Jan 26, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: The coming land rush in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Space is the new Wild West. Nations and space companies are racing to come to a consensus on what they can own, mine and take possession of in outer space before competitors stake ground first.

Why it matters: Private companies are building their businesses on sending spacecraft to the Moon, asteroids and other objects in the coming years to extract resources that will be used or sold.

  • While countries and companies are still years away from being able to effectively mine the Moon for resources, the lack of clear regulation creates uncertainty for them — and threatens projections that the space industry will become a trillion-dollar industry by 2040.

What's happening: In an economics report released just before the Biden administration took office, the Trump administration warned that working out space property rights will be key to the space industry's growth.

The big picture: Right now, the UN's Outer Space Treaty effectively governs property rights in space, but it's very much open to interpretation, particularly when it comes to space companies, experts say.

  • Countries and companies cannot own land on cosmic bodies, but countries have effectively been allowed to own what they can extract in space — like dirt from the Moon.
  • The big question now is centered around what companies might be able to own and sell eventually — like water they extract from the Moon or heavy metals from asteroids — without owning property.

The intrigue: Today, many in the space industry are advocating for a framework governing property rights that isn't based on a "first-come, first-served" mentality.

  • Instead of seeing space as a place that should be exploited for gains by one nation, many are starting to think the focus should be on preservation and fairness among many.
  • "We can find ways to both develop and use resources, and do so in a responsible way," Jessy Kate Schingler of the Open Lunar Foundation told me.

NASA is working to sign a variety of nations onto its Artemis Accords, in part, as a way to standardize how nations are looking at resource extraction and development in space.

  • While NASA wants to help create a sustainable environment for private development of space, the most important thing for the space agency today is to focus on a robust framework for using resources extracted in space — called ISRU, or in-situ resource utilization — and scientific sampling, according to NASA's Mike Gold.
  • NASA has plans to buy cached Moon dirt from four private companies that are expected to launch to the lunar surface in the coming years.

Yes, but: Aside from the U.S., China is arguably the nation closest to being able to extract resources from cosmic bodies, and Beijing hasn't yet signed on to the Artemis Accords.

  • NASA is unable to enter into bilateral agreements with China without congressional approval, so getting on the same page will likely be difficult for both nations.

What's next: The space industry is now looking to the Biden administration to see what comes next for space property rights.

  • Some predict the new administration will slow down efforts to get people back to the Moon by 2024, opting for a later date instead.
  • That could lead to companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX, which are already working on building spacecraft to land humans on the Moon, jumping ahead of NASA — and potentially driving the direction of new rules.
  • "So having a regulatory or policy framework that responds to that is going to be even more important," Schingler said.
2. Rhythm and music of alien planets

Artist's illustration of the planets orbiting TOI-178. Image: ESO/L. Calçada/spaceengine.org

Five planets orbiting a star 200 light-years from Earth are locked in a strange dance that could help scientists learn more about how far-off worlds form.

The big picture: In recent years, researchers have found that nearly every star has at least one planet orbiting it. Now, astronomers are starting to learn more about those worlds, helping them piece together why the universe looks the way it does.

Details: The five outer planets of the star TOI-178 orbit in resonance with one another, meaning patterns emerge in their orbits, with some of the planets occasionally aligning. The closest planet to the star isn't in resonance with the others.

  • Perhaps the best way to visualize this complicated planetary rhythm is via this video from the European Southern Observatory. (Be sure to have your sound on.)
  • "The orbits in this system are very well ordered, which tells us that this system has evolved quite gently since its birth," Yann Alibert, an author of a new study on the star system said in a statement.
  • If the system had been disrupted by large impacts early in its history, the natural alignments of these planets would have been thrown off.

Yes, but: Instead of an arrangement of planets like our own — with the rocky, dense planets closer to the Sun and the gaseous ones farther out — the planets orbiting TOI-178 seem to be in a more haphazard arrangement.

  • "It appears there is a planet as dense as the Earth right next to a very fluffy planet with half the density of Neptune, followed by a planet with the density of Neptune," Nathan Hara, one of the study's authors, said in the statement.
  • That strange assortment of densities could force astronomers to re-examine current theory that holds more dense planets tend to form closer to their stars.
3. 2020's big investment year

A SpaceX launch in 2020. Photo: SpaceX

Investment in the space industry continued to grow in the last quarter of 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from Space Capital.

Why it matters: The space industry turned out to be far more robust in the face of the pandemic than many experts were initially expecting.

What they found: According to the report, the fourth quarter of 2020 saw $5.7 billion in investment, bringing the year's total up to $25.6 billion.

  • Venture capital firms invested $15.7 billion into more than 250 space companies last year, according to the report.
  • One of the more surprising findings was that the infrastructure segment of the industry — which includes rocket manufacturers like SpaceX and Relativity Space — had a record year for investment, at $8.9 billion.
  • That record shows this part of the industry bounced back from a major slowdown in the second quarter of 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • Multiple space companies announced their intentions to go public last year. "We expect that there will be at least a few more publicly listed space companies to add to the ETF in 2021," Space Capital's Chad Anderson told me via email.

What's next: The report urges space watchers to keep an eye on the growing competition between Amazon and Microsoft, which are both courting space companies to use their web and cloud services.

  • These companies are effectively making analysis tools less complex to use, allowing companies to work with their data more quickly and easily, potentially opening up avenues for new customers to get in on the action.
4. The Moon rock in the Oval Office

The Moon rock now in the Oval Office. Photo: NASA

President Joe Biden hasn't revealed much about his space policy priorities yet, but space fans can take heart that space is on his mind, thanks to an Apollo Moon rock that now decorates the Oval Office.

Why it matters: The Moon rock — loaned to the White House by NASA — is on display "in symbolic recognition of earlier generations’ ambitions and accomplishments, and support for America’s current Moon to Mars exploration approach," according to a statement from NASA.

Background: The Moon rock was collected in 1972 by Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, who "chipped this sample from a large boulder" while they were about 2 miles away from their Lunar Module, according to NASA.

  • The rock — which is about 3.9 billion years old — weighs in at a little less than 1 pound.
  • "The irregular sample surfaces contain tiny craters created as micrometeorite impacts have sand-blasted the rock over millions of years," NASA said in the statement. "The flat, sawn sides were created in NASA’s Lunar Curation Laboratory when slices were cut for scientific research."

The big picture: This rock is the second sample from the Moon loaned to the White House from NASA for long-term display, according to Robert Pearlman, space historian and editor of Collectspace.com.

  • In 1999, NASA loaned the White House a Moon rock from Apollo 11 in honor of the 30th anniversary of the landing when Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin visited then-President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.
  • "The rock, at Clinton's request, remained on display in the room until he left office in January 2001," Pearlman wrote.
5. Out of this world reading list

"Plumelets" on the Sun. Image: NASA/SDO/Uritsky, et al

A Russian space SPAC CEO has resigned over national security questions (Tim Fernholz, Quartz)

Biden inherits Trump’s Space Force (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Axiom announces the crew for its first private ISS mission (Axios)

SpaceX launches record number of satellites to orbit (Axios)

Small structures on the Sun could change space weather (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Martian mountains

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Perhaps the eeriest thing about Mars is how similar it can look to Earth.

  • This piece of a panorama, taken by NASA's Curiosity rover in November and released by NASA earlier this month, shows the desolate, vast scale of just how alone the car-sized spacecraft is on Mars.
  • "On the horizon is the north crater rim," NASA said in a statement. "To the right is the upper part of Mount Sharp, which has rock layers that were shaped by lakes and streams billions of years ago."

What's next: Curiosity should get a little more company on the Martian surface next month, when NASA's Perseverance rover lands on a different part of the Red Planet.

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. 🌕