Axios Space

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July 19, 2022

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1 big thing: Voyager's critical moment

Illustration of a blueprint with an image of the universe on it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The future of NASA's aging Voyager spacecraft, which over the last 45 years have collected data no human-made probes have ever gathered, is starting to come into sharper focus.

Why it matters: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are the only functional human-made spacecraft currently in interstellar space.

  • "No spacecraft is going to get back to where Voyager 1 and 2 are for decades," Suzanne Dodd, Voyager's project manager, tells me.

Driving the news: Next month, the Voyager science team will meet to discuss the science that the spacecraft have been beaming back and talk about the future of the mission before making recommendations to NASA on how to proceed to get the best science from the aging probes.

  • The Voyager team is also putting together a proposal to NASA asking the agency to again extend its mission so it can continue to gather information about this mysterious part of space. A final decision on a mission extension is expected this spring.
  • Even as the Voyagers age and encounter technical difficulties, keeping them functioning remains a high priority because their data is unique.
  • Mission controllers have turned off instruments on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that weren't deemed essential to their interstellar mission in the past, but now, as the spacecraft age, it's possible the team will need to start turning off functional instruments that are sending home important science to conserve power.

The intrigue: Complicating the August meeting — and the mission's future — is the fact that Voyager 1 is in the midst of a somewhat confounding anomaly involving how it communicates with its controllers back on Earth.

  • When NASA sends a command for Voyager 1 to point in a certain direction, the probe isn't able to tell them it understood and is executing on the order, even though it follows the direction.

Between the lines: Troubleshooting the problem is complicated by the fact that it takes more than 21 hours to send a command to Voyager 1 and then another 21 hours to receive a message back because of its extreme distance from Earth.

  • The mission's long life also works against current mission managers in another way: Many of the people who used to work with Voyager — particularly those who were around before launch and during construction — are no longer working with the mission.
  • Today, NASA has processes for making sure the technical specifications of any given spacecraft are available to the right people, but when the Voyagers were being built, that wasn't the case.
  • "I think we may never get to the root cause, and I think that we more than likely will live around it, which is pretty typical of extended missions," Dodd said.

In spite of all that, mission managers have devised a way to potentially keep the probes — which were designed for a five-year primary mission — functioning through the 2030s, if everything goes exceedingly well in the meantime.

  • Instead of just allowing the spacecraft's power supplies to slowly deplete, the mission managers may be able to manage voltage in a way that would allow the spacecraft's power to exceed current expectations.
  • "In the very most optimistic case, we get out around 2038, 2040. I feel good about 2030, but 2035 is scary and 2040 would be miraculous. But it's Voyager. Nobody thought we'd be here in 2022," Bruce Waggoner, the Voyager mission assurance manager, told me.

The big picture: Both of the spacecraft are currently flying through interstellar space, but they're on different trajectories, allowing scientists on Earth to learn more about that part of space from two perspectives.

  • Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 also have complementary instruments that are still functioning. Voyager 1 currently has four working instruments, Voyager 2 has five, and four of the five are the same instruments as Voyager 1.
  • Having multiple, complementary data points from each spacecraft allows scientists to build more robust models of the interstellar medium and its nature.
  • The probes have revealed the complex ways that the Sun interacts with the interstellar medium, showing that the Sun does influence the space between stars.

2. How JWST's photos work

Five galaxies in Stephan's Quintet seen by the JWST.
Stephan's Quintet seen by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

Hours of image processing work went into each of the five full-color James Webb Space Telescope images released by NASA last week.

Why it matters: Through its photos, the JWST — which captures light in wavelengths the human eye can't see — will change the way the public and scientists understand the history of the universe.

Where it stands: The JWST looks at the universe in infrared light, allowing it to cut through dust to see the intimate details of star formation and even the faint light of some of the first galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago.

  • "Biologically, we just don't have the ability — even if we were floating next to these objects — to see them the way that Hubble or Webb can see them," Joe DePasquale, an image processor who works with JWST, tells me.

How it works: When photos taken by the JWST's huge mirror are beamed back to Earth, they basically look black, DePasquale says.

  • "Each pixel in the image has over 65,000 different shades of gray that it can be," he said, adding that "the universe is very dim," so most of the interesting parts of a JWST image are "buried in the darkest regions of the image."
  • The imaging team then has to brighten up the darkest parts of the image to bring out the details hiding within the pixels without over-saturating the brightest bits of the image — which can be cores of galaxies or bright stars.

The JWST is so sensitive that it's able to differentiate between bands of infrared light in much the same way our eyes can see different bands of optical light.

  • Because of that sensitivity, the imaging team is able to sort through long to short wavelengths of infrared light, allowing them to filter the image through various colors in a scientifically sound way.
  • The human eye perceives longer wavelengths of optical light as red, so that color stands in for longer wavelengths of infrared light. Blue is used for shorter wavelengths, and the other colors of the rainbow are in between.

3. Space investment slump

Illustration of a spaceship made from a roll of pennies
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Private investment in the space sector dropped in the second quarter of 2022.

Why it matters: The drop indicates that the space industry isn't immune to the economic issues plaguing other industries as a possible recession looms.

What's happening: A new report from Space Capital shows that 92 companies received a total of $6.1 billion of investment in the second quarter of this year.

  • That figure represents a drop from the first quarter of the year, which saw $7.2 billion invested across the space sector.
  • With $13.8 billion raised so far, this year is expected to come in far below the nearly $47 billion in funding secured during 2021's record-breaking year for investment in the space industry.

Yes, but: "While we believe the macro environment will continue to cause headwinds for some space companies, we do not believe that the space economy is at existential risk," Chad Anderson, Space Capital managing partner, wrote in the report.

  • It might be harder for parts of the industry — including launch providers working to create new rockets and emerging industries like lunar and asteroid mining — to get funding in a difficult market like this one.
  • Other space tools — like GPS — are already built into the fabric of how governments and average people live their lives, potentially insulating it from market downturns.

Go deeper: The space industry's bubble is at risk of bursting

4. Out of this world reading list

Buzz Aldrin in his EV suit stands next to the leg of the lunar lander on the cratered surface of the Moon
Buzz Aldrin stands on the surface of the Moon. Photo: NASA

Sotheby's to auction Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 moon landing artifacts (Robert Pearlman, CollectSpace)

NASA delays VIPER lunar rover launch by a year (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Russia ousts boisterous space chief Dmitry Rogozin (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Seriously, what's making all these mysterious space signals? (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Astronomers search for light that holds answer to how earliest galaxies formed (Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Jupiter through the JWST's eyes

Jupiter shining in red and yellow seen in infrared by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Photo: NASA/ESA/CSA/B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

Scientists using the JWST aren't just interested in staring at objects in the distant universe. The powerful telescope can also help researchers learn more about planets in our own backyard.

  • This photo of Jupiter — taken by JWST in infrared light — was snapped during the telescope's commissioning phase, before full science operations began.
  • The planet's Great Red Spot storm can be seen on the right, and the moon Europa is shining on the left side of the image.
  • "I couldn’t believe that we saw everything so clearly, and how bright they were," Stefanie Milam, the JWST's deputy project scientist for planetary science, said in a statement. "It’s really exciting to think of the capability and opportunity that we have for observing these kinds of objects in our solar system."

Big thanks to Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition and to the visuals team for all of their help. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe. ☀️