April 07, 2020

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1 big thing: A post-pandemic space industry

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic could spell major trouble for dozens of small companies working to break into the space industry.

The big picture: SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and other companies are well-established with strong customer bases and robust portfolios, but the prospects for the industry's growth hinge on smaller companies.

  • Many of those companies are launched with venture capital funding that will likely dry up as the crisis continues.

What's happening: Some space companies are already facing major problems in the wake of the pandemic.

  • OneWeb — which planned to build a constellation of internet-beaming satellites — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of March, largely blaming the decision on the economic situation created by the coronavirus.
  • Astra, a small rocket launch company, has cut some of its staff in order to try to make it through the crisis.
  • Private space station designer Bigelow Aerospace laid off its workforce after nonessential businesses were closed in Nevada.
  • Satellite manufacturer Maxar has also warned that supply chain issues could disrupt orders, causing delays in delivering spacecraft for customers in the coming months.

What to watch: The coronavirus crisis will likely accelerate shakeouts in already crowded or overly speculative parts of the space market, experts say.

  • Dozens of small rocket companies were expected to come online in the next few years, but the economic situation now could force many of them to fold before launching.
  • Other parts of the industry built on speculative, far future endeavors like mining the Moon for resources could also face headwinds when trying to raise funds in the current market.

Between the lines: Larger companies like SpaceX or ULA likely have the reserves to make it through the economic downturn, but the failures of smaller companies will still affect their bottom lines.

  • Relatively small satellite companies hold contracts with larger launchers to send their wares to orbit. If those companies fold, it will shrink the base of customers for these larger companies.
  • "It's a tightly interdependent industry, so when you see a company like OneWeb filing for bankruptcy, the launch manifest that was associated with them is now gone," Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Axios.

Yes, but: Parts of the U.S. government are already working to help the space industry counter the ill effects of the health crisis.

  • NASA recently awarded SpaceX a contract to fly cargo to its yet-to-be-built small Gateway space station around the Moon.
  • Experts also expect to see future contracts awarded from governments to help keep companies they rely on for national security and other launches stay afloat.

The bottom line: The space industry will likely emerge from the coronavirus crisis smaller, leaner and with a long way to rebuild.

2. Mining the Moon

Photo: NASA

On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order to shore up international support for mining the Moon or other bodies in the solar system.

Why it matters: The executive order affirms NASA's hopes to one day mine the Moon for water, which can then be converted into rocket fuel, and establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface sometime after its Artemis mission in 2024.

  • The order also further opens the door for commercial companies that hope to one day mine the Moon and other bodies in the solar system for resources of their own.

Details: The executive order directs the State Department to find international partners that are interested in collaborating with the U.S. on creating "sustainable operations" related to commercial use of space-based resources.

  • "Last year, the U.S. and Luxembourg signed an agreement to support utilizing space resources consistent with international law," space industry analyst Laura Seward Forczyk told Axios. "Today’s executive order broadens that policy position to all international space players."
  • The order also affirms America's commitment to the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which prevents nations from laying claim to celestial bodies but doesn't forbid companies and countries from using any resources they harvest in space.
"Providing private operators legal certainty in space resources utilization activities will require international consultation. This action is a step towards that process, and will support active U.S. leadership in bilateral and multilateral efforts to resolve legal uncertainties around space resources utilization."
— Ian Christensen, of the Secure World Foundation, told Axios via email

But, but, but: Scientists still aren't sure how much water exists below the surface of the Moon or what form it's in.

  • NASA's Lunar Viper rover, expected to launch to the Moon in 2023, will help characterize and map that water ahead of the Artemis missions.

Go deeper: Deep Dive: Factory Moon

3. Boeing's big decision

Boeing's Starliner landing in December 2019. Photo: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Boeing has decided to re-fly an uncrewed test of its Starliner capsule after a troubled mission in December.

Why it matters: The decision delays Boeing's plans to fly people to space from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

  • It also puts the company firmly behind SpaceX, which plans to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station as early as May.

Details: Boeing announced the redo on Monday evening, putting to rest speculation from others in the industry that they might press ahead with a crewed flight despite failing to dock with the space station in December.

  • A series of issues prevented the Starliner's planned docking and sparked an investigation by an independent board that recommended 61 corrective measures to the company.
  • "Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer," Boeing said in a statement.
  • The company expects to re-fly the uncrewed mission sometime this fall, though no date has been announced.
"This is exactly why NASA decided to select two partners in the commercial crew effort. Having dissimilar redundancy is key in NASA’s approach to maintaining a crew and cargo aboard the space station and to keeping our commitments to international partners. It also allows our private industry partners to focus on crew safety rather than schedule."
— NASA said in a statement

The big picture: Years of delays have pushed back NASA's plans to get Boeing and SpaceX flying astronauts to the space station, forcing the space agency to rely on Russian rockets and capsules.

  • This year was expected to mark the big moment when both companies would start flying humans for the first time.
  • While SpaceX is still publicly on track toward its first human launch in May, it's not yet clear how the pandemic might affect its plans, and it's looking less likely that Boeing will be able to stage its own crewed flight before the year is out.

4. From first to last light

San Francisco seen by a RapidEye satellite. Photo: Planet Labs Inc.

After about 12 years of collecting photos of Earth from orbit, a set of five satellites have closed their eyes on our planet.

The big picture: Planet's RapidEye satellites, which first launched to space in 2008, contributed to a revolution in how we understand our planet.

  • Operating satellites that can see the Earth from space was initially only the purview of the most wealthy nations.
  • However, the recent proliferation of commercial satellite companies makes Earth data available to anyone, changing how we understand weather, climate, industry and more.

Details: Planet acquired the RapidEye satellites from BlackBridge in 2015, and it's created the world's largest collection of 5-meter satellite imagery, according to the company.

  • The constellation of satellites has captured more than 660,000 pictures of Earth's total landmass, Planet said.
  • The satellites' final photos show San Francisco, Berlin and Brandenburg, Germany.
  • The satellites could still function, but Planet says it's ending their operation in part to prevent them from becoming space junk that clutters orbit.

Between the lines: While many companies are collecting and attempting to analyze the data beamed down from orbit each day, big data from space still isn't yet widely applicable to a variety of industries.

  • Most companies that operate Earth-imaging satellites still rely on government contracts and major industries like oil and gas for much of their business.

Bonus: World of the week: Kepler-186f

Artist's illustration of Kepler-186f. Image: NASA

A mysterious world not too much bigger than our own bathes in the red light of its star just 500 light-years away.

Details: Kepler-186f was the first Earth-sized planet found in its star's habitable zone — the part of a star's orbit that would allow liquid water to persist on a planet's surface — during the heyday of NASA's Kepler mission in 2014.

  • The planet is thought to be on the outer edge of its small, red star's habitable zone, meaning that its chances for hosting life are likely low, depending on how robust its atmosphere is.
  • These types of little, cool stars are also thought to be somewhat more volatile than stars like the Sun, meaning that it might send flares of radiation out into its solar system more often, possibly harming the chances for life to develop.

How it works: Before the end of its mission, Kepler hunted for alien planets around distant stars by watching as a planet passed between its star and the telescope to see the tiny dips in a star's light that occurred during a transit.

  • Future missions being considered by NASA and other space agencies could allow scientists to actually peer into the atmospheres of alien worlds to understand if they really could be habitable or not.

5. Out of this world reading list

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Blue Origin is pressuring employees to launch a rocket test during the pandemic (Loren Grush, The Verge)

SpaceX loses third Starship prototype (Stephen Clark, Spaceflight Now)

Report criticizes management of ISS National Laboratory (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

NASA astronaut's estranged wife charged with lying about space crime allegation (N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA Today)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A cannibal in space

Photo: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Leonard

The glowing arms of a spiral galaxy swirl in a new photo from the Hubble Space Telescope.

  • The galaxy — named NGC 4651 — likely grew through cannibalism, consuming at least one other, smaller galaxy to become the behemoth scientists study today.

"Although only a telescope like the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, which captured this image, could give us a picture this clear, NGC 4651 can also be observed with an amateur telescope — so if you have a telescope at home and a star-gazing eye, look out for this glittering carnivorous spiral," the European Space Agency said in a statement.

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