Apr 14, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The 250-mile view on the coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Astronauts are experiencing the pandemic from hundreds of miles above the planet — offering the Earth-bound a fresh perspective on dealing with distance, loneliness and helplessness.

What's happening: Astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner flew to the International Space Station last week.

  • Cassidy had no family or friends on hand to view the launch from Kazakhstan due to social distancing concerns and travel restrictions.
  • "We knew as a crew we were going to be in quarantine ... those exact weeks, but we didn't know the whole rest of the world was going to join us," Cassidy said during a press conference from the space station.
  • Two other astronauts, Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, are heading back to Earth this week after months in space and will arrive on a very different planet than the one they left.
"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below. We can tell you that the Earth still looks just as stunning as always from up here, so it's difficult to believe all the changes that have taken place since both of us have been up here."
— Jessica Meir during a press conference

Astronauts who have been away from their families for months at a time even in the best situations describe a loneliness brought on by being physically separated from the people they care for.

  • "When you are on the ground, you just wish you were back in space because it's so cool, but when you're in space, almost all you can think about is actually your family," former NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy told Axios.

Context: Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union from the space station Mir. He left Earth from the Soviet Union and returned to a newly independent Kazakhstan months later than he initially expected to come home.

  • NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was the only American off-Earth during 9/11, snapping photos of the aftermath from above and mourning a former classmate who was the pilot of the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
  • Other astronauts have watched from above as hurricanes and other natural disasters impact their families on Earth.

The big picture: In many ways, our experiences on Earth today mirror the experiences astronauts in orbit have been living through for decades.

  • For some, the loneliness, helplessness and isolation are eased through acts of service and keeping busy, lessons we could incorporate during quarantine here on the planet.
  • "You try to keep your spirits up during isolation," former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao told Axios. "You do things for others."
2. Space companies pivot to pandemic supplies

Virgin Orbit's ventilators. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Space-focused organizations around the U.S. are now looking to manufacture ventilators and other much-needed health equipment to aid the pandemic relief effort.

Why it matters: With high-minded ideals centered on delivering humanity to orbit, the space industry can feel removed from the machinations of everyday life. The coronavirus crisis is bringing it down to Earth.

What's happening: Virgin Orbit has started manufacturing bridge ventilators in its Long Beach, California, facility for use in the U.S. if it receives regulatory clearance.

  • The company is now producing its first 100 units with plans to eventually make more than 200 per week at the facility after receiving clearance.
  • "We started with a quite small team ... and ramped that up to maybe two or three dozen," Virgin Orbit's Will Pomerantz told Axios via email. "Small teams can move quickly, and keeping the team small helped us keep the device extremely simple — and, at the request of the medical community, we were aiming specifically for the simplest, safest, soonest design."
  • Virgin Orbit is mostly using people who were working on future rockets for the company to manufacture these ventilators, and the company successfully staged a major test of its launch system this week.

The big picture: NASA is also looking into ways to help with ventilator production, according to SpaceNews.

  • SpaceX plans to donate hand sanitizer and face shields made by the company to hospitals in need.
  • Blue Origin is also manufacturing face shields for medical personnel.
  • "I’ve always felt lucky to genuinely admire so many of our peers, our competitors, and our customers," Pomerantz said. "I know that huge numbers of them are thinking about ways they can help."
3. Waiting on a photo of a black hole

The black hole in the center of M87. Photo: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, et al.

An international collaboration that produced the first-ever photo of a black hole last year has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration is expected to one day capture a clear photo of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way — revealing exactly what's going on in the heart of our own galaxy.

Details: The EHT uses a network of powerful radio telescopes around the world to take observations in tandem and piece together images of black holes.

  • Last year, the organization released its first photo of the black hole at the center of the galaxy M87, proving out Einstein's predictions about the nature of black holes.
  • Had all gone according to plan, the EHT was planning to send astronomers around the world this year to aid in observations using the telescopes and to bring others into the collaboration.
  • Travel restrictions and concerns about the virus forced the cancellation of those plans.
  • "We just could not ensure everyone's safety as they went to these different observatories and kept up their work," Shep Doeleman, the head of the collaboration, said during a press conference last week.

Yes, but: The collaboration is still planning to use the data they've already gathered to learn more about black holes.

  • By using the data collected in 2017, the EHT was able to see the jets shooting from the quasar 3C 279 in more detail than ever before.
  • The scientists behind the project also hope to mine the data for new discoveries in the coming months.
Bonus: Worlds of the week — Phobos and Deimos

Mars' moon Phobos. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Mars' two small moons Phobos and Deimos are a relative hop, skip and a jump from Earth.

Background: The diminutive natural satellites are thought by most scientists to be two small asteroids captured by Mars' gravity sometime in the past, but some think the two moons may have coalesced from material orbiting the world.

  • If you were to stand on the surface of Mars and look up at Phobos, it would take up a significant portion of the sky because it orbits only 3,700 miles from the Red Planet's surface.
  • One day in about 50 million years, scientists think Phobos will either crash into Mars or break apart, forming a ring around the world.

What's next: Space agencies have yet to send a dedicated mission to Mars' moons, but plenty of spacecraft have snapped photos of the rocky satellites during their explorations of Mars.

  • Japan's MMX mission, in development now, is designed to explore both Martian moons and grab a sample of Phobos for delivery back to Earth.
  • Researchers have also floated the idea of using Phobos as a jumping-off point for human missions down to the Martian surface.
4. Out of this world reading list

Mission controllers during the Apollo 13 mission. Photo: NASA

Looking back at Apollo 13's lost lunar science (Robert Pearlman, Scientific American)

The mission NASA doesn't want to postpone (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

SoftBank spearheads OneWeb loan offer to complete spectrum sale (Caleb Henry, SpaceNews)

Astronomers spot the brightest supernova ever recorded (Ryan Mandelbaum, Gizmodo)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: As the Earth turns

Gif: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM

A robotic explorer bound for Mercury whirls its way past Earth, catching a glimpse of our planet on its way.

  • A new gif patched together from images taken by the BepiColombo spacecraft shows Earth as the European probe flew from 175,189 miles away to 79,535 miles away during a flyby on April 9.
  • BepiColombo launched to Mercury in 2018 and will make eight more flybys — two of Venus and six of Mercury — before getting into orbit around the innermost planet in about five years.
Miriam Kramer

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