October 17, 2023

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1 big thing: AI and the space industry

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios.

The AI boom could help fuel much-needed growth for the space industry.

Why it matters: Investment in the space industry has faced headwinds this year in line with broader trends, but as space companies look for new lines of funding, government contracts and private investment, AI could serve as a boon.

  • Companies that make use of and collect geospatial intelligence photos and analysis of Earth are enhancing their capabilities through advances in AI and machine learning.
  • "AI is a transformative technology that cuts across the space economy," Space Capital's Chad Anderson tells Axios.
  • "It is one of the trends that is helping to drive growth" in the industry, he added.

The big picture: Space companies have relied on machine learning and AI for years.

  • Picking out trends, like deforestation in the Amazon, and identifying objects of interest, like cars in a parking lot over time, are most easily done using algorithms that can locate what customers and governments need.
  • Years ago, companies provided huge amounts of data to government agencies to analyze and produce their own results. But today, companies are analyzing data for their customers directly.
  • In many cases, they aren't just paying for pixels anymore, they're paying for a service, Scott Herman, Maxar Intelligence chief product officer, tells Axios.

Between the lines: Part of the barrier to entry for new customers in the space industry has centered around the fact that data is difficult to access and hard to understand.

  • It also takes a while to build and test a model that could pick out a specific point of interest from a large dataset. (For example, finding new buildings as they pop up in a given area.)
  • But generative AI could change that. Instead of needing specific longitude and latitude coordinates or a unique algorithm built to solve a problem, a potential user could simply present a question in natural language and get a quick answer from an AI trained on vast amounts of geospatial data.
  • "Whether you're talking about deforestation or troop movements or ships ... you wouldn't want to build an individual model for all of those. But if you can satisfy that with one, more generic model, then that's amazing," Planet's Kevin Weil tells Axios.

2. Tree rings and solar storms

Tree rings of a buried subfossil tree in the Drouzet River in the southern French Alps. Photo: C矇cile Miramont

The largest known solar storm struck Earth more than 14,000 years ago, according to a new study of the growth rings in ancient trees, my colleague Jacob Knutson writes.

Why it matters: The discovery illustrates the immense power of solar storms and underscores the danger they pose today.

  • A similar storm striking Earth at present would likely knock out radio communications and satellites while causing widespread blackouts, said Tim Heaton, a professor of applied statistics at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the new study in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A journal.
  • "Extreme solar storms could have huge impacts on Earth," Heaton said, "They would also create盎evere radiation risks to astronauts."

How it works: Carbon-14 (C14), the rarest carbon isotope on the planet, is primarily formed by cosmic rays emitted by the Sun through solar flares and coronal mass ejections interacting with the Earth's atmosphere.

  • The radioactive carbon isotope can eventually be absorbed by living organisms like trees, plants and animals throughout their lifetimes.
  • Scientists use C14 levels and its radioactive decay rate to estimate how long an organism has been dead, a process called radiocarbon dating.
  • But the amount of C14 in certain organisms can also reflect how abundant the isotope was in the atmosphere and, by extension, the amount of solar activity present at a given time.
  • Trees are ideal for determining atmospheric C14 levels because they capture yearly records of Earth's past climate in their annual growth rings.

What they found: The team of scientists discovered evidence of the storm by measuring the levels of C14 in rings of ancient pine trees that lived in the French Alps more than 14,000 years ago.

  • They found a sharp increase of C14 levels precisely 14,300 years ago followed by a gradual decrease in the following years.
  • The researchers hypothesized that the abrupt spike was likely from a massive solar storm that was probably two times larger than all other major storms on record.

The intrigue: To verify their hypothesis, the researchers turned to ice cores, or cylinders of ice drilled from ice sheets and glaciers.

  • As with trees, evidence of past solar storms can be detected in ancient ice by the presence of radioactive isotopes of beryllium and chlorine, which also form when cosmic rays interact with the atmosphere.
  • They discovered that the C14 spike in the trees corresponded with an unusual concentration of beryllium-10 from between 14,301 and 14,292 years ago found in a Greenland ice core.

3. What's inside an asteroid sample

The sample return capsule from OSIRIS-REx. Photo: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

The pristine sample of a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid delivered to Earth last month contains water and high amounts of carbon, according to NASA.

Why it matters: That composition suggests life's building blocks may be found within the asteroid, the space agency said.

What's happening: Scientists will further analyze the sample to try to answer key questions about asteroids and their place in the solar system's history.

  • The OSIRIS-REx mission was expected to collect at least 60 grams of material from asteroid Bennu, but it appears to have snagged a lot more, including some bonus material "covering the outside of the collector head, canister lid, and base," NASA said.
  • "The bounty of carbon-rich material and the abundant presence of water-bearing clay minerals are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg," University of Arizona professor of planetary science Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, said in a statement.
  • NASA is planning to house about 70% of the asteroid sample at Johnson Space Center, setting aside some of it for scientists to study in the future.

Catch up quick: The OSIRIS-REx sample capsule landed in the Utah desert on Sept. 24 and arrived at Johnson the next day.

  • OSIRIS-REx gathered the sample in 2020 and then made its way back to Earth.
  • It is the largest sample of an asteroid ever returned to Earth.
  • After dropping the sample capsule to land on Earth, the spacecraft is continuing on its journey through space, targeting the asteroid Apophis next. (NASA has renamed the spacecraft OSIRIS-APEX in light of the extended mission.)

The big picture: Scientists think asteroids and comets are leftovers from the dawn of the solar system billions of years ago.

  • By studying these space rocks, researchers think they might eventually be able to piece together how water and even life were seeded on Earth early in our planet's history.

4. Out of this world reading list

The Falcon Heavy rocket carrying Psyche launches. Photo: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA launches Psyche mission to study a strange metallic asteroid (Axios)

JWST finds strange particles in a planet's alien clouds (Mark Kaufman, Mashable)

India sets 2040 target for crewed moon landing (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

Limits on collecting satellite imagery over Israel continue (Jacqueline Feldscher, Payload)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Shining clouds of stars


The inner region of the Orion nebula glows in this photo from the James Webb Space Telescope.

  • The nebula located about 1,300 light-years from Earth contains stars far larger than the Sun and brown dwarfs or "failed stars" that are too small to produce a fusion reaction in their cores.
  • The new data from the JWST also contains planets "not orbiting stars, the very smallest of which have just 60% the mass of Jupiter or two times the mass of Saturn," according to the European Space Agency.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder for editing, Sheryl Miller for copy editing, Jacob for contributing and the Axios visuals team. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe.