Axios Space

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January 17, 2023

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1 big thing: The JWST's transformational power

Photo illustration of a black and whtie galaxy with a spotlight revealing a brightly colored area.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

The James Webb Space Telescope has been fully operational for less than a year, but its data is already hinting the early universe may have more galaxies — and more complicated galaxies — than many models have predicted.

Why it matters: A longstanding question in astronomy and astrophysics has centered on how the first generations of galaxies formed and evolved after the Big Bang.

  • The JWST was built, in part, to answer those questions.
  • "I think we're really seeing the ultimate origins of humanity," astronomer Steven Finkelstein, of the University of Texas at Austin, tells Axios. "These early galaxies are the sites where the earliest stars formed. They formed the first heavy metals in the universe. Those heavy metals eventually became our Earth and our bodies."

What's happening: One study submitted to the Astrophysical Journal looked at 850 galaxies that formed between 11 billion and 13 billion years ago, grouping them according to type — spiral, elliptical, irregular or a combination.

  • The team found the proportion of galaxies by type was nearly the same as what they see in the nearby universe today. This could mean these galaxies were relatively far along in their evolution, despite the universe's young age.
  • Another study published in the Astrophysical Journal in December found 87 galaxies that may have been around just 200 million to 400 million years after the Big Bang. This would be far more galaxies than scientists expected to see at this point in cosmic time.
  • Even if only a relatively small number of those galaxies turn out to be real, astronomer Haojing Yan, one of the authors of the study, said during a press conference last week, “then our previously-favored picture of galaxy formation in the early universe must be revised.”

The intrigue: The evidence there may be more galaxies in the early universe doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with the prevailing model of how the universe works that predicts how many early galaxies astronomers should see, Finkelstein says.

  • But it does mean there's likely something about these early galaxies that needs to be re-examined.
  • It could be that galaxies in these early eras of the universe were just brighter than initially expected, making it easier for scientists to see them in the data available now, Finkelstein says.
  • Or, the stars forming in these galaxies might be hotter and brighter than expected, forming from metal-poor gas, which allows them to grow to massive sizes — and get hotter and brighter.

How it works: The truly revolutionary part of the JWST's technology is the telescope's ability to take a "spectrum" — effectively a chemical fingerprint of a galaxy's makeup — for even the most distant galaxies.

  • That instrumentation allows scientists to see how much oxygen, hydrogen and other elements there are in any given galaxy, painting a picture of what may have been happening at that point in cosmic history.

What to watch: As the JWST gathers more spectra and takes more images of distant galaxies, scientists will likely be able to start to resolve a true picture of what the universe was like billions of years before our Milky Way was born.

2. The growing space economy

Illustration of a constellation in the shape of a dollar sign.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The global space economy grew to $424 billion in 2022, according to a new report from Euroconsult.

Why it matters: The space industry is in a major period of growth defined by attracting new customers, breaking into new industries and courting new investment, but it's not yet clear how much the industry will grow in the coming years.

Driving the news: The new report found the space economy grew 8% since 2021, despite facing major economic headwinds caused by supply chain issues lingering after pandemic lockdowns, high inflation, global tensions and other factors.

  • Satellite navigation services, telecommunication, Earth observation and other user-minded applications accounted for 83% of the value of the space economy, Euroconsult says, tracking with previous years.
  • The report also defines the "core" space sector as "organizations that make or own space assets" like manufacturing, ground services and launch. That part of the space economy was valued at $70 billion in 2022.

The intrigue: Investment in the space industry was hit hard last year.

  • According to Euroconsult, investment operations it recorded in 2022 dropped by more than 10% by comparison with 2021.

Yes, but: In some ways, the ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted the value of the global space economy.

  • "Satellite imagery has gained a particular interest to monitor the unfolding of the conflict, while LEO constellations have shown their value in offering a resilient and vital service to people in Ukraine," Euroconsult wrote in an extract of the report.

3. International Space Station shuffle

The International Space Station seen from a distance with the Earth behind it

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

NASA and Russia's space agency are making contingency plans to bring crewmembers on the International Space Station back to Earth after a Soyuz spacecraft sprung a major coolant leak last month.

Why it matters: Even though the ISS has been continuously occupied by astronauts and cosmonauts for more than 20 years, this technical issue highlights the dangers of living there.

Catch up quick: A Soyuz capsule that is docked to the ISS and responsible for carrying crew back to Earth began to leak coolant into space in December.

  • Since then, NASA and Roscosmos have studied the problem, concluding the leak probably occurred due to a piece of natural debris colliding with the spacecraft.
  • Roscosmos has now decided it's too risky to bring home the crew aboard the leaky Soyuz, opting instead to send up another empty Soyuz to transport NASA's Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin back to Earth.
  • The empty rescue Soyuz is expected to launch next month. The crew was initially expected to return to Earth in March, but their stay on the station will be extended for "several months," Roscosmos' Sergei Krikalev said during a press conference Wednesday.

Between the lines: NASA and Roscosmos officials said the damaged Soyuz is usable in the case of an emergency.

  • Mission managers are worried, however, that the crew area of the damaged Soyuz could overheat during its return journey to Earth, putting the crew in danger.

The latest: Today, crewmembers are planning to move Rubio's seat liner — a molding designed to fit his body and make spaceflight more comfortable — from the Soyuz to the Crew Dragon attached to the space station.

  • That change will allow the Crew Dragon to act as a "lifeboat" if Rubio did need to come back to Earth in a hurry.
  • Moving Rubio to the Crew Dragon would help reduce the heat within the Soyuz currently on the space station if it needs to be used by Prokopyev and Petelin for an emergency Earth return.
  • "The seat liner move is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Jan. 17, with installation and configuration continuing through most of the day Wednesday, Jan. 18," NASA wrote in a blog post. Once the new Soyuz arrives at the station, Rubio's lining will be moved to that ship instead.

Flashback: A scenario in which the space station would need to be abandoned is unlikely but not impossible.

  • In November 2021, the cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the station were woken up by mission control to tell them to don their spacesuits and get into their capsules immediately.
  • A cloud of debris created by a Russian anti-satellite missile test was heading toward the station, and they needed to be ready to evacuate if needed because there wasn't time to maneuver the station to safety.
  • The debris cloud missed the station, and the crew went back to their lives in space.

4. Out of this world reading list

Artist's illustration of a planet rising with a star in the background

Artist's illustration of the planet LHS 475 b. Source: NASA/ESA/CSA/Leah Hustak (STScI)

🪐 JWST confirms its first alien planet, and it's the size of Earth (Axios)

🛰 SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches two Space Force satellites (William Harwood, CBS News)

🚀 China launch plans more than 70 launches in 2023 (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

🌎 There is no Planet B (Arwen E Nicholsond and Raphaëlle D Haywoodis, Aeon)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Everything the light touches

An art illustration using yellow neon saying "all the light you see is from the past"

"All the light you see," by Alice Eggert. Photo: Alison Snyder/Axios

Our perception of space and time has always fascinated me. Despite being engrained as it is in our every experience and our very being, these coupled dimensions can be hard to wrap our heads around, Axios Space editor Alison Snyder writes.

  • It's captured simply in this temporary installation by artist Alicia Eggert, in collaboration with Light Art Collection, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
  • "Light takes a moment to travel from one point to another, and to reach our eyes. The travel time varies – from eight minutes for the light from the Sun to reach the Earth, to millions of years from a star at the edge of our universe. This means that the information that light brings us is always dated," an online description reads.
  • Every few seconds, some of the words dim and you're left with: All You See is Past.

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