May 5, 2020

Axios Space

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,380 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

1 big thing: A step back for commercializing space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic will likely make the U.S. space industry even more focused on government money and funding —and potentially set back advancements toward commercializing the industry.

Why it matters: For over 10 years, the space industry has been making strides to diversify its base of customers away from just government entities to more commercial customers and industries.

  • Projections suggesting the space industry could one day be worth hundreds of billions if not a trillion dollars hinge on further commercialization.

What's happening: Many companies that are focusing on catering to commercial interests are young and rely on venture capital funding and other financing, which has largely dried up in the pandemic.

  • The U.S. Space Force Acquisition Council is now looking into what parts of the space industry will likely need the most support as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
  • The Small Business Association defines small businesses in a way that tends to exclude many venture-backed space startups from qualifying for pandemic relief loans, according to a report from SpaceNews.

What to watch: Government funds will help keep much of the space industry open for business, but that could also reorient the industry back toward government work just as the commercialization of space was starting to take hold.

  • "The problem for the commercial space industry is this economic downturn couldn't have come at a worse time," Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Axios.
  • Many of these companies had raised a lot of capital but weren't at the point where they were making much revenue yet, making them more vulnerable to this economic downturn, Harrison added.
  • NASA and other government agencies are also hopeful they will one day be able to buy services from commercially focused companies instead of being their main customers, freeing those agencies up to focus on other things.

The space industry's industrial base — satellite manufacturers, rocket companies and others who support the industry — may also be in trouble, and that could spell problems for even the most generous of government agencies.

  • "The DOD can launch what's already in the barn, but if the barn isn't being repopulated, there isn't going to be anything to launch," space industry analyst Peter Marquez told Axios.
  • Even larger companies like SpaceX will also likely feel the crunch caused by a shrinking base of commercial customers and delays to nongovernmental missions due to the coronavirus, even if the government keeps them afloat in the meantime.

The bottom line: The U.S. government will likely reward contracts and other funds to help support the space industry through the coronavirus, but that financing may set back the commercialization of space.

2. What's next for Artemis

Artist's illustration of astronauts working on the Moon. Image: NASA

As the coronavirus rages, NASA is making strides toward its ambitious goal to launch astronauts to the surface of the Moon in the next four years.

The big picture: NASA's 2024 Artemis Moon mission is the Trump administration's tentpole civil space policy expected to challenge geopolitical rivals like China for supremacy in space.

  • "It's important that this agency do this now, because our country — and in fact the whole world — has been shaken by this coronavirus pandemic," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference last week. "And yet, we need to give people hope."

What's happening: NASA last week announced it is awarding three companies millions of dollars to continue work to build human lander systems expected to bring people to the Moon's surface.

  • SpaceX, Dynetics and a team put together by Blue Origin will now work to refine their lander ideas over the coming months before NASA funds one or more of the ideas ahead of the 2024 landing.

Yes, but: While certain parts of the Artemis program are moving ahead, other parts of the space agency's plans have been put on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak.

  • NASA's building and development of its Space Launch System rocket have been largely paused due to the pandemic, potentially delaying the first flight of the long-delayed heavy-lift rocket the agency intends to use for its moonshot.
  • NASA also recently announced the agency will push off efforts to build its small Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon before the 2024 landing in favor of going directly to the surface for the first landing instead.
  • Members of the House Science Committee have also criticized the fact that the space agency is outsourcing the building of a lunar lander to these companies instead of building a bespoke system in-house, potentially spelling trouble for political support of the program going forward.
3. The Sun is a quiet star

The Sun looking moody. Photo: NASA/Goddard/SDO

The Sun might be a bit more quiet than other stars of its kind, a feature that potentially makes our planet more friendly to life, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Understanding the Sun in context with other stars being studied today is important to learn more about the history of how our solar system came to be and just how uncommon — or common — life is in the universe.

The intrigue: Bursts of solar plasma and radiation from the Sun can be harmful for astronauts and satellites in space, but if the Sun has always been a more quiet, even-tempered star, it may have helped life to develop on Earth.

What they found: The authors of the new study — published in the journal Science last week — used data from 369 stars with properties like the Sun surveyed by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope between 2009 and 2013.

  • The stars are about the same age as the Sun with similar rotational periods, among other characteristics.
  • According to the study, the Sun appears to be a bit less active — with fewer sunspots and solar flares — than the other stars examined.
  • "We were very surprised that most of the Sun-like stars are so much more active than the Sun," Alexander Shapiro, one of the authors of the study said in a statement.

Yes, but: Just because the Sun is less active than other solar-type stars today doesn't mean that it's always been a quiet, well-behaved star.

  • It's possible this is a quiet period in the Sun's life and it was actually more active in the past and could be in the future.
  • The Sun may also be nearing an age in which it calms down and becomes much quieter than it had been billions of years earlier.
Bonus: World of the week — HD 209458b

Artist's illustration of HD 209458b. Image: NASA/ESA/Alfred Vidal-Madjar

A planet 154 light-years from Earth is having its atmosphere torn away as it orbits its star at a blistering speed.

Details: Named HD 209458b, this planet was the first to be found using the transit method — where a telescope detects faint dips in a star's light as a planet passes between the telescope and its star.

  • The planet — which is slightly less massive than Jupiter — makes a full orbit of its star every 3.5 days and has a comet-like tail because it's losing atmosphere due to the extreme radiation coming from its star.
  • In a first, scientists also found that HD 209458b has oxygen and carbon in its atmosphere.

The big picture: HD 209458b is known as a "hot Jupiter," which means that it's a large, gas planet but orbits relatively close to its star.

  • Scientists still aren't totally sure how these hot Jupiters form.
  • Some think the planets are able to form close to their stars, going counter to some models of planet formation, while others suggest that the planets form farther out and migrate inward toward their stars.
4. Out of this world reading list

The glow of Earth's atmosphere at night. Photo: NASA

The thorniest subject at NASA right now (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

The case of the disappearing exoplanet (Robin George Andrews, New York Times)

Long March 5B launch clears path for Chinese space station project (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

Podcast: A future where darkness is a thing of the past (Rose Eveleth, Flash Forward)

BONUS: Watch the (very goofy) trailer for the upcoming Netflix show "Space Force"

5. Your weekly dose of awe: The chaos of Europa

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Jupiter's moon Europa — with its icy shell and subsurface ocean — has long sparked the imaginations of scientists and science fiction writers alike.

  • Newly reprocessed images first taken in the 1990s by NASA's Galileo spacecraft show the moon's "chaos terrain" in new relief.
  • The bright white and blue regions are made of water ice, while the reddish color is caused by salts and other minerals, according to NASA.

What's next: Researchers are particularly interested in learning more about Europa because the moon is thought to be one of the best places to hunt for possible life in the solar system.

  • Scientists are hoping to use these newly processed photos to help with planning for NASA's Europa Clipper mission, expected to launch in the 2020s to perform a series of flybys to study the moon from close range.

I hope you're all staying healthy and safe. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🚀