A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.
Jan 11, 2022

Axios Space

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1 big thing: To the Moon or bust in 2022

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Future lunar ambitions, scientific advances and national prestige are front and center for missions to the Moon launching this year.

Why it matters: As the International Space Station program winds down, the Moon will take on more strategic importance in the coming years. The lunar alliances of space-faring nations have implications for science, business and geopolitics back on Earth.

  • Today, "it's not just an elite thing to be able to get to the Moon," according to the Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson. Access to space has expanded to the point where potential Moon missions are more available to more nations than ever before.

What's happening: This year, at least three countries are aiming to send missions to the Moon.

  • NASA's huge Space Launch System rocket, designed to deliver people to the Moon by 2025 as part of the Artemis program, is expected to make its debut this year with an uncrewed mission that will send the Orion capsule around the Moon and back to Earth.
  • That mission will also carry smaller satellites designed to investigate various aspects of the Moon, including ice at the South Pole and solar radiation impacting the lunar environment.
  • South Korea is set to launch its first Moon mission — the robotic Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter — in August, and Russia may send its uncrewed Luna 25 mission to the lunar surface to investigate the Moon's ice sometime this year.

The big picture: U.S. companies are also aiming for the Moon with NASA's support this year, and they're potentially changing the course of lunar science in the process.

  • Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are expected to launch their landers to the lunar surface this year, carrying payloads for NASA and other private companies with them on the journey.
  • This type of mission marks a shift for NASA, according to the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier. "Instead of the mission being designed around specific questions, the science is being done to accommodate what the capabilities of the platforms are."
  • "And so [they're] generalizing the platforms in an effort to increase the cadence and frequency of the science you're getting back but not necessarily specifically designed to answer the most pressing or far-out or specific problems you have."

What to watch: NASA has been courting nations to sign on to its Artemis Accords, which are designed to govern behavior on the Moon.

  • But the space agency has competition. Russia and China are planning to build their own lunar research station in the coming years, possibly pulling other potential international partners into that collaboration instead of Artemis.
  • The first crewed Artemis mission to land on the Moon still has many technical hurdles it will need to clear before launch, including SpaceX developing its own lunar lander under a contract with NASA to use its Starship rocket for launch.
  • Starship is expected to launch its first orbital mission this year, so that will be a key event to watch for anyone keeping an eye on where NASA's lunar ambitions are headed.
2. The JWST is here to last

The James Webb Space Telescope before launch. Photo: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is fully deployed in space, and it should be able to perform its science for decades to come.

Why it matters: The longer the JWST can perform its science, the more data it can gather about the evolution of the universe. The $10 billion space telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in space for more than 30 years.

Catch up quick: NASA completed the final major deployments that unfolded the telescope last weekend.

  • Now, the JWST needs to make it out to its perch about 1 million miles from Earth to truly start its scientific work. (If all continues as planned, it should begin its science about midway through the year.)
  • “The successful completion of all of the Webb Space Telescope’s deployments is historic,” Gregory Robinson, JWST program director at NASA headquarters, said in a statement.
  • “This is the first time a NASA-led mission has ever attempted to complete a complex sequence to unfold an observatory in space — a remarkable feat for our team, NASA, and the world.”

State of play: NASA's Mike Menzel, the JWST's mission systems engineer, said after analysis of the launch and its trip through space, the telescope appears to have enough fuel to function for at least 20 years.

  • That far exceeds the 10-year hoped-for timeline.

What to watch: The telescope isn't perfectly functioning yet. The JWST is expected to perform a burn to keep it on course shortly.

  • And the telescope will also need to calibrate its instruments and align its mirrors before science operations begin.
3. Black hole eats a star

Artist's illustration of a black hole shredding a star. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A team of scientists using archival data has spotted a black hole shredding a star in deep space.

Why it matters: This kind of stellar sleuthing can be used to find more of these types of events and piece together the details of how galaxies evolve through time.

Details: When a star gets too close to a black hole, the massive black hole can rip the star apart.

  • A new study accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal details one of these events seen by researchers on Earth in archival data gathered in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s by radio telescopes.
  • The object, named J1533+2727, was extremely bright in the late '80s through the mid-1990s but faded by 2017, according to the research team.
  • The authors of the study think that fading was caused by the star being gobbled up by the black hole in what's known as a "tidal disruption event."

The big picture: "An unprecedented amount of radio observations are now becoming available, positioning us to discover many more sources like this one," co-author of the study Hannah Dykaar of the University of Toronto said in a statement.

  • "Interestingly, neither of the radio-discovered candidates were found in the type of galaxy most popular for TDEs. Finding more of these radio TDEs could help us to illuminate ongoing mysteries about what types of galaxies they occur in and just how many there are in the universe."
4. Out of this world reading list

Debris obstructing the Perseverance rover's sampling mechanism. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA names new senior climate official (Andrew Freedman, Axios)

Perseverance Mars rover chokes on some pebbles (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Amazon’s Alexa is on NASA’s upcoming Moon mission (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Starlink’s head of India resigns as SpaceX refunds preorders (Jason Rainbow, SpaceNews)

5. Weekly dose of awe: A volcano poking through the clouds

Photo: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens/U.S. Geological Survey/Landsat 8

There's something undeniably cool about this photo of Mount Vesuvius poking up through clouds above Europe.

  • The image, taken by the Landsat 8 satellite, shows off the cone of the active volcano on Jan. 2.
  • "The ridge surrounding the cone is a remnant of the collapsed caldera of an older volcano, Mount Somma, from which the cone of Vesuvius emerged," NASA Earth Observatory's Sara E. Pratt wrote in an image description.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🌓