Mar 23, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: NASA's new boss

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Having a politician in the top spot at NASA signals the agency will be a priority for the Biden administration, some space industry experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: Bill Nelson, a former senator who has President Biden's ear, is the administration's nominee to lead the space agency and could help make NASA a priority for the president if he's confirmed.

  • NASA is often seen as an agency that cuts across partisan lines, inspiring children and helping everyone look to the future, but it's also a political tool with major geopolitical weight.
  • The agency doles out billions in industry contracts and employs about 17,000 people across the country.

Catch up quick: Nelson's nomination was announced last week and has already won support from both sides of the aisle, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) backing him.

  • Nelson also has the support of former President Trump's NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine.
  • A former senator from Florida, Nelson flew aboard the space shuttle in 1986 and has long advocated for NASA and its spaceflight goals.
  • "I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities," Nelson said in a statement. "Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos."

The big picture: For the most part, NASA's top job has been filled by former astronauts, scientists and businesspeople, not political figures.

  • Nelson and Biden have worked together in the Senate and reportedly have a close relationship, meaning Nelson may be able to ensure the agency gets Biden's attention.
  • "This is a very personal relationship with the president, and that's pretty special for NASA. It's the kind of pick that I think you more typically think about with a high-level Cabinet official versus historically with NASA," Mike French of the Aerospace Industries Association told me.

Flashback: Bridenstine is largely considered to have been an effective agency leader even though many were against his nomination at the start, saying the Republican congressman from Oklahoma was too partisan of a choice.

  • He had the administration's ear, helping to raise NASA's budget, and he largely put partisan politics aside.
  • "I think Jim Bridenstine really ... proved to people that maybe it's not the worst idea to have an experienced politician running the space agency," Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society told me.

Yes, but: There is potential baggage that comes along with a political NASA administrator.

  • Some have questioned how strongly Nelson supports commercial spaceflight and the agency's current approach to developing space through public/private partnerships.
  • As a senator in 2010, Nelson suggested that money for the Commercial Crew program — which recently saw SpaceX send astronauts to the International Space Station — would be better spent on the long-delayed, government-developed Space Launch System.
  • But his job as a senator from Florida was very different from what it will be as NASA administrator, according to Dreier.
  • "His job was to represent Florida and to make sure jobs were maintained in Florida; that infrastructure was maintained in Florida," Dreier said. "That ... no longer would be his job as the NASA administrator."

The bottom line: If confirmed, Nelson won't be the first politically minded administrator of NASA, but if he's successful, it could set the stage for more politicians to lead the agency.

2. Mapping the cosmic web

A scientific illustration showing the cosmic web connecting galaxies. Photo: ESO/NASA/Roland Bacon et al.

For the first time, scientists have mapped a part of the cosmic web connecting galaxies without using the light of bright galaxies known as quasars.

Why it matters: The method paves the way for future experiments that may allow scientists to unmask other darker parts of the cosmos and piece together what the early universe may have looked like.

What they did: The scientists behind the new study used the MUSE instrument on a telescope in Chile to capture the light of galaxies connected by the cosmic web of gas filaments spread through the universe.

  • The light captured as part of this study — accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics — was emitted by galaxies about 2 billion years after the Big Bang.
  • "We think that the light we are seeing comes mainly from young galaxies, each containing millions of times fewer stars than our own Milky Way," one of the authors of the study Joop Schaye said in a statement.
  • "Such tiny galaxies were likely responsible for the end of the cosmic 'dark ages', when less than a billion years after the Big Bang, the universe was illuminated and heated by the first generations of stars."
  • The study also suggests these small galaxies helped spur on the evolution of the universe not long after it formed.

Background: Typically, scientists study the cosmic web by using bright quasars that effectively act as nodes, lighting up the gas of the web, making it visible to specialized instruments.

  • However, quasars are relatively rare, making this kind of study using dimmer light emitted by other, more plentiful galaxies intriguing for researchers mapping the cosmic web.
3. What's next for the SLS

The SLS lighting up. Photo: NASA/Robert Markowitz

NASA has cleared its final major hurdle before its next huge rocket can make its inaugural flight to space.

Why it matters: The rocket — known as the Space Launch System — is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, and it's considered key to NASA's plans to send missions to the Moon and beyond.

Catch up quick: On Thursday, NASA fired up the SLS' core stage on a pad for an eight-minute burn that simulated what it would be like for the rocket to fly to space.

  • The test was a redo of an earlier test that only saw the rocket fire for about one minute, preventing NASA and its contractors from getting the data they needed for the firing.
  • "During this test, the team conducted new operations with the core stage for the first time, repeated some critical operations, and recorded test data that will help us verify the core stage is ready for the first and future SLS flights for NASA’s Artemis program," John Honeycutt, manager for the SLS Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

The big picture: NASA hopes to use the SLS to launch people to the Moon for its Artemis program.

  • The Trump-era mission has won the support of the Biden administration.

What's next: The SLS will now be sent to Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will be incorporated into the rocket that will launch the first uncrewed flight of the Orion capsule.

  • NASA previously said that it expects to launch the first flight of the SLS by the end of the year, but whether that schedule holds remains to be seen.
Bonus: Lego space shuttle launches

The Lego space shuttle and Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: Lego

Space nerds and Lego fans unite. This week, Lego announced the release of a new space shuttle set, complete with its own Hubble Space Telescope, specifically marketed for adults.

Details: The set features the Discovery space shuttle, including payload bay doors and landing gear, with a Hubble telescope that can be displayed on its own or nested within the shuttle.

Thought bubble: As Axios chief tech correspondent (and Lego enthusiast) Ina Fried points out, "The space shuttle has been the inspiration for many Lego sets over the years, including this one from 2011, though this is by far the most detailed."

4. Out of this world reading list

India, the Himalayas, and China from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Water on Mars may be trapped in the planet's crust (Jonathan O'Callaghan, Scientific American)

Decommissioned NOAA weather satellite breaks up (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Skylab: The myth of the mutiny in space (Kirstie Brewer, BBC)

New study says first-known interstellar object was a planet chunk (Bryan Walsh, Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: An eye in space

Photo: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Guerrero; Acknowledgment: Judy Schmidt

A planetary nebula 5,000 light-years from Earth harbors a secret.

  • The nebula — named Abell 78 — formed when its central star burned through its fuel, collapsing and blowing off its outer layers, creating the blue wisps seen in this Hubble Space Telescope image.
  • While this type of object is relatively common, Abell 78 actually looks the way it does because of a "born again star," according to a NASA statement.
  • "Although the core of the star has stopped burning hydrogen and helium, a thermonuclear runaway at its surface ejects material at high speeds. This ejecta shocks and sweeps up the material of the old nebula, producing the filaments and irregular shell around the central star," NASA said.

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. 🌟