Jun 23, 2020

Axios Space

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1 big thing: The looming threats posed by space junk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The threat posed by space junk is growing — and the window for mitigating it is closing. Experts say the U.S. hasn't done enough to combat the growing problem.

Why it matters: Companies like SpaceX are working to launch hundreds of small satellites to already crowded orbits. Even if just a small percentage of them fail, it could put other satellites in danger, costing companies and governments millions of dollars and making parts of space unusable.

  • The space junk problem "shares many of the same challenges with climate change," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told Axios. "You're asking for people to bear some additional cost and restrictions now to forestall much bigger problems in the future."

Where it stands: The defense department tracks more than 20,000 pieces of space junk and operational satellites, but there are millions of other small pieces of debris that slip under the radar and could threaten assets in orbit.

  • Two years ago, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), triggering a reorganization of how the U.S. tracks space junk and satellites, with plans to house it within the Department of Commerce instead of the Department of Defense.
  • That change was designed to allow the commerce department to leverage private companies that are tracking satellites and space debris to create a more accurate — and accessible — database of tracking data.
  • However, Congress has yet to allocate the additional funding to make the changes outlined in the directive.

Between the lines: Experts agree that SPD-3 is a good place to start when it comes to creating a space traffic management system but stress that Congress' inaction threatens U.S. leadership on regulation and policy.

  • Keeping satellites safe in orbit is an international endeavor that requires wide-ranging cooperation from every nation and company with a stake in orbit.
  • "We're not stepping up to the plate, and we're going to lose or continue to cede ground when it comes to the leadership of this," James Cooper, an engineer working on space tracking at the aerospace software company AGI, told Axios.
  • Falling behind in tracking and management also puts national security satellites and other assets in jeopardy.

The big picture: Various organizations follow their own best practices when it comes to space junk management and preventing the creation of it.

  • But it's not clear how the government will be able to enforce consequences for breaking regulations around space junk.
  • "Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a best practices [document], but so what? What about implementation and consequences for not following this stuff?" space tracking expert Moriba Jah told Axios.
  • If nations don't step up to collaborate and keep the space junk problem under control through enforcement, then it won't ruin parts of orbit for just one nation. All will be affected.

What to watch: There are currently no firm plans for wide-ranging debris mitigation efforts from governments, and it's not yet clear if companies aiming for that kind of cleanup will be able to make their business models work.

2. Perseverance is getting ready for Mars

Perseverance's landing site, Jezero Crater on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL

NASA's Perseverance rover — designed to hunt for signs of past life on Mars — is in the final stages of preparation before launching to the Red Planet as early as July 20.

Why it matters: The mission, which dodged possible delays from the coronavirus, marks a step forward for NASA's ambitions to investigate whether Mars was inhabited at some point in the past.

Details: The rover's suite of instruments and landing site were chosen to give NASA its best shot at finding some sign of life on the Red Planet.

  • Perseverance will carry a helicopter to Mars that will serve as a technology demonstration that could help the space agency develop future missions.
  • The rover will also carry a small plaque honoring the health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The intrigue: Scientists will likely face unique challenges when hunting for signs of life on Mars, including figuring out exactly what a sign of life looks like.

  • "Our bar is high for the identification of a sign of life on another planet, as it should be," Katie Stack Morgan, Perseverance deputy project scientist, said during a news conference.
  • "I think what we're looking for are really the patterns and textures where we have a hard time explaining how that could have formed without the influence of life."

What's next: In part because of that complexity, Perseverance will also come equipped with the ability to cache samples of interesting rocks and dirt on the Martian surface that can then be returned to Earth by a future mission.

  • That robotic mission is expected to launch in 2026, with the samples due to be back on Earth by 2031 if all goes as planned.
3. Pluto's hot start

Pluto as seen by the New Horizons probe. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto's ocean may have been hiding below the dwarf planet's icy shell for billions of years since not long after the world formed.

Why it matters: Understanding how Pluto formed during the early days of the solar system is key to getting a broader picture of how objects like the distant world came to be and why its part of space looks the way it does now.

What they found: A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests Pluto's early days were likely warmer than some models have suggested, meaning the world came to be over the course of about 30,000 years instead of millions.

  • That hot start means Pluto's subsurface ocean has probably been around since just after its formation and is not a more recent result of the radioactive decay of elements within the dwarf planet heating it up.
  • Pluto would have shown signs of compression on its surface if it started off cold and then an ocean melted within it, according to one of the study's authors, Carver Bierson, but New Horizons data shows just the opposite.
  • “We see lots of evidence of expansion, but we don’t see any evidence of compression, so the observations are more consistent with Pluto starting with a liquid ocean," Bierson said in a statement.
  • The new study also shows it's possible that other large dwarf planets like Makemake and Eris could have their own subsurface oceans as well.

Flashback: When New Horizons flew by Pluto in 2015, the complicated geology of the world shocked everybody.

  • Instead of the cold, dead dwarf planet they were expecting, researchers and the public were treated to photos of a diminutive world alive with icy mountains the size of the Rockies and plains of frozen nitrogen, forcing scientists to re-examine long-held theories about planetary formation.
  • "Pluto is a key clue to how the entire early solar system evolved," planetary scientist William McKinnon, who was not involved in the new study, told Axios.
4. Out of this world reading list

Titan as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL/UA/University of Idaho

Amazing views of moon's shadow on Earth from the "ring of fire" solar eclipse (Meghan Bartels, Space.com)

Flat spots on Saturn’s moon Titan may be the floors of ancient lake beds (Lisa Grossman, ScienceNews)

Boeing tried to amend bid after guidance from NASA official (Christian Davenport, Washington Post)

China launches final satellite to complete Beidou system, booster falls downrange (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A cosmic jewel

Photo: NASA/ESA/J. Kastner (RIT)

Pulling back the layers of dust and gas surrounding a planetary nebula can reveal an object's history to scientists on Earth, light-years away.

  • This new photo of the planetary nebula NGC 7027 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope shows that the object had been puffing out layers of gas in spiral or spherical patterns for hundreds of years, but that's not the case anymore.
  • “Something recently went haywire at the very center, producing a new cloverleaf pattern, with bullets of material shooting out in specific directions,” one of the authors of a new study about the nebula Joel Kastner said in a statement.
  • That change likely has something to do with a difference in how the two stars at the center of the nebula interact with one another.

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