Apr 16, 2019

Axios Space

Greetings, and welcome to Axios Space.

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1 big thing: Musk vs. Bezos 2.0

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk's space age rivalry may not play out as a war of the rockets, but as a war for your internet.

Why it matters: The two billionaire founders of Amazon and SpaceX plan to blanket low-Earth orbit with thousands of satellites that will beam broadband internet to the planet, potentially transforming how the developing world in particular accesses the web.

Where it stands: Both Bezos' Blue Origin rocket company and Musk's SpaceX have been working in parallel with one another for years to get their rockets flying to space, but with their internet ambitions, Musk and Bezos are now on a collision course.

  • SpaceX's Starlink has already received FCC approval for a planned constellation of more than 7,000 satellites.
  • The company launched two Starlink satellites in 2018 as part of a proof-of-concept test.
  • Amazon's Project Kuiper hopes to fly 3,236 satellites to orbit, but has yet to file for FCC approval.
  • "This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet," an Amazon spokesperson tells Axios in an email.

The big picture: Amazon and SpaceX both have good reasons for getting into the satellite internet game.

  • Amazon's e-commerce and web services businesses would benefit from having billions more people using high-speed internet.
  • SpaceX's business could gain a new revenue stream in addition to rocket launches.
  • Blue Origin's launch business is also likely to benefit from Amazon's Project Kuiper, though an Amazon spokesperson said that the company is looking at "all options" for launching their satellites.
  • It will likely take dozens of launches to get these satellite constellations up and running, with many more over the years to keep them functioning.

Meanwhile: Amazon and SpaceX aren't the only contenders in this space. OneWeb envisions global satellite-based broadband and has already launched 6 satellites to orbit. The company raised $1.25 billion in funding and plans to have its constellation in place by 2021.

  • Communications companies Viasat and Telesat also have plans to launch satellite constellations.

But, but, but: Satellite operators will need to coordinate their constellations and avoid other satellites and bits of space junk that could put their networks at risk. They'll also need to avoid adding to the space junk problem themselves.

The FCC is developing rules for when spacecraft should be deorbited from these fleets.

  • Depending on what the commission decides, some companies may need to redesign elements of their constellations to fit the new rules.
"[W]e just need to think about how we do this in a sustainable manner."
— Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation

The odds: Satellite broadband constellations aren't a sure bet, business-wise. It's unclear at what price point a satellite-based internet service will be competitive with terrestrial alternatives — like 5G networks. It would have to offset the cost of developing, launching and maintaining a constellation of satellites and providing the service to remote areas.

The bottom line: While Musk and Bezos clearly believe in the promise of these satellite constellations, they still have a long way to go — both technically and financially.

2. What’s next for the Event Horizon Telescope

The first photo of a black hole ever taken. Photo: EHT collaboration

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, which revealed the stunning first-ever photo of a black hole on April 10, is just getting started.

The big picture: The EHT consists of a group of 9 radio observatories around the globe that, when working together, effectively create an Earth-sized telescope capable of observing black holes as never before.

  • To get a clear view of the sky, the EHT telescopes are in remote locales like the South Pole, Greenland and the Atacama Desert of Chile.

What's next: The international collaboration, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, plans to add two more telescopes to the mix by 2020, and scientists hope to one day launch a space-based observatory as well.

  • This would cut out atmospheric interference and give them a better view of these extreme phenomena.

More telescopes around the world could also mean that researchers can create black hole photos more quickly (the photo released on April 10 was derived from observations made in 2017). That added speed could help scientists glimpse the black hole in the center of the Milky Way, named Sagittarius A*.

"If you make it quickly, then you can see changes, and that's particularly important for Sag A*, which changes on 20- or 30-minute time scales."
— EHT scientist Dan Marrone told Axios

The first black hole photo appeared to match predictions made by general relativity, showing the shadow of a black hole illuminated by superheated gases on the edge of the object's event horizon — the area near the black hole known as the "point of no return," where gravity is so great that nothing can escape.

The intrigue: Future images showing more detail could test the limits of Einstein's predictions.

What to watch: The EHT isn’t the only black hole hunter gearing up for a big year. LIGO — a network of observatories designed to detect ripples in the fabric of space and time created by extreme collisions between black holes and neutron stars — has just begun its next observing campaign after a series of upgrades that increased its sensitivity by 40%.

  • With both observatories up and running, scientists will soon get a more complete picture of these extreme and fundamental objects than ever before.

Go deeper: Where black hole research goes next

3. Hunting for life on a not-so-distant planet

Artist's impression of Proxima-b orbiting its star. Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser

A planet orbiting a red star only 4 light-years from Earth could support life despite being bombarded by high levels of radiation, according to new research.

What they did: The study modeled the radiation environments of planets orbiting red dwarf stars that are typically the source of extreme radiation.

  • According to the study, Proxima-b is bombarded with more than 200 times the X-ray radiation that Earth receives today.
  • That level of radiation was thought to mean certain death for living things on the world’s surface.

What they found: While the amount of radiation bathing Proxima-b today is extreme by our current standards, that may not have been the case for Earth 4 billion years ago. Early in its history, our planet was blasted with more radiation than Proxima-b, and life still managed to develop.

“The chances of finding life close to us around the closest stars that happen to be red young suns is much greater now, and so our quest to figure out whether we’re alone in the universe just got a tiny bit easier,” Lisa Kaltenegger, one of the authors of the new study, said in a video.

Why it matters: Small, red stars are plentiful in our part of space, so if radiation isn't a dealbreaker for habitability, some of those relatively nearby worlds could host life, and it would make them candidates for followup study.

4. NASA's TESS finds its first Earth-sized world

Artist's conception of HD 21749c. Photo: Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science

NASA's new planet-hunter — the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) — has found its first confirmed Earth-sized world after launching to space in April 2018.

Background: TESS is designed to detect the small dips in a star's light created when a planet passes in front of its sun. The telescope uses that "transit" to piece together how large (or small) the planet might be.

  • TESS is currently on a two-year mission to hunt for Earth-sized worlds orbiting small, relatively dim stars not far from our planet, furthering the quest to find habitable worlds with possible life out there in the universe.

Details: The planet, named HD 21749c, takes about 8 Earth days to orbit its star, is around the size of our planet and is located about 53 light-years from Earth, researchers report in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

  • However, learning more about the world isn't easy because it's so small by cosmic standards.
  • “Measuring the exact mass and composition of such a small planet will be challenging, but important for comparing HD 21749c to Earth,” Sharon Wang, one of the authors of the new study, said in a statement.

The planet has company when orbiting its star. TESS also found a world, named HD 21749b, that's about 23 times Earth's mass orbiting the star every 36 days.

  • Both were confirmed as true signals by the Planet Finder Spectrograph in Chile, which detects slight wobbles in the star as its planets orbit, allowing scientists to measure a planet's mass.

The bottom line: This discovery is likely to be followed up by many others as scientists believe that almost every star has at least one planet in its orbit.

5. Lockheed Martin wants to take NASA to the moon

Artist's illustration of an astronaut on the moon in 2024. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has a plan to get NASA astronauts back to the surface of the moon by 2024, the company revealed during the National Space Symposium in Colorado last week.

Details: The plan would take its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — which the government contractor has been developing for the better part of a decade for previous space exploration plans — and direct it to the moon.

  • The plan would require a test flight of the Orion with its European Service Module on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket in June 2020, with the first crewed test flight in late 2022.
  • Between the two flights, NASA would need to create what Lockheed Martin is calling the Phase 1 Gateway — a small habitation module and propulsion module in orbit around the moon that Orion would dock with.
  • In 2024, NASA would need to launch a moon lander to the Gateway, and from there a crew can launch to the Gateway and then land on the lunar surface.

It's not clear if NASA will take Lockheed Martin up on its proposal.

  • The agency hasn't revealed a specific plan to get back to the moon by 2024, but officials are having conversations with the private sector to determine how to accelerate their timetable.
  • NASA is looking to hedge its bets against further delays in the development of its SLS mega-rocket. As a substitute, the agency looked into using a commercial rocket, like SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, or United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy to launch the Orion.

NASA says it will need help from commercial partners to make the 2024 landing deadline a reality.

But, but, but: If NASA wants to use Lockheed's architecture, the space agency will likely need to start funding it now.

“Landing on the Moon by 2024 is feasible, but we need to move fast, resource it right, take mission risks but not safety risks, and make smart technical and architecture trade-offs that includes leveraging existing systems to the maximum extent possible."
— Tim Cichan, Lockheed Martin's space exploration architect, to Axios

Other experts have told Axios that a near-term funding ramp-up is vital to accomplishing the 2024 target, with or without Lockheed's participation. To that end, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is preparing a new funding request to Congress for the lunar program.

6. Out of this world reading list

Two SpaceX Falcon Heavy side boosters landing simultaneously. Photo: SpaceX

Scott Kelly spent a year in orbit. His body is not quite the same (Carl Zimmer, New York Times)

Air Force insists launch competition must stay on schedule (Sandra Erwin, Space News)

In defense of the blurry black hole photo (Matt Ford, The New Republic)

An interstellar meteor may have slammed into Earth (Nadia Drake, National Geographic)

SpaceX launches (and then lands) its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket (Axios)

7. Your weekly dose of awe: Titan's lakes

Titan as seen by Cassini. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Saturn's moon Titan is eerily familiar and yet wholly unlike our own.

The large moon boasts a hazy atmosphere and rains methane onto its surface. Now, thanks to the long-dead Cassini spacecraft, we know that some of its lakes are more than 300 feet deep.

Background: Cassini gathered groundbreaking data on Saturn and its moons, including making a dive through the planet's rings and into its atmosphere in the final moments of its mission.

  • The spacecraft flew past Titan in April 2017, when it observed the lakes, and scientists are still analyzing the treasure-trove of data it gathered and transmitted back to Earth.

"Every time we make discoveries on Titan, Titan becomes more and more mysterious," Marco Mastrogiuseppe, lead author of the new Titan study, said in a statement.

That's all for this week. See you right back here next Tuesday. 🚀