Mar 24, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,096 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 4 minutes to read.

1 big thing: A cosmic view can help

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The perspective space provides is essential during these troubled times.

Why it matters: Astronauts live in isolation and look down on our planet with a view that can bring people out of their own experiences, especially during times of extreme and shocking change.

  • 43% of people surveyed as part of our Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index this week said their emotional and mental health has worsened lately.
"It can be nice to remember that there's a big wide universe out there and that we are not important to it. There's this great beauty in the world and in the universe that you can access even when things are terrible."
— astronomer Katie Mack to Axios

As people around the U.S. are stuck in their homes, worrying about keeping their loved ones safe from the novel coronavirus and what tomorrow might bring, a little inspiration might do everyone some good.

  • So get outside and look up at the stars with your neighbors (staying at least 6 feet away from one another, of course).
  • Find out the current phase of the Moon and check it out when it rises above you.
  • Track the International Space Station or other satellites flying overhead.

What they're saying: Astronauts themselves also have some key advice for people attempting to make it through what could be months of isolation.

  • Scott Kelly — who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station — suggests that people working from home and quarantined need to follow a routine to try to foster a sense of normalcy under extraordinary circumstances.
  • "One of the side effects of seeing Earth from the perspective of space, at least for me, is feeling more compassion for others," Kelly wrote in the New York Times. "As helpless as we may feel stuck inside our homes, there are always things we can do."
  • NASA's Anne McClain detailed the space agency's five skills that keep isolated groups functioning in a healthy way, including good communication, self-care, leadership and team care.
  • Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pointed out that if astronauts on the station — an extremely dangerous environment — can learn how to be productive under those conditions, people self-isolating on Earth can too.

The bottom line: During these anxiety-filled times, everyone deserves a break from the current moment, and space can provide a helpful perspective.

2. ESA scales back as pandemic intensifies

Photo: NASA

The European Space Agency is stopping science operations on four deep space missions as the coronavirus pandemic continues to intensify.

Why it matters: The shutdown comes as nations have placed tight restrictions on movement while cases of COVID-19 rise. ESA also announced that someone working at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany has tested positive for the virus.

Details: On Tuesday, ESA announced it is planning to temporarily suspend operations of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express, which both circle the Red Planet.

  • The agency's four-spacecraft Cluster mission orbiting Earth and its Solar Orbiter that launched in February to study the Sun from close range will also go dark.
  • According to ESA, interplanetary missions like these require a large number of people on-site at any given time, so ending science operations temporarily will help limit the number of people at mission control.
  • “These have stable orbits and long mission durations, so turning off their science instruments and placing them into a largely unattended safe configuration for a certain period will have a negligible impact on their overall mission performance," Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations, said in the statement.

The big picture: The space industry at large is seeing more effects from the coronavirus crisis.

  • NASA's James Webb Space Telescope — a nearly $10 billion astrophysics mission expected to launch next year — could face delays due to the pandemic after the agency suspended testing of the telescope.
  • Bigelow Aerospace — a company with plans to one day build private space stations — has reportedly laid off its entire workforce in part because of the pandemic.
  • Maxar has also warned that it may not be able to deliver satellites to customers on time due to supply chain issues brought about by the pandemic, according to SpaceNews.
3. SpaceX pushes for launch

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in SpaceX's Crew Dragon. Photo: NASA

Even in the midst of the pandemic, SpaceX and NASA are moving ahead with their plans to launch astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time in mid-to-late May.

Why it matters: The launch marks the culmination of years of work for SpaceX and NASA to get Americans flying to orbit from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

  • The mission will mark the final test flight before SpaceX is authorized to regularly bring crew to and from the station.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear how the pandemic might affect the launch and planning for it.

  • Astronauts chosen for this first mission — Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken — are already taking precautions as they continue their training.
  • While NASA has opened registration for press hoping to cover the launch in person, it's also not clear whether restrictions around travel and large crowds will prevent groups from gathering for the launch.
Bonus: World of the week: Triton

A computer-generated montage shows Neptune and Triton (foreground). Photo: NASA

Each week as the coronavirus crisis continues, I'll highlight a moon or planet to daydream about for a moment instead of focusing on Earthly concerns.

This week: Neptune's largest moon, Triton, a world shaped by volcanic activity, ice and extreme cold.

Details: The moon's surface is an odd-looking landscape of craters and plains smoothed over by icy lava.

  • Triton is thought to be one of the only other worlds in the solar system with volcanic activity today.
  • That volcanism — fueled by the Sun's warmth over the course of a year — likely feeds the moon's thin atmosphere, which is mostly composed of nitrogen with a small amount of methane.

The big picture: Scientists think Triton originated from Pluto's part of space, known as the Kuiper Belt, millions of years ago.

  • The moon has only been seen from relatively close range once by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, but scientists are advocating for missions to visit Neptune and its fellow ice giant Uranus to learn more about the planets and their moons.
  • Researchers think studying Triton in more detail could help reveal how odd, icy worlds past Pluto behave.
4. Out of this world reading list

SpaceX launches a clutch of Starlink satellites. Photo: SpaceX

OneWeb says it will have to cut workers amid economic crisis (Eric Berger, Ars Technica)

Remember when Japan blasted an asteroid? Here’s what we learned (Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

NASA supercomputers join fight against coronavirus (Meghan Bartels, Space.com)

The true impact of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation comes into focus (Loren Grush, The Verge)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Watching massive stars form

Photo: ESA/Hubble/NASA/I. Stephens

A pink stellar cloud not far from the Tarantula Nebula 160,000 light-years away is demonstrating how extremely massive stars form.

  • The cloud — known as LHA 120-N 150 — contains dozens of newly forming massive stars and clumps of dust that could help scientists learn more about whether large stars form in dense clusters or in isolation, according to ESA.

The big picture: LHA 120-N 150 is located within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy relatively close to the Milky Way. The star formation within the cloud was likely sparked by interactions between the LMC and its neighboring galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Miriam Kramer

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