Apr 28, 2020

Axios Space

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  • Axios is digging into the science behind pandemics with four Axios special reports, with the second being sent this Thursday. Subscribe to the Axios Science newsletter to receive the reports straight to your inbox.

Please send your tips, questions and favorite rocket launch videos to miriam.kramer@axios.com.

1 big thing: NASA's subdued return to crewed rocket launches

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX's plan to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station at the end of May will happen under the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Instead of a triumphant show of American astronauts launching from American soil for the first time since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, they will likely take flight amid crowd restrictions and a plea to stay away.

What's happening: SpaceX is planning to launch its first crewed mission to the ISS for NASA on May 27 as part of the space agency's bid to stop buying rides to orbit from Russia.

  • Usually, spectators cram onto beaches around the Space Coast to try to catch a glimpse of any rocket launch, especially those carrying people.
  • But NASA is now asking members of the public to refrain from traveling to Kennedy Space Center for the launch, instead saying space fans should join in online.
  • The space agency still has yet to explain exactly how members of the press will be accredited to cover the launch in person, calling into question how the public will understand this taxpayer-funded mission.
  • NASA is also considering instituting social distancing guidelines in mission control during the launch, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press call last week.
  • The agency told its workforce they can ask to be reassigned if working on the upcoming launch feels too risky.

Yes, but: NASA can restrict access to Kennedy Space Center, but the space agency has no jurisdiction over the surrounding area, making it potentially complicated to limit crowd sizes.

"We're trying to make sure we have access to the International Space Station without drawing the amount of crowds that we usually would for these activities. It's especially important now because we haven't done this since 2011, so the crowds are probably going to be bigger than they have been in a very long time."
— Jim Bridenstine

The big picture: NASA needs this launch to go off on time and without problems in order to be sure the agency can maintain a robust presence on the space station.

  • At the moment, Chris Cassidy is the only NASA astronaut on the space station, with plans for it to remain that way until Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch aboard SpaceX's Dragon.
  • "At its core, what you want to do is be able to launch this thing and get a crew rotation," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios. "You don't need the crowds to do the launch. You don't even need the press."

The bottom line: SpaceX's bid to launch people to orbit for the first time — considered to be the most significant space moment of the year — will be dulled by the ongoing pandemic.

2. Interstellar asteroids in our backyard

The aurora above Earth. Photo: NASA

A population of asteroids captured from other stars could be lurking in our own solar system, a new study contends.

Why it matters: Interstellar asteroids and comets represent astronomers' best chances of studying an object from another star system at close range, potentially revealing how unique (or average) we are in the process.

Details: So far, scientists have spotted two interstellar objects — Comet 2I/Borisov last year and 'Oumuamua in 2017 — but finding a population of these bits of debris from other stars in our own solar system could be a game-changer for researchers.

  • The new study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, suggests about 19 asteroids with odd orbits in the outer solar system could have been captured from other stars billions of years ago in the early days of the solar system.
  • “The close proximity of the stars meant that they felt each other’s gravity much more strongly in those early days than they do today,” Fathi Namouni, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This enabled asteroids to be pulled from one star system to another.”
  • Instead of being forced to wait until another interstellar object is spotted whizzing through our part of the galaxy, astronomers could study this population of asteroids more easily.

But, but, but: The origin of these asteroids may not be interstellar at all.

  • The modeling done for this study doesn't take into account all variables that may have led to the positions of these objects in our solar system, potentially skewing the results.
  • "This is an interesting thing to study because we still don't have a great explanation for how you can get things onto these orbits," planetary scientist Kat Volk, who is unaffiliated with the new study, told Axios. "But I don't think that it was solved now by this paper."
3. New rules on space junk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The FCC last week updated its rules around the mitigation of space junk for the first time since 2004, imposing more limits on companies that wish to send their wares to orbit.

Why it matters: Experts are increasingly worried about the number of satellites launching to orbit and how they could contribute to the creation of space junk.

  • Companies like SpaceX and Amazon have big plans to launch potentially thousands of small satellites to low orbits, which — if precautions aren't taken — could clog up parts of space and make it difficult to access them safely.

Details: The new FCC rules are focused on making companies more transparent about their plans to safely de-orbit their spacecraft as they reach the end of their functional lives and how they plan to avoid collisions while in orbit.

  • Because of the new rules, companies will now need to disclose the risk of collision and the possible risk of casualties caused by their satellites re-entering the atmosphere, according to the FCC.
  • The updated rules also lay out guidelines for how companies should share their satellite tracking data.

Yes, but: While the rules place new limits on these ambitious companies, the FCC held back on imposing strict regulations championed by some advocates, according to SpaceNews.

  • The FCC didn't vote on a requirement that satellite constellations pose less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of killing or harming a person as spacecraft are de-orbited.
  • The commission is also planning to continue studying whether companies should be required to compensate the U.S. government if their satellites cause harm in orbit.
Bonus: World of the week — Venus

Venus as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL

Earth's sister planet Venus is a world of extremes.

The big picture: The nearby planet is shrouded in a thick atmosphere, but scientists think the world may have once played host to liquid water and could have even been habitable at some point in the past.

The intrigue: Scientists have long advocated that NASA send a new mission to Venus for the first time since the 1990s to solve some long-standing mysteries about why the planet looks the way it does.

  • Venus may have once been host to plate tectonics, and previous missions have gotten glimpses of volcanism on the planet.
  • Some have even suggested the world's high cloud tops could be prime places for extreme life to develop.

What's next: A Soviet spacecraft managed to land on and beam data back from Venus for a couple of hours in 1982, but scientists planning future missions hope to extend that record with new technology.

  • Researchers have developed a way to keep a Venus lander functioning in the high pressure of the world's surface for about 60 days, according to one study.
4. Out of this world reading list

A comprehensive map of the Moon. Photo: NASA/GSFC/USGS

Starship passes key pressurization test (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Incredible new map of Moon shows its every nook and cranny (Ryan Mandelbaum, Gizmodo)

Trump not interested in flying on Virgin Galactic's space plane (Mike Wall, Space.com)

A birthday message from the Hubble telescope (Scientific American)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: The Hubble at 30


The Hubble Space Telescope has changed our way of understanding the universe through the course of its 30 years in orbit.

  • To celebrate Hubble's three decades in space, the team behind the telescope has released a new photo showing bursting star formation 163,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
  • The region plays host to bright stars 10–20 times the mass of the Sun.
  • "The seemingly isolated blue nebula at lower left (NGC 2020) has been created by a solitary mammoth star 200,000 times brighter than our Sun," NASA said in a statement. "The blue gas was ejected by the star through a series of eruptive events during which it lost part of its outer envelope of material."

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