May 14, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Greetings, and welcome to Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration.

Please send your scoops, tips, questions and alien abduction stories to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: Bezos dreams of our space future

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Jeff Bezos wants to build a "road to space" so 1 trillion humans can live and work there.

Why it matters: His rocket company, Blue Origin, has been methodically working toward launching people and payloads to space, funded by Bezos' billions. But he is thinking bigger, and his money and influence give a new gravity to the idea of permanently extending humanity's reach deep into the solar system.

As Bezos sees it, humanity's space-faring future shouldn't necessarily hinge on making unlivable worlds like the Moon or Mars habitable.

  • "This is a very different kind of space colony," Bezos said at a press event last week where he described his vision of near-Earth rotating space stations, called "O'Neill colonies" or "O'Neill cylinders," that could replicate Earth's cities.
  • All of this would be possible because of resources provided to us in space, according to Bezos.
  • If humans find a way to mine the moon for water, for example, it could act as a fuel source that would power further exploration.

The big picture: "Earth ends up zoned residential and light industry," Bezos said. "It'll be a beautiful place to live. It'll be a beautiful place to visit," he said. "But heavy industry, all the polluting industry, all the things that are damaging our planet, those will be done off Earth."

  • What remains unclear, however, are the ethics of this colossal rezoning. If we outsource pollution-producing industries to space stations above Earth, what happens to the workers who have to maintain them?
  • If the future hinges on mining the pristine bodies in our solar system for resources, what about the scientists who seek to study these unspoiled objects?

Be smart: Bezos admits his generation and even the one after won't see those big dreams realized, but he believes Blue Origin can help entrepreneurs establish off-Earth industries.

  • He thinks Blue Origin's rocket reusability and design architecture could help slash the cost of launching payloads to orbit.
  • Blue Origin's newly announced Blue Moon lander — which could help NASA return astronauts to the moon by 2024 — is one day expected to use resources from the moon to make rocket fuel, Bezos said.

The intrigue: Bezos' Utopian vision is starkly different than Elon Musk's somewhat irreverent ideas that include artists circling the moon and pizza places on Mars.

  • The Amazon billionaire isn't focused on Mars, instead opting for the grander vision afforded by the abundant resources we could theoretically have access to in space.
  • Other space leaders also envision large off-Earth settlements. United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno imagines that 1,000 people could be living in space — perhaps even on the moon — as soon as the 2030s, according to Florida Today.

The bottom line: Bezos' vision is light on the specifics. Building even one O'Neill colony would likely cost billions, if not trillions, of dollars, and even Bezos admits it's still unclear exactly how it might work.

  • "That's for future generations to figure out the details," he said.
2. Blue Origin's down-to-Earth reality

The New Shepard rocket coming in for a landing on May 2. Photo: Blue Origin

While Bezos is talking about the space civilizations of the future, Blue Origin is wading through the political mud, fighting for government contracts.

  • The company is now trying to secure a spot as one of the Air Force's launch providers through the mid-2020s.
  • Blue Origin wants the Air Force to pick three launch providers, but at the moment the government is planning to pick just two, which heavily favors SpaceX and ULA — both already fly Air Force missions.
  • The 25 satellite launches expected within that time frame could bring billions of dollars to whichever companies are selected as providers.

Background: Bezos has said that he sells about $1 billion in Amazon stock each year to help fund Blue Origin, but the company will need to continue to find many more sources of income if it hopes to become more than Bezos' side hustle.

  • "Blue Origin is not a not-for-profit," an industry source told Axios. "They want to see themselves as a major transporter to space."

The bottom line: Even as Bezos laid out his grand vision for the future of humanity in orbit, it boiled down to a shiny pitch to NASA.

  • Blue Origin is courting government money with its Blue Moon lander plan to get NASA astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024.
  • While Bezos has butted heads with President Trump in the past, he went so far as to praise the administration, saying the moon mission is "the right thing to do."
3. From Apollo to Artemis

Buzz Aldrin next to a U.S. flag on July 20, 1969, on the surface of the moon. Photo: NASA/Newsmakers

The Trump administration is asking Congress for an extra $1.6 billion for NASA’s newly named Artemis program, tasked with getting humans back to the moon by 2024.

Details: The budget increase represents a “down payment” on the Artemis program, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a call with reporters on Monday.

  • The budget outlines key components for the moon program, including developing a commercial lunar lander and doubling down on support for the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft.
  • The amended budget also opts for a scaled-down version of the lunar space station that would serve as a jumping off point for lunar surface missions.

But, but, but: While NASA officials claim the additional funding included in the amendment is what they were hoping for, it’s unclear the extra money will actually help establish a sustained presence on the lunar surface.

  • "The modest 5% increase for NASA proposed next year, although a welcome bump, does not indicate a serious commitment to landing humans on the Moon in 2024,” the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier said in a statement.
  • NASA will need extra funding for the next few years in order to meet the administration’s deadline, Bridenstine said.
  • It’s also far from a sure thing the budget increase will make it through Congress, particularly because the Trump administration plans to use money taken from the Pell Grant program that provides financial aid to college students.

Quick take: While NASA claims that its main goal for this return to the moon is to eventually send people to Mars, there’s no denying the 2024 date is politically motivated. Bridenstine admitted this, saying the date is about minimizing the political risks associated with having a mission that stretches through multiple administrations. This is one way to avoid the “moonshot whiplash” that has plagued NASA for years.

  • “Our goal here is to build a program that gets us to the moon as soon as possible, that all of America can be proud of,” Bridenstine said.

One fun thing: In Greek mythology, Artemis is Apollo's twin sister. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing.

4. Seeing a black hole from space

A simulation of a black hole's event horizon. Photo: University of Arizona

A couple of well-placed satellites in orbit above Earth could capture an incredibly detailed photo of the black hole at the center of our galaxy, scientists say in a new study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Background: The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) recently delivered humanity’s first photo of a black hole — the one at the center of the M87 galaxy.

Details: The proposed Event Horizon Imager would include two or three radio telescope satellites orbiting Earth that would be able to take a photo of the Milky Way’s black hole — called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star").

  • These satellites wouldn’t need to contend with the distortion caused by gases and other components of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing scientists to capture clearer images.
  • “We would be able to take images with a resolution more than five times what is possible with the EHT,” Freek Roelofs, co-author of the new study, said in a statement.

Why it matters: If scientists can capture better photos of black holes, they might be able to push Einstein’s theory of general relativity closer to its limits.

  • While the black hole imaged by the EHT looked pretty much exactly as expected, if researchers are able to get a more detailed view of one of these objects, they might see something they weren’t anticipating.
  • "If small deviations from Einstein's theory occur, we should be able to see them," study co-author Heino Falcke said in the statement.
5. Our shrinking Moon

The Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Photo: NASA/GSFC/ASU

The Moon is cooling, shrinking and stretching, causing “moonquakes” that shake the lunar surface, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The big picture: The research paints a picture of the Moon as a dynamic object, not the dead rock we’ve imagined it to be in the past. The findings could also have implications for our understanding of how other relatively small, rocky bodies in the solar system evolve over time.

What they found: By comparing images taken during the Apollo era and with more modern ones of the lunar surface, scientists were able to determine specific ways that the Moon is actually cracking and wrinkling.

  • Astronauts from the Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16 missions placed seismometers on the surface of the Moon. The Apollo 11 instrument failed after just a few weeks, but the other four recorded 28 shallow moonquakes from 1969 to 1977.
  • Those shallow quakes have been a mystery until now.
  • Scientists used an algorithm to locate their epicenters then matched eight of those quakes to young faults on the lunar surface and found the Moon is tectonically active today.
  • The study also shows that six of those eight quakes occurred when the Moon was near its farthest point from Earth. The researchers think that at that point in its orbit, the Moon is being stretched and warped, making the quakes more likely.

“It’s one thing to be able to look at it in just one place, but to be able to observe features all over the Moon… is kind of cool,” Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist Noah Petro, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Axios.

6. Out of this world reading list

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Even astronauts binge-watch TV while in space (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

A new grading system could deter satellite operators from junking up space (Loren Grush, The Verge)

SpaceX's Starlink could cause cascades of space junk (Jonathan O'Callaghan, Scientific American)

Dozens of satellites could feed NOAA's future weather models (Debra Werner, Space News)

Where the International Space Station is right now (Axios)

7. Your weekly dose of awe: Auroras from above

The aurora australis seen from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

An astronaut onboard the International Space Station took this photo of the aurora australis above the Indian Ocean on April 4, looking down on the dancing curtains of light from above.

Auroras are created when charged particles from the sun stream into Earth’s upper atmosphere, exciting neutral particles, causing them to glow.

Miriam Kramer

Thanks so much for reading. See y'all next week! 🌍