Sep 3, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,094 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 4 minutes to read.

1 big thing: Space Force's Catch-22

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's pitch to create a Space Force is championed by its supporters as a way to deter nations that plan to weaponize space.

  • But some experts warn that the U.S.' renewed focus on space weaponization is actually validating adversaries that hope to bolster their own military uses of outer space.

What's new: On Thursday, the Trump administration relaunched U.S. Space Command. The combatant command is expected to protect U.S. interests in space from potential threats, and it's seen as a step toward the creation of Trump's Space Force.

  • "Our adversaries have had a front row seat in our many successes of integrating space ... and they don't like what they see, because it provides us such great advantage," Gen. John Raymond, leader of U.S. Space Command told reporters last week. "They're developing capabilities to negate our access to space."
  • The Space Force is still awaiting Congressional approval, but if stood up, Space Command would be able to draw on troops and resources from the Space Force to carry out missions.

Where it stands: Geopolitical conflicts today are starting to play out in orbit, with U.S. officials becoming increasingly worried about China's and Russia's capabilities, from jamming communications satellites to taking them out.

  • Some experts say that establishing the Space Force would signal to the rest of the world that space is a weaponized domain, even if the force itself isn't actually focused on developing space-based weapons.
  • "Now the United States is overtly and proudly and loudly ... talking about the weaponization of space, and it's drawn a response," Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told Axios in an interview.
  • She points to India's test of an anti-satellite missile system earlier this year, which created hundreds of pieces of space junk.

But, but, but: Other experts say space is already being weaponized, and the U.S. is behind.

  • "We didn't make the choice," a former military official told Axios. "The choice was made for us, and we're going to have to weaponize space."
  • India's test was the latest in a series by other nations. Russia is reportedly testing anti-satellite missiles, and a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 purposefully destroyed one of the country's weather satellites.
  • Debris-producing tests are particularly alarming because the space junk created can impact other satellites or even make wide parts of space difficult to access.

The bottom line: If a U.S. Space Force is established in the coming years, it would further alter geopolitics on Earth and in space, potentially transforming a once peaceful realm into a war-focused regime.

2. The future of SpaceX's Starship

Starhopper flying through the sky above Texas. Photo: SpaceX

Last week, SpaceX launched the final test of Starhopper, a prototype of its Starship spacecraft that is designed to eventually take 100 people at a time to deep space destinations like the Moon or Mars.

Context: SpaceX is building on the reusability of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets with Starship, but the new interplanetary system will have some key differences.

  • The Starship and Super Heavy rocket will be powered by SpaceX's Raptor engines, while the company's current rockets make use of Merlin engines.
  • Super Heavy and Starship are each expected to fly up to 1,000 times, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
  • Raptor engines use methane as fuel, and it might be possible to extract methane from Mars or other bodies for use as propellant one day.

Details: The successful Starhopper test paves the way for SpaceX's plans to test 2 more prototypes currently being built in Texas and Florida.

  • The two vehicles, called Mk1 and Mk2, represent some healthy competition between SpaceX teams, and it's only the start, according to Musk.
  • "Both sites will make many Starships," Musk said on Twitter in May. "This is a competition to see which location is most effective. Answer might be both."
  • SpaceX has said that the first commercial Starship flights could begin as early as 2021. The company currently has 1 confirmed Starship mission announced for 2023, when a group of artists are expected to take a trip around the Moon.

What to watch: Musk said that the company is planning on a 20-kilometer (12-mile) flight of Mk1 in October, with an orbital test to follow. Musk is expected to update the public on the progress of Starship development on Sept. 28.

3. Earth's fingerprint from space

Earth seen from orbit. Photo: NASA

Scientists have developed a fingerprint of Earth from space that could one day help identify other habitable worlds light-years from our own.

Why it matters: If researchers find a planet that matched Earth's fingerprint — which shows what Earth would look like in infrared if seen by an alien civilization — out there in the universe, it could indicate they've found a habitable world.

What they did: The fingerprint — detailed in a new study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society — was created by using data collected by the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment onboard the SCISAT satellite.

  • That data specifically looks at the composition of Earth's atmosphere as sunlight passes through it, revealing methane, ozone and other molecules that could indicate life.
  • The new work shows Earth's fingerprint in infrared light, which could be particularly useful when hunting for habitable exoplanets using the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to launch in 2021.
"The idea is to be able to understand what we were seeing if we were observing an Earth-like planet. Our model of Earth’s spectrum as observed with the James Webb Space Telescope is a benchmark to which spectra of other planets can be compared to understand how similar their atmospheres are to ours."
— Evelyn Macdonald, a co-author of the study, to Axios.
4. Out of this world reading list

The far side of the Moon. Photo: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU

Amateurs identify U.S. spy satellite behind President Trump's tweet (Geoff Brumfiel, NPR)

SpaceX refused to move a Starlink satellite at risk of collision with a European satellite (Jonathan O'Callaghan, Forbes)

China's lunar rover has found something weird on the far side of the Moon (Andrew Jones,

Possible detection of a black hole so big it ‘should not exist’ (Natalie Wolchover, Quanta)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Dorian from orbit

Photo: NASA/Nick Hague

The extreme power of a hurricane can even be seen from space. This photo, from NASA astronaut Nick Hague, shows the eye of Hurricane Dorian as the storm swirled through the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend.

  • "You can feel the power of the storm when you stare into its eye from above," Hague said in a post on Twitter.
  • The deadly storm battered the Bahamas over the weekend, and it's expected to potentially bring its impacts to Florida's Space Coast in the coming days.

Go deeper: What you need to know about Hurricane Dorian

Miriam Kramer

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