Jan 28, 2020

Axios Space

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1 big thing: How new internet-beaming satellites could change wars

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Huge constellations of satellites expected to launch to orbit in the next few years are an opportunity for defense agencies to expand their communications — and transform the nature of conflict.

Why it matters: National security experts warn that China and other nations are ahead of the U.S. when it comes to beefing up their weaponized capabilities in orbit, potentially putting U.S. assets on Earth and in space in jeopardy.

  • If the government makes a deal to fly instruments onboard commercial satellites, it could effectively hide military assets in plain sight.
  • It could also make it easier to get data back to Earth more quickly and give the government a way to collect data from space without launching expensive satellites of its own.
"Instead of having all of your national security dongles hanging off of one giant satellite, you could distribute them around to a bunch of other satellites both DoD [Department of Defense] as well as commercial."
— Brian Weeden, of the Secure World Foundation, to Axios

What's happening: The Air Force has tested SpaceX’s Starlink internet service aboard aircraft, and the company holds a $28 million contract with the government agency to test new ways of using Starlink.

  • The Space Development Agency is also considering buying satellites from private companies in order to build out its own constellation.
  • Government contracts like these could help keep companies in the black as they work to prove that their business models are sustainable and court other customers.

Yes, but: The satellites expected to make up mega-constellations are small and economical, meaning it might be difficult to include hosted payloads on them at all.

  • It could also be risky to put sensitive information on commercial networks and unproven systems.
  • The U.S. government has launched instruments aboard commercial satellites before, but it didn't quite catch on due in part to the fact that agencies couldn't have full control of these satellites operated by private companies, raising questions about who controls what information and hardware.

The bottom line: Huge constellations of satellites could reframe the way the U.S. military is able to fight wars but further blur the line between government agencies and the companies they rely on.

2. Saying goodbye to the Spitzer Space Telescope

The Tarantula Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Thursday, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope, ending a mission that transformed how we understand the invisible machinations of the universe.

Why it matters: While the telescope is still able to function today, NASA made the decision to shut it down, saying $14 million per year is too high a cost for its diminishing science return as the observatory will likely be inoperable soon.

What Spitzer found: The telescope was able to see in infrared light, revealing new information about distant galaxies and even planets orbiting stars far from our Sun during its more than 16 years in space.

  • The telescope found a never-before-observed ring around Saturn. The ring is made out of a smattering of dust particles that were relatively easy to see in infrared light, but difficult to see in other wavelengths, NASA said.
  • Spitzer also created the first map showing the atmosphere of an exoplanet — a world orbiting a star other than the Sun.
  • And the telescope measured the composition of the dust from comet Tempel 1 that was flung into space after NASA's Deep Impact probe crashed into the comet in 2005, giving scientists a glimpse of what the object was made out of.
"It allowed us to see what our human eyes could not see," Farisa Morales, a Spitzer Space Telescope scientist, said during a press event.

Background: Spitzer's shutdown is happening at a time when the future of astrophysics at NASA is somewhat uncertain.

  • The agency is expected to launch its next flagship space observatory — the James Webb Space Telescope — next year, after years of delays and budget overruns.
  • Astronomers and astrophysicists are now working to help set NASA's scientific priorities in the coming decade as well, as researchers debate whether big, expensive missions are the way to go.
3. China's alien-hunting telescope comes online

FAST in China. Photo: Ou Dongqu/Xinhua via Getty

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) began official science operations earlier this month, making it the largest operating telescope of its kind on Earth.

Why it matters: The $100 million Breakthrough Listen project is expected to survey 100 nearby galaxies, 1 million stars and the galactic plane for radio signatures that could only have been sent out by an advanced society, and FAST is expected to help.

  • Scientists have trouble parsing out exactly which signals might be from outside of our solar system and which might have been created by human activity.
  • FAST's advanced technology will help cut down on any false-positives, Breakthrough Listen scientist Vishal Gajjar told Axios.

Where it stands: FAST has already done a preliminary observation in collaboration with Breakthrough Listen, listening for signals from the planet GJ273b as a proof of concept for the telescope, Gajjar said.

  • Breakthrough Listen expects to hunt for radio signatures coming from the Andromeda galaxy and planets discovered by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite using FAST, Gajjar added.
  • Breakthrough Listen and FAST also have a partnership to share information, making sure any promising looking signals are followed up on quickly.

But, but, but: Just because scientists are listening for advanced intelligent life doesn't mean it's out there, or that we can hear it.

  • While powerful telescopes like FAST aid in the hunt, it's possible that our tools simply aren't sensitive enough to pick up SETI signals yet.

Go deeper: The search for life as we don't know it

4. Out of this world reading list

Photo: Trump Twitter feed (left); CBS/Viacom (right)

Bridenstine concerned about aspects of House NASA authorization bill (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Satellite photos suggest Iran is preparing to try to launch a satellite (Geoff Brumfiel, NPR)

Fallen SpaceShipTwo pilot's name added to Space Mirror Memorial (Robert Pearlman, CollectSPACE.com)

Trump's Space Force gets a new, recognizable logo (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: The night sky from orbit

Photo: NASA

Looking down on the lights of the aurora from above is something very view people have had the chance to experience.

  • This photo, taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station, gives those of us bound to Earth's surface a taste of what the view from space is like.
  • The photo was taken at night on Jan. 22, when the station was about 261 miles above the Atlantic, not far from the coast of North America, NASA said.

1 fun thing: It takes the space station about 90 minutes to complete an orbit around Earth, meaning that the astronauts and cosmonauts on the space laboratory experience about 16 sunrises and sunsets each day.

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