Oct 8, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,164 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 4 minutes to read.

  • Situational awareness: "Axios on HBO" returns on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 6pm ET/PT on HBO. The show has also been renewed for 2020 and 2021.

Please send your tips, questions and black hole candidates to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: The hunt for a new kind of black hole

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Astronomers have found indirect evidence of a new type of black hole, and they're now making advances toward seeing one for the first time.

Why it matters: Known as intermediate-mass black holes, these mysterious objects could be the key to unlocking how galaxies evolved, revealing more about why our universe looks the way it does.

The big picture: Black holes are an extreme laboratory by which sweeping theories can be put to the test.

  • They are where the laws of cosmology, general relativity and quantum physics that govern the largest and smallest processes in the universe combine.
  • If there is another type of black hole out there that astronomers have yet to discover, it will play a critical role in piecing together how our universe evolved, experts say.

Details: Scientists think intermediate-mass black holes may exist, but it's not clear how they form or where exactly they might be hiding today.

  • These types of black holes — which are thought to be about 100–100,000 times the mass of the Sun — are too large to have formed during the death of a star but too small to be considered supermassive black holes like the one found in the center of the Milky Way.
"If you have a small and a large, it's weird to just not have the medium."
— NASA astronomer Varoujan Gorjian told Axios

Where it stands: Astronomers have found dozens of possible intermediate-mass black holes, yet none have been confirmed.

  • The LIGO and Virgo detectors are sensitive enough to pick up on gravitational waves sent out during the collision of two intermediate-mass black holes.
  • Astronomers also hope that X-ray observatories could detect how these black holes might affect gas, dust and other objects around them, however, the light emitted during feeding frenzies may not be quite luminous enough to see from Earth with our current tools.
  • Gravitational waves "would give you the smoking gun, that direct measurement of the mass of these objects," LIGO's Salvatore Vitale told Axios.

Yes, but: If they do collide, intermediate-mass black holes likely produce strong gravitational waves at a frequency that competes with seismic activities on Earth — like cars driving by or waves crashing on the shore — making them harder for LIGO and Virgo to distinguish.

What's next: The European Space Agency's LISA mission — expected to launch in the mid-2030s — will be able to measure mergers between intermediate-mass black holes even in the distant universe, hopefully giving scientists an answer to the mystery once and for all.

2. Commercial Crew delays

SpaceX's uncrewed Crew Dragon mission at launch. Photo: SpaceX

Boeing and SpaceX — tasked with building spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA — are not likely to launch people to orbit before the end of the year.

Why it matters: The Commercial Crew program is tasked with ending NASA's reliance on Russia's Soyuz rocket but has faced technical delays and budget shortfalls for years, leaving the space agency dependent on Russia's spaceflight capabilities.

Details: SpaceX suffered a setback earlier this year when one of its Crew Dragon vehicles exploded during a ground test.

  • Elon Musk expects the company will be able to fly people to the station in 3–4 months, according to CNN.
  • NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently said that is a stretch.
  • Boeing's first flight of its Starliner to the space station is also months away.

Between the lines: NASA wants to give SpaceX and Boeing flexibility in their flight schedules in the name of safety.

  • "We need them to fly, but more importantly, we need them to fly safely," NASA's Kirk Shireman said during a press briefing Friday.

The intrigue: NASA currently spends more than $80 million per seat for astronauts to fly to the station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets, with the final purchased flight expected to launch in March 2020.

  • If NASA wants to buy more Soyuz seats, it will need to do so before December 2020, when the agency will be barred from buying new seats from Russia by Congress unless granted a waiver.

What to watch: Bridenstine recently questioned whether SpaceX is focused on the Commercial Crew program and is set to visit the company's headquarters in California on Thursday to check in on its progress.

3. Juno and Jupiter's shadow

Jupiter as seen by Juno. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

NASA's Juno spacecraft has a new lease on life thanks to a 10.5-hour maneuver to keep the Jupiter-studying probe out of the huge planet's shadow.

Why it matters: Without the maneuver, Juno's mission would have likely ended when the spacecraft entered Jupiter's shadow in November, plunging the bus-sized probe into darkness for about 12 hours, draining its solar-charged batteries.

Details: Mission managers used Juno's reaction-control thrusters to shift the spacecraft's orbital velocity by 126 mph, according to NASA.

  • That slight change will ensure that the solar-powered spacecraft will miss the huge planet's shadow during Juno's next close approach, called a "perijove."
  • "The change to the orbits is minor, we are essentially still in the same polar orbit with very close perijoves of Jupiter, so our science plan is not affected," Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton told Axios via email.

What's next: Juno will continue to gather data about Jupiter's atmosphere, weather — including giant polar cyclones — and interior during its 53-day orbits.

  • Juno’s primary mission is expected to come to an end in 2021, though Bolton and his team are currently working on a plan that would continue Juno’s life at Jupiter beyond that if NASA chooses to fund it.
4. Out of this world reading list

Photo: NASA

Intelligent ways to search for extraterrestrials (Adam Mann, The New Yorker)

Swarm of tiny satellites could relay messages by year’s end (Debra Werner, Space News)

Starship updates could use more details on human health and survival (Loren Grush, The Verge)

NASA's 1st all-female spacewalk planned for this month (Axios)

Scientists win Nobel Prize in physics for work with exoplanets, cosmology (Axios)

5. Saturn's new moons

Saturn as seen by Cassini in 2017. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Scientists have found 20 never-before-seen moons orbiting Saturn, making it the planet with the most known moons in our solar system.

  • The newfound natural satellites increase Saturn's moon count to 82, eclipsing Jupiter's 79 known moons.

Details: The new moons are each about 3 miles across, and 17 of them orbit the ringed planet in retrograde — going the opposite direction of Saturn's rotation, according to an announcement from Carnegie Science.

  • Those 17 retrograde moons take more than 3 years to orbit the planet and are thought to be the remnants of a larger moon that broke apart in the past.

Go deeper: Enter a contest to help name the newly discovered moons from now until Dec. 6.

6. Your weekly dose of awe: The birth of a binary

Photo: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Alves et al.

Two young stars are being born from turbulent disks of gas and dust in a new photo taken by the ALMA telescope in Chile.

  • "The size of each of these disks is similar to the asteroid belt in our solar system," Felipe Alves, an author of the study detailing this finding, said in a statement.
  • The circumstellar disks of the system, located in the Pipe Nebula, are fed by gas and dust in a larger disk surrounding the growing stars.
  • The image — released on Oct. 4 — could help illuminate how binary systems of stars grow in deep space.
Miriam Kramer

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