Jun 18, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Greetings, and thanks for reading Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration. At 1,445 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 6 minutes to read.

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1 big thing: Our violent Sun
A solar flare shooting into space. Gif: NASA

The upcoming 11-year solar cycle, which kicks off in 2020, is forecast to be quieter than the last but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about solar storms, experts say.

Why it matters: Although rare, an extreme coronal mass ejection (CME) — a large burst of plasma sent out by the Sun — could cause a months-long blackout, harm satellites and cause billions in damage.

  • "If you do enough damage with a solar storm, then you start to take out the basic fabric of society," solar physicist Scott McIntosh told Axios.
  • Space weather can also pose a danger for astronauts in space.

The big picture: Even during relatively calm solar cycles, the Sun can assert itself in ways that could affect everything from GPS reliability to whether the lights stay on in your home.

  • "The fundamental challenge for us really is that the physics is so complex, that we don't have a full understanding of the science of space weather," NASA solar scientist Antti Pulkkinen told Axios.

Once a CME is detected by a fleet of satellites tracking the Sun, it takes anywhere from 18 hours to a couple of days for a CME to arrive in Earth's part of space.

It happened before: Perhaps the most extreme example of a damaging solar storm occurred in 1859, when a huge CME hit Earth, lighting telegraph lines on fire and creating auroras that could be seen almost everywhere on the planet.

If our modern world were hit with a CME of that strength, the results would be far more costly and damaging than they were in the 1800s.

Details: Beyond satellites in space, experts are worried about the stability of critical infrastructure on the ground if a major CME were to impact our planet.

  • Utility operators can take certain parts of their systems offline if a big solar storm is detected and the electric grid is considered vulnerable.
  • However, utilities are still researching what exactly should be done in order to best protect the grid.

But, but, but: It would take a minimum of $3 billion to gird vulnerable transformers against the danger posed by these types of storms, according to Thomas Popik of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a non-profit focused on protecting society from natural and human-caused threats.

What to watch: Last year, the Department of Energy established rules governing how emergency measures could be put in place to guard the grid against a storm.

  • In March, the Trump administration released an action plan centered on characterizing the threats from solar storms and then finding ways of mitigating them.

The bottom line: Because of the high stakes involved, some are calling for more rigorous legislation and regulation to make the U.S. more resilient.

  • Popik and other experts hope utilities will install hardware to protect vulnerable transformers.
2. The ISS beckons

The International Space Station from orbit. Photo: NASA

Private spaceflight companies already have big plans to capitalize on NASA opening up the International Space Station to commercial space ventures in the coming years.

Why it matters: The agency hopes by the time the station runs its course, NASA astronauts will be able to fly to privately-managed space stations in orbit instead of a government run outpost, freeing up NASA to focus more resources on the Moon and Mars.

Driving the news: The most confident public show of support so far comes from Bigelow Space Operations, which announced plans to fly space tourists to the ISS aboard a crewed SpaceX Dragon for $52 million per seat. Private astronauts would stay aboard the station for one to two months, according to the company.

  • Bigelow already flew an inflatable module to the ISS in 2016, and the company has plans to build private stations in orbit as well.

Details: Other companies are also interested in taking NASA up on its offer to open up low-Earth orbit to commercial interests.

  • Space Adventures — which sent space tourists to the ISS in the past — praised NASA's announcement, saying they're "able to arrange flights to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, or on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner," in a statement.
  • Other companies like NanoRacks, a long-time NASA partner on the space station, are taking a more "wait and see" approach, to decide what kind of commercial involvement makes sense in the future.
  • Axiom Space — a company focused on flying to the ISS now and building a space station of their own in the future — says the company already plans to fly to the station in 2020.

But, but, but: Even Bigelow acknowledges the challenges presented by this kind of project. SpaceX's Crew Dragon, for example, hasn't yet flown its first astronauts to the ISS for NASA, and it's unclear exactly when that might happen.

3. Meteors may help seed clouds on Mars
Clouds moving above the Curiosity rover on Mars. Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience finds meteors may be responsible for helping to form clouds in Mars' middle atmosphere, about 18 miles above the ground.

Why it matters: Learning more about the red planet's current climate could help scientists piece together the world's past. The origins of the clouds in the middle atmosphere were a mystery until now.

Details: Meteors deliver about 2 to 3 tons of space debris to Mars each day. The new study suggests the "meteoric smoke" produced when these space rocks break up in the Martian atmosphere allow water molecules to coalesce around the bits of dust, forming clouds.

  • The study used computer simulations to piece together how these mysterious clouds form.
  • When the researchers added in material brought to Mars by meteors, the clouds in the middle atmosphere appeared in the model.
  • Other clouds on Mars, particularly in lower parts of the planet's atmosphere, form when dust is kicked up from the Martian surface.

What they found: The wispy clouds may play an important role in determining the temperature in the Martian atmosphere, which could vary by as much as 18°F, 10°C, depending on the cloud cover, the researchers say.

Be smart: Meteoric smoke also helps form clouds on Earth. One explanation for noctilucent clouds that form high in Earth's atmosphere centers around meteor dust.

4. Listen to Apollo 11 in real time

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon during Apollo 11. Photo: NASA

A new website transports you back in time to 50 years ago, when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins first shot for the Moon.

The big picture: Apolloinrealtime.org replays the experience of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in real time using archival footage from Mission Control, astronaut-shot footage, TV broadcasts and photos.

Details: The site organizes 11,000 hours of audio from Mission Control and all audio recorded onboard the spacecraft during the Moon mission.

  • Users can also search keywords they're most interested in. (Search the transcript for the term "salmon salad" if you want a real treat.)

"Listening to the Mission Control audio left me with the strong impression that it was just normal people doing the best they could, and they achieved greatness," Ben Feist, who created the project, tells Axios.

My take: As someone who missed the Apollo 11 landing by a couple decades, it's amazing to have access to this kind of real-time experience. After a while, these legendary astronauts start to sound like old friends as they do the work of living in space and getting to the Moon.

Go deeper: Read CollectSpace.com's interview with Ben Feist.

5. Out of this world reading list

A Falcon 9 rocket coming in for a landing in California. Photo: SpaceX

50 years after Apollo 11, a new moon race is on (Nadia Drake, National Geographic)

NASA reveals how much Artemis will cost (Jackie Wattles and Rachel Crane, CNN)

SpaceX launches and lands a rocket in California (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Trump's most unhelpful Moon tweet (Brandon Weichert, Space News)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Ripples in Saturn's rings

Daphnis rippling Saturn's rings. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Even the smallest moon can assert itself. This newly-processed Cassini photo of Saturn's moon Daphnis shows the little moon — which is thought to be about 5 miles across — rippling the dust in one of the planet's distinctive rings.

  • "Daphnis is seen kicking up three waves in the gap's outer edge," NASA said in a statement. "In each successive crest, the shape of the wave changes as the ring particles within the crest interact and collide with each other."
  • Last week, a new study in the journal Science analyzed Cassini data gathered before the end of its mission in 2017 and found the rings are rippled and changed by the gravity of the moons, giving some parts of the rings different textures.
  • About 100 million years from now, scientists think Saturn's rings will disappear, swallowed up by their host planet, so enjoy them while they last.
Miriam Kramer

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