your tips, questions and twice-flown rocket boosters to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or if you received this as an email, just hit reply.

1 big thing: SpaceX's banner year

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX is racking up wins this year, solidifying its role in the top tier of space companies operating in the U.S. today — and pressuring the rest of the industry into a new era of spaceflight.

Why it matters: Instead of remaining the young upstart that's breaking all the rules, SpaceX is now creating the rules for the other companies involved in the industry.

  • But as SpaceX transitions from startup to established leader and space companies that have been around for decades attempt to modernize, it's not yet clear how — and how quickly — the space industry will channel its growth.

What's happening: SpaceX has uprooted the idea of what an aerospace company can and should be, working on thin margins and performing feats — like landing orbital rocket boosters and reflying them — that were previously the realm of science fiction.

So far this year, SpaceX has launched 14 missions to orbit.

  • The company's most resounding success was its launch and landing of its first crewed mission for NASA, bringing human spaceflight back to U.S. soil for the first time in nine years.
  • SpaceX also moved out ahead of its competitors working to create fleets of internet-beaming satellites in orbit, with more than 500 Starlink spacecraft launched so far.
  • The company's prototype Starship — which is expected to one day be SpaceX's interplanetary vehicle — successfully flew and landed in a test flight this summer.
  • SpaceX also won a huge contract for military satellite launches in the 2020s.

The big picture: SpaceX is at the same time going through the growing pains of a company moving from one phase of its life in the industry to the other.

  • Instead of being the new company on the block, SpaceX is now serving as the model for many of the startup space companies coming onto the scene today.
  • Because of its position in the industry, "they [SpaceX] always have to be their best. They have to be on," Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told me. "They're going to be more and more scrutinized."
  • SpaceX didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.

Yes, but: The inertia of the space industry is immense, and it's not yet clear whether SpaceX has the momentum to propel the rest of the industry into its vision of the future.

  • Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and other companies have been involved in the industry for decades longer than SpaceX, and their ties with the government — still the industry's biggest customer — especially run deep.
  • Last week Elon Musk sniped at United Launch Alliance on Twitter after both companies won huge national security contracts, belying the SpaceX founder's continued frustration with the staying power of the Boeing-Lockheed Martin initiative.

What's next: SpaceX is expected to fly more test flights of its Starship in the coming year, further proving out the spacecraft.

  • SpaceX also has more crewed missions on the books, including a NASA crew flight expected to launch to the International Space Station in October.
  • The company has redefined what a rocket can be, space analyst Phil Smith, of Bryce Space and Technology, told me. "Let's not overstate what they [rockets] are, and let's rethink how to haul the mail. And they did so."
2. Spacecraft exhaust could complicate lunar science

The Moon above Earth's atmosphere. Photo: NASA

Increased activity on the Moon could make it harder for scientists to study lunar ices that may hold clues to the origins of water in the solar system.

What's happening: With NASA's Artemis program and other space agencies aiming for the Moon, the lunar surface could become a very crowded place in the coming years. Scientists are now working to parse out any unintended consequences of that exploration.

Driving the news: A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets found that water vapor emitted by spacecraft landing on the Moon could contaminate pristine ice thought to be billions of years old in shadowed craters.

  • Computer simulations revealed that water vapor exhaust released by a lander takes about three hours to be distributed around the Moon and about 30%–40% of the exhaust remained in the thin lunar atmosphere and on the surface for at least two months, according to the study.
  • Scientists expect about 20% of that vapor would freeze near the poles.

Between the lines: As more countries start aiming to send spacecraft and even people to the Moon, that exhaust could prove a challenge for scientists, however, the benefits of human exploration may outweigh worries about lunar exhaust.

  • If researchers know exactly what kind of exhaust is being emitted by these spacecraft, they should be able to correct for it when studying pristine ice, NASA lunar scientist Noah Petro, who wasn't involved in the new study, tells me.

Background: Scientists have been studying the possible effects of spacecraft exhaust on the Moon for years, and the lunar surface has already been contaminated by previous missions like Apollo.

  • “Exhaust during the Apollo mission didn’t complicate measurements in the same ways that it might now,” Parvathy Prem, an author of the new study said in a statement.
  • The Apollo missions were primarily focused on collecting rock samples, while today's scientists are interested in sampling ice and other volatile materials as well.
3. Betelgeuse's dimming explained

Betelgeuse as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/CfA/STScI

Betelgeuse — the red supergiant star — spit out a huge mass of hot gas and plasma that made it look like it had dimmed significantly from Earth's perspective at the end of 2019 and earlier this year, according to new research.

The big picture: Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and astronomers keep a close watch on it, with the expectation that it may one day explode as a supernova.

  • That explosion could provide an amazing scientific opportunity to study one of these extreme phenomena from close range.

Details: The Hubble Space Telescope observed extremely hot and dense material moving through the atmosphere of Betelgeuse from September to November of last year, according to NASA.

  • The hot material burst from the star, which is in the constellation Orion's shoulder.
  • Once that material was far enough away from Betelgeuse it cooled, forming dust that obscured the supergiant and making it seem dim from Earth, according to the new study in The Astrophysical Journal.
  • "This material was two to four times more luminous than the star's normal brightness," Andrea Dupree, an author of the study, said in a statement. "And then, about a month later, the south part of Betelgeuse dimmed conspicuously as the star grew fainter. We think it is possible that a dark cloud resulted from the outflow that Hubble detected."

What's next: Scientists aren't yet sure if the outburst could be a sign that the star is going to explode anytime soon, and according to recent observations from NASA's STEREO spacecraft, the star appears to be dimming again.

  • "No one knows what a star does right before it goes supernova, because it's never been observed," Dupree added. "Astronomers have sampled stars maybe a year ahead of them going supernova, but not within days or weeks before it happened. But the chance of the star going supernova anytime soon is pretty small."
4. Out of this world reading list

Venus as seen by Mariner 10. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Criminal probe looks at former NASA official's contacts with Boeing (Andy Pasztor, Andrew Tangel and Aruna Viswanatha, Wall Street Journal)

Claims of "ocean" inside Ceres may not hold water (Scott Hershberger, Scientific American)

Rocket Lab aims to launch private Venus mission in 2023 (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Pentagon unveils Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (Jacob Knutson, Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A streaking Perseid

Gif: ESA/Meteor Research Group/CILBO

Each August, as Earth passes through the cloud of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, Perseid meteors grace skies around the world.

  • This shooting star was recorded by a European Space Agency camera on the Canary Islands.
  • "The recordings allow researchers to determine the precise trajectory of each meteor and identify their orbit around the Sun and ultimately the body from which they originated," the European Space Agency said in a statement.

1 fun thing: The Perseids have been documented in skies for more than 2,000 years.

Miriam Kramer

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, David Nather and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here, and see you in two weeks! 🚀