Mar 17, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,224 words, this week's newsletter — coming to you from my Brooklyn living room — will take you about 5 minutes to read.

  • Please send your tips, questions and pointers on working from home with a 14-month-old underfoot to
1 big thing: The coronavirus is setting back the space industry

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From canceled conferences to a delayed Mars mission, the space industry is starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as it spreads across the globe.

Why it matters: Hundreds of thousands of people are already experiencing the devastating effects of the pandemic.

  • Experts say people involved in the space industry need to be vigilant as private agencies and organizations start to be impacted as well.
  • "We're all, I think, taking it week by week if not day by day," Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson told Axios.

What’s happening: Europe and Russia decided to delay their joint ExoMars mission two years in part due to concerns around travel brought on by the pandemic.

  • NASA expects to prioritize missions with small launch windows like the Perseverance Mars mission to make sure they remain on time. The agency hasn't announced any delays so far.
  • Major gatherings of space industry insiders and scientists have been postponed, cut short or canceled, including the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference outside of Houston. The American Astronomical Society is also considering moving its summer meeting online.
  • Multiple NASA centers have moved to mandatory telework as the virus spreads through communities in the U.S.
  • Blue Origin and other space companies are encouraging their employees to work from home if they can.

China, on the other hand, is still on track to launch its first Mars mission in July despite the pandemic, according to state media reports.

What to watch: Experts say it's possible the space industry's workforce and supply chain issues will cause launch delays if impacts from the coronavirus continue to be felt for months.

  • Industry watchers should also expect that space companies, for the most part, will hunker down as the pandemic continues.
  • In a few months, as the crisis passes, it's possible that the government will start awarding relatively flexible contracts with few restrictions to help jump-start the space workforce, says Caelus Partners' Jose Ocasio-Christian.
  • Many new space companies are also dependent upon raising funds to get off the ground and build hardware. As the economy slumps, that money might be harder to come by.
2. Watching a pandemic from space

Pollution clearing over northern Italy. Photo: ESA/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Space companies and agencies tasked with keeping an eye on the Earth from above are key to understanding the scope of the coronavirus crisis as it unfolds.

Driving the news: Satellite images show large pits being dug in Iran to bury the victims of the coronavirus outbreak in that country.

  • Air pollution can be seen clearing above Italy as the country has been locked down.
  • Space companies like Orbital Insight can also aid in transparency during worldwide events like these.
  • The company has used its space-based tools and analysis on the ground to track foot traffic to various companies, including 3M, which makes protective masks, to show how they're responding to the crisis.
3. Iron rain on an alien world

Artist's illustration of the iron rain. Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser

A telescope in Chile has found a world 640 light-years from Earth that rains liquid iron, adding to the strange tapestry of planets far from our own.

Why it matters: The more that scientists understand about planets circling other stars, the closer they get to finding out just how unique (or common) our solar system — and therefore life — is.

Details: The world, named WASP-76b, is tidally locked to its star, like the Moon is to Earth. The planet’s day side gets so hot that iron evaporates into its atmosphere.

  • Winds blow strong enough on the planet that the iron moves from the day side to the night side of the world where it then cools.
  • As the atmospheric iron cools, it rains onto the cooler night side.
  • The new discovery was made using the ESPRESSO instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

The big picture: WASP-76b is only one of the many weird exoplanets — planets circling other stars — that are fascinating scientists today.

  • The planet HD 189733b has winds that blow up to 5,400 mph and likely rains glass.
  • Another world, HD 209458b, orbits so close to its star that its thick atmosphere is evaporating and the planet appears to have a tail like a comet stretching out behind it.
  • 55 Cancri e — located about 41 light-years away — is masked by a thick atmosphere that may hide a surface covered entirely in lava.

The bottom line: While many scientists are hunting for another Earth light-years away from our solar system, hundreds of other planets with their own properties are still worthy of study.

4. Science experiments for NASA's Gateway

Artist's illustration of the Gateway. Photo: NASA

Two experiments designed to monitor the space environment will eventually orbit the Moon on NASA's small Gateway space station.

Why it matters: The experiments will keep an eye on the radiation environment in lunar orbit in order to help scientists learn how to keep astronauts safe as they explore deep space.

  • “Our Sun and the environment around it is very dynamic. ... Not only will we learn more about our space environment, but we'll also learn how to improve forecasting space weather," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in a statement.

Details: One of the instruments, built by the European Space Agency, will monitor radiation from the Gateway, giving people back on Earth a better sense of how much exposure astronauts might have in lunar orbit.

  • NASA's space weather Gateway experiment will keep an eye on solar particles and the solar wind to aid in predicting space weather that can harm people and satellites in orbit.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear when exactly the Gateway will be orbiting the Moon.

  • NASA's head of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, told the space agency's Advisory Council that the Gateway has been taken off the "critical path" for NASA's first Artemis Moon mission in 2024, according to SpaceNews.
  • Instead, the agency will reportedly focus on getting the Gateway up and running by 2026 without using it for the first landing in 2024.
  • “By taking Gateway out of the critical path for the lunar landing in ’24, I believe what we have done is create a far better Gateway program,” Loverro said, per SpaceNews.
5. Apollo 13 in real time

The Apollo 13 crew back on Earth after their failed Moon mission. Photo: NASA

A new website lets space fans around the world experience the highs, lows, terror and ultimately the joy of the troubled Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

The big picture: This marks the third real-time Apollo website released to date. Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 also got this treatment from creator Ben Feist.

Details: The website uses audio, photos and TV broadcasts to allow users to either experience the mission in real time or pick and choose what to listen to and revisit.

  • You can start with a minute until launch or join the mission in progress.
  • Users can also search their favorite moments in a handy transcript — just don't try to find "Houston, we have a problem." (Instead, search for "Houston, we've had a problem.")

My thought bubble: If you're feeling anything like I am these days, now might be a good time to relive one of the most harrowing and eventually triumphant moments in spaceflight history. Have fun.

6. Out of this world reading list

Artist's illustration of the rover on Mars. Photo: ESA/ATG medialab

How NASA is preparing to launch humans to space as coronavirus pandemic worsens (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Launch of China’s new Long March 7A ends in failure (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

Stuck home? Planets, moon providing predawn entertainment (Marcia Dunn, Associated Press)

Europe, Russia delay Mars mission to 2022 (Axios)

7. Your weekly dose of awe: Earth from above

Photo: NASA

Earth's atmosphere glows from space. This photo taken earlier this month shows the thin copper-tinted limb of the atmosphere as seen from the International Space Station.

  • The time-lapse photo was snapped as the orbiting outpost passed 262 miles above Kazakhstan.
  • If you ever want to try to spot the station from your own backyard, you can use this handy tool to find out exactly when the space laboratory will pass overhead.
Miriam Kramer

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