October 03, 2023

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1 big thing: Countdown to regulation

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The space industry is playing a waiting game as lawmakers decide whether private companies flying paying customers to space are ready for regulation.

Why it matters: Some experts argue regulation could hamper growth of the private human spaceflight sector, while others say it's necessary to regulate these companies before a major accident occurs.

What's happening: A congressionally mandated moratorium preventing the Federal Aviation Administration from enacting regulations that would govern the safety of spaceflight systems for passengers was set to expire on Sunday.

  • But the stopgap spending bill passed by Congress on Saturday extended the moratorium until Jan. 1, 2024, giving lawmakers more time to figure out whether the industry is ready for regulation.
  • If the moratorium expires without further action from Congress, it will open the door for the FAA to start instituting safety regulations for people aboard these space systems.

Catch up quick: When the moratorium was first established in 2004 and extended in 2015, there were no private companies flying paying customers to space.

  • Today, however, SpaceX is sending people to orbit and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are flying customers to suborbital space. Boeing is expected to start flying passengers to orbit in the coming year or so.
  • At the moment, the FAA is allowed to regulate spaceflight systems for the safety of uninvolved people on the ground.
  • For people flying to space with these companies, they have to sign a waiver stating that they understand the risks associated with spaceflight, and the companies are responsible for informing them of those risks.

The intrigue: Some argue the industry — with three companies already flying paying customers to space — is ready for regulation and even needs it before the worst happens.

  • Supporters of regulation argue that when — not if — a fatal accident occurs, it could be disastrous for the industry at large if there are no safety regulations in place. That will put regulators in the position of establishing rules in a moment post-crisis.
  • "Then there will be a swift overreaction in which the FAA will be directed to immediately put out some regulations that would prevent that from ever happening again," predicts George Nield, the former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA. "From my experience, rushed regulations are bad regulations."
  • A report from the Rand Corporation earlier this year concluded that Congress should allow the moratorium to expire, paving the way for regulation.

Yes, but: Others argue the industry is still too young for safety regulations, stressing that prescriptive rules could slow its growth.

  • Letting the learning period expire would "open the door to regulations that inadvertently freeze development before industry has had time to mature, harming safety in the long-term and our nation's competitiveness," Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said during testimony before Congress in July.

Between the lines: Many proponents of regulation, however, suggest they aren't interested in prescriptive regulations that would force a company to redesign their systems fully to meet the specific need for a certain kind of button, lever or motor.

  • Instead, some experts advocate for a framework that would help regulators use a light touch to increase the safety of these systems while keeping a more hands-off approach to design.
  • Meanwhile, a regulatory framework could also help companies create a culture of safety and transparency, ultimately cultivating public trust in these companies.

What to watch: If the moratorium is allowed to expire, regulations won't be put in place the next day.

  • It will likely take months or years for any regulations to be drafted and implemented, and that process will require input from the public, industry and regulators.

2. A cosmic web uncovered

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Streams of gas flowing between galaxies were revealed as never before in a new study in Nature Astronomy last week.

Why it matters: The gas makes up part of the cosmic web that is thought to connect the galaxies of our universe, giving rise to its large-scale structure.

  • By learning more about this web and what creates and fuels it, scientists can piece together new details about how the universe evolved over time.

Driving the news: The new study reveals the typically unseen, dark filaments of gas that move between galaxies without using the bright light of a pulsar or other object to illuminate it.

  • The scientists used the Keck Cosmic Web Imager to pick up the direct light of the gas filaments, taking spectra of that light to track wisps of hydrogen, revealing the cosmic web they help create.
  • "We are basically creating a 3D map of the cosmic web," Caltech's Christopher Martin, an author of the study, said in a statement. "We take spectra for every point in an image at [a] range of wavelengths, and the wavelengths translate to distance."
  • The research team was able to look at a region of space that is 10 billion to 12 billion light-years away.

The big picture: Understanding the cosmic web can also help scientists learn more about the mysterious nature of dark matter and its influence on the visible universe.

  • The cosmic web is "where most of the normal, or baryonic, matter in our galaxy resides and directly traces the location of dark matter," Martin said.

3. Out of this world reading list

Pluto as seen by New Horizons. Photo: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

✨ Inside the long battle to maintain Mt. Wilson Observatory (Corinne Purtill, Los Angeles Times)

🌌 NASA extends New Horizons mission through late 2020s (Mike Wall, Space.com)

🛰 FCC fines Dish Network for botched satellite de-orbit (Jason Rainbow, SpaceNews)

☀️ How to see the last "ring of fire" eclipse until 2046 (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

4. Weekly dose of awe: Whirlwind on Mars

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Imagine walking across the surface of Mars when suddenly, in the distance, a twister pops up, kicking up dust on the alien world.

  • NASA's Perseverance rover caught a view like that while exploring the Martian surface, spotting a dust devil swirling in the distance.
  • "We don't see the top of the dust devil, but the shadow it throws gives us a good indication of its height," Perseverance science team member Mark Lemmon said in a statement. "Most are vertical columns. If this dust devil were configured that way, its shadow would indicate it is about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in height."
  • Dust devils pop up when rising warmer air mixes with cooler air as it sinks, NASA said. While these whirlwinds happen on Earth, the ones on Mars can get much larger.

📚 Big thanks to Alison Snyder for editing, Sheryl Miller for copy editing and the Axios visuals team. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe.