December 17, 2019

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1 big thing: The big business of being a space janitor

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies are trying to capitalize on the threat of space junk with new technology to clean it up, but it's not clear who will pay for the service.

Why it matters: Today, thousands of pieces of space junk — ranging from tiny fragments of destroyed satellites to spent rocket bodies and defunct spacecraft — orbit around Earth, threatening operational satellites and astronauts.

  • As thousands of new satellites are slated for launch in the coming years, operators are desperate to find ways to track, remove and prevent the creation of more rogue debris in orbit.
  • The market for in-orbit satellite services is projected to reach about $4.5 billion by 2028, according to Northern Sky Research.

Driving the news: The European Space Agency recently signed a contract with ClearSpace to remove a piece of a rocket left in orbit on a mission launching in 2025.

  • Astroscale is designing a method to pull junk from space. It plans to launch a test mission in 2020.
  • Northrop Grumman launched a vehicle in October on a journey to link up with a satellite that's low on fuel to help keep it functioning in orbit past its expected end date.
  • Satellite internet company OneWeb is planning to affix grappling tech made by Altius Space Machines to its small satellites in low-Earth orbit to make it easier for them to be deorbited should they fail.

The catch: Experts agree space junk is a major threat to keeping space usable and open for nations and companies around the world, but it's not clear who is or should be responsible for cleaning it up, complicating the business case for these companies.

  • "There is no agreement as to who pays for debris removal," Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation, told Axios. "You could argue that space being a public good, it should be the government that pays for it."
  • Some companies are also banking on the idea that Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb and others will succeed in launching thousands of new satellites and have the forethought to want to deorbit any failed satellites quickly.

Yes, but: There are also major technical challenges around building and launching any of these new systems.

  • Linking up with a dead satellite in orbit will be a risky procedure that needs to be exact in order to make sure the system doesn't create more debris in the process.

2. Harassment in astronomy and planetary science

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

LGBTQPAN* women and gender non-conforming individuals in astronomy and planetary science face harassment in their workplaces, according to a new study in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society.

Why it matters: The study is a stark look into the hostile environment many members of the astronomy and planetary science community face at work.

"We have very real issues with harassment and negative language being either heard more or being pushed towards highly underrepresented intersectional groups like women of color and LGBTQPAN women and gender non-conforming people within our society."
— study co-author Christina Richey to Axios

What they found: The study found that 21% of LGBTQPAN women and gender non-conforming people surveyed in astronomy and planetary science were physically harassed in their workplaces between 2011 and 2015.

  • By contrast, the percentage for heterosexual, cisgender women during that time period was 9%.
  • The study — which surveyed a total of 474 people in the field — also found 47% of LGBTQPAN women and gender non-conforming individuals were verbally harassed in that timeframe.

Context: The new study comes on the heels of research in recent years attempting to characterize the hardships women, people of color and other groups face in the sciences.

  • Another study from this group of authors published in 2017 found that 40% of women of color surveyed in astronomy and planetary science felt unsafe at work due to their gender or sex, while 28% of women of color felt unsafe because of their race.
  • An extensive 2018 report from the National Academies found, in part, that institutions need to look past just legal compliance with harassment policies and actively create a climate of respect, transparency and safety.

Why you’ll hear about this again: The influx of studies and high-profile cases revealing prominent astronomers’ histories of harassment has led to broader awareness of these problems in astronomy and science as a whole.

  • According to some, however, there’s still a long way to go before academia is a truly safe space for marginalized individuals.
  • "Our first recommendation from our paper is that institutional leadership should prioritize the physical, sexual and psychological safety of all their workers," Richey said. "I feel like that should never have to be said, and yet it has to be the first recommendation in our paper."

* LGBTQPAN refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, pansexual, asexual, and/or nonbinary.

3. Boeing's biggest test yet

Boeing's Starliner on top of an Atlas V rocket ahead of launch. Photo: Boeing

On Friday, Boeing will launch its first orbital flight of a vehicle designed to bring astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA in 2020.

  • The mission will mark a major test for the much anticipated CST-100 Starliner system.

Why it matters: NASA has relied on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft and rocket to bring its astronauts to the space station and back to Earth since the end of the space shuttle program.

  • With Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon, the space agency hopes to end that dependency in favor of launching people from the U.S. again.
  • If this uncrewed test goes well, it could pave the way for Boeing to launch its first crewed mission to the station in early 2020.

Details: Starliner is expected to take flight at 6:36 am ET Friday atop an Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral.

  • The spacecraft comes equipped with life support systems that will be needed for its first crewed mission and an anthropomorphic test dummy named Rosie.
  • Rosie — named after Rosie the Riveter — is outfitted with a host of sensors to keep an eye on what an astronaut might experience during flight.
  • The capsule will also deliver supplies to the astronauts, including a clutch of holiday presents, when it docks to the station about 24 or 25 hours after launch.

What to watch: It will be interesting to see which company — Boeing or SpaceX — manages to launch its first crews to space.

  • The two companies have faced major delays with budget shortfalls and technical issues setting them back, but now, both seem to be on the verge of flying their first NASA astronauts to orbit.
  • SpaceX — which has already done its uncrewed test flight to the station — is expected to prove out the Crew Dragon's abort system during an in-flight test in January.

4. Out of this world reading list

The Nightingale sample site on Asteroid Bennu. Photo: NASA/Goddard/UA

Europe postpones launch of satellite that will characterize alien planets (Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

The next big customer experience from Jeff Bezos (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

NASA to receive $22.6 billion in fiscal year 2020 spending bill (Jeff Foust, Space News)

Satellite uncovers Ohio gas well blowout's massive methane leak (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

NASA picks a sample site for asteroid mission (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A Christmas comet

Photo: NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA)

The Hubble Space Telescope spotted an unlikely cosmic duo separated by millions of light-years in mid-November.

  • A new photo shows the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov and the spiral galaxy 2MASX J10500165-0152029 in the same shot as the comet flew about 203 million miles from Earth.
  • "The galaxy's bright central core is smeared in the image because Hubble was tracking the comet," NASA said in a statement.
  • Scientists keeping a close eye on Borisov have found that the comet looks similar to those that originate in our solar system, but new observations will help them learn even more about the object before it leaves us behind.

What's next: Borisov is now speeding toward its closest approach with Earth next week, when it will fly about 180 million miles from our home planet on Dec. 28 before heading out past Jupiter by mid-2020.

Thanks for spending time with me this week! All I want for Hanukkah is for you to subscribe to Axios Space. See y'all in 2020. ✨