Axios Space

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March 21, 2023

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,386 words, this newsletter is a 5-minute read.

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1 big thing: Venus' bright scientific future is at risk

Illustration of Venus flickering and dimming inside of a light bulb

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The future of a major NASA mission to explore Venus hangs in the balance, threatening a promised renaissance for understanding the planet.

Why it matters: Scientists are eager to send new missions to Venus in order to answer major questions they still have about the planet.

  • It has been more than 30 years since a dedicated NASA mission was sent to the planet.
  • Researchers think Venus could help shed light on what early Earth may have looked like and even aid in the search for life in the solar system.

Driving the news: President Biden's budget request for NASA — released on March 9 — dramatically pulls funding from the VERITAS mission to map Venus' surface from orbit.

  • The budget request drops the mission's funding to just $1.5 million per year from 2024 through 2028. That level of funding will provide support for the science team's time and development work but no support for engineering work to build the spacecraft itself.
  • The decision comes after an investigation last year found workforce shortages and other issues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory caused delays and serious problems with other missions, causing NASA to delay VERITAS.
  • "This isn't a scientific problem ... [or] a programmatic problem with managing various tasks," the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier tells Axios. "This is something completely unrelated, out of their control that they are suffering the consequences for."

The big picture: NASA officials have said the space agency is still committed to developing and launching VERITAS once other missions — like Europa Clipper, Psyche and NISAR — are cleared off the books at JPL.

  • NASA's head of planetary science Lori Glaze said in a press conference that the mission is expected to launch no earlier than 2031, delaying it from its 2028 launch. However, without clarity on funding for the next few years, even that launch date is uncertain, experts say.
  • "It is true that the current budget that just came out doesn't show the funding profile," Glaze said during a press conference. "That's because we're waiting to work with the project to get an appropriate budget profile to lay in."

Yes, but: This decision could have a chilling effect not just on the Venus research community but the astronomy and planetary science community as a whole.

  • "It suggests to everybody, not just in the Venus community, but to everybody in the planetary science community that NASA can arbitrarily cancel or delay missions that have already been selected," planetary volcanologist Tracy Gregg of the University of Buffalo tells Axios.
  • Once development stops for large missions like these, it's hard to restart them, experts say. Delays like these also cause costs to balloon after losing time and skilled personnel.
  • "Even if we get the money back, it's gonna cost more than it would have in the first place because you can't just flip on and off a switch of building a spacecraft," Dreier said.

The intrigue: Two other missions to Venus — NASA's DAVINCI+ probe to launch in the late 2020s and the European Space Agency's EnVision orbiter to launch in the early 2030s — are moving ahead as planned, but scientists stress that VERITAS is essential to their understanding of the planet.

  • VERITAS will develop a global radar map of Venus, which will also help scientists pick out possible areas of interest for DAVINCI+ and EnVision.

What they're saying: Many within the tightknit community of scientists studying Venus say this decision is yet another blow to their understanding of an often ignored planet.

  • The Venus Exploration Analysis Group, designed to make recommendations to NASA about priorities from the scientific community, told NASA in January that "VERITAS needs to be launched as soon as possible, without delay."
  • It's hard to look to the 2030s, when future Venus missions like EnVision and DAVINCI+ will fly, "when we don't even know when we're going to get one of the selected missions flown," planetary scientist Paul Byrne of Washington University in St. Louis tells Axios.

2. Virgin Orbit's bad week

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket and Cosmic Girl plane flying high

Virgin Orbit's space system. Photo: Virgin Orbit

The Richard Branson-founded launch company Virgin Orbit is looking for a way to avoid bankruptcy, according to news reports.

The big picture: The satellite launch company is part of a growing portion of the space industry focused on launching small payloads to orbit for paying customers.

Catch up quick: A Virgin Orbit spokesperson told Axios last week that the company would initiate a "companywide operational pause," and they anticipate "providing an update on go-forward operations in the coming weeks."

  • The decision to pause operations comes after a major launch failure in January — the company's first launch from the U.K. — which led to the loss of all nine satellite payloads being flown for the U.K. and U.S. governments and private companies.
  • Virgin Orbit is now trading at 44 cents per share as of 12:30pm ET, plummeting from its debut price of about $10 per share in December 2021.

Between the lines: The turn of events for Virgin Orbit isn't necessarily surprising, according to Space Capital's Chad Anderson.

  • "The situation that Virgin Orbit finds themselves in is not due to external factors," Anderson said. "They raised money at an incredible valuation when they went public, via SPAC, that wasn't at all grounded in reality."
  • The company raised funds at a $3.7 billion valuation. "Any company that raises at a price that's that far out of whack is going to have a really hard time growing into their valuation," Anderson added.
  • The tough economic environment today is also making it harder for capital-intensive companies — like space companies — to raise money and prove their capabilities.

What's next: "Either they're going to accept a price that's probably much lower than what they were last trading at before or they're going to go bankrupt. And then hopefully someone buys the pieces," Anderson said.

3. A "space tug" to deorbit the ISS

An orbital sunset seen from the International Space Station

A sunset from orbit above the Atlantic Ocean seen from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

NASA is planning to develop a spacecraft to pull the International Space Station out of orbit once it reaches the end of its life in space.

Why it matters: This type of end-of-life planning will allow the space agency and its partners to exert some control over where and when the football-field-length orbiting outpost will come down.

  • Most of the station will disintegrate as it descends and break up in the atmosphere, but some larger pieces of the ISS may reach the ground.

What's happening: NASA detailed its plans for the "space tug" earlier this month in the release of its budget.

  • The space agency is requesting $180 million to start developing the space tug, which might also eventually be used for other missions in orbit.
  • NASA expects the spacecraft's development will come in at around $1 billion, NASA's Kathy Lueders said during a press conference last week.
  • Lueders added that NASA will put out a request for proposals from the industry to hopefully bring the cost down. "But this gives us a healthy start in '24 for us to get that critical capability onboard."

Between the lines: NASA originally was planning to use cargo vehicles like Russia's Progress to deorbit the station, but the agency plans to develop the space tug "rather than relying on Russian systems that may not be able to accomplish this task," according to a budget document.

4. Out of this world reading list

Illustration of a volcano erupting and creating a question mark from lava

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

🌋 A volcano on Venus is the newest clue about early Earth (Alison Snyder and me, Axios)

🧑🏾‍🚀 NASA reveals spacesuit for new Moon mission (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

💸 U.S. Space Force budget includes $60 million for "tactically responsive space" (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

꩜ Elon Musk is spiraling (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

5. Weekly dose of awe: One shining star

A star surrounded by gas glowing in red and pink

Photo: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Webb ERO Production Team

A massive, dying star shines 15,000 light-years away in a photo taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

  • This star — named WR 124 — is known as a Wolf-Rayet star and represents a stage that some large stars go through before exploding as a supernova.
  • These types of stars shed outer layers, seeding the universe with cosmic dust — something the JWST is well-positioned to study in infrared light.
  • "Dust is integral to the workings of the universe: It shelters forming stars, gathers together to help form planets, and serves as a platform for molecules to form and clump together — including the building blocks of life on Earth," NASA wrote in a statement. "Despite the many essential roles that dust plays, there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers’ current dust-formation theories can explain."

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