Axios Space

A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.
February 16, 2021

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,469 words, this week's newsletter is about a 5½-minute read.

  • Please send your tips, questions and star charts to [email protected], or if you received this as an email, just hit reply.

1 big thing: Biden takes Trump's lead in space

Illustration of two hands passing off a Saturn V rocket as if it were a baton.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Biden administration is staying the course set out by the Trump administration when it comes to space, at least for now.

Why it matters: Administrations often abandon their predecessors' goals in favor of new ones when they come to power. That kind of "moonshot whiplash" can leave NASA stuck on Earth because it takes consistency between administrations to accomplish large exploration goals.

Driving the news: Earlier this month, the Biden administration affirmed its plans to continue the Artemis program to land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon.

  • The administration also threw its weight behind the Space Force, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying the new military branch has the "full support of the Biden administration."
  • "I'm very proud of the Biden administration for sticking with these very important measures," Jim Bridenstine, Trump's NASA administrator, told me. "My goal from day one was to create a program that was sustainable, that would be able to cross from one administration to the next."
  • The Biden administration is also reemphasizing the importance of climate change research at NASA, appointing Gavin Schmidt as the agency's acting senior climate adviser, a new role expected to help lead NASA's climate research.

Yes, but: While some political appointments have been made at NASA, the administration has yet to put forth a nomination for NASA administrator, a key position that will drive the course of the space agency.

  • The first Artemis mission was expected to get people to the surface of the Moon by 2024, but that's looking less likely now, and some are recommending that the landing date be moved back for safety and funding reasons.
  • Experts are also wondering how space policy and directives centered on space will be managed under this administration, due to the possible dissolution of the National Space Council.

Between the lines: So far, many of Biden's moments of space news have been due to questions from the press, not statements from the administration driving the news themselves.

  • "They've not taken a lot of interest in space," unlike the Trump administration, Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. "This wasn't part of the campaign, and it's apparently not something that they've taken time to get up to speed on and really dive into."

What to watch: Even though space appears to be on the radar for Biden now, the real test will be how much funding he proposes in the administration's budget.

  • "You can say all the great words in the world about Artemis," the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier told me. "You can say all the great things you want about NASA, but when it comes down to it, NASA needs the resources to succeed."

2. All eyes on Percy

Rocky outcroppings ring a crater, with a small looking rover making tracks on the floor of the crater on Mars
Artist's illustration of Perseverance on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Perseverance rover, which launched to Mars in July, is set to arrive at the Red Planet Thursday.

Why it matters: The rover is expected to hunt for signs of past life in the remains of what scientists think was once a river delta billions of years ago.

What to watch: The rover — which is about the size of a car — should touch down on Mars at about 3:55pm ET, and you can watch live coverage of the event through NASA starting at 2:15pm ET Thursday via NASA TV.

  • Perseverance is expected to land in much the same way as NASA's Curiosity did in 2012 using what's known as a "sky crane maneuver."
  • The rover will speed toward the ground at about 12,000 mph before a parachute and powered descent slow it down. From there, the rover will be lowered to the ground via cables, according to NASA.
  • Perseverance is also carrying a little helicopter as a technology demonstration that's expected to fly sometime after landing.

The intrigue: Curiosity confirmed Mars was once a wet and habitable world, at least for microbial life, and Perseverance is going to build on that work.

  • Its landing site was specifically chosen because river deltas are thought to have some of the best chances for preserving past life, potentially making Perseverance's job a little easier.
  • This is NASA's first rover with a real chance of finding signs of life.
  • "It's what we've been building up to for a long time now," planetary scientist Briony Horgan of Purdue University told Axios before the mission launched.
  • The rover also comes equipped with sampling containers that it will fill with interesting rocks expected to be returned to Earth on a future Mars mission.

The big picture: China and the United Arab Emirates both successfully got their missions into orbit around the Red Planet within a day of one another last week. Now it's on Perseverance to complete the trio that launched last year.

3. Little black holes

A star cluster shines, with blue, orange and white stars clustered around a central grouping of stars
NGC 6397 seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

A cluster of stars 7,800 light-years away has a group of relatively small black holes hiding in its center.

The big picture: By learning more about this unexpected arrangement of stars and black holes, scientists might be able to piece together a better understanding of the complexities around how black holes behave.

The intrigue: Scientists were initially interested in the globular cluster of stars — named NGC 6397 — because they thought an elusive type of black hole known as an intermediate-mass black hole might be hidden within it.

  • After studying data from the Hubble Space Telescope, however, the researchers behind the new study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics found that instead of one relatively large black hole at its center, NGC 6397 was actually hiding many smaller ones.
  • Those black holes likely arose from the deaths of massive stars and migrated toward the center of the globular cluster because of their immense gravity, influencing other stars as well.
  • Black holes within globular clusters could be a source of ripples in space and time called gravitational waves if they collide with one another.

4. Nuclear power and Mars

Artist's illustration of a spacecraft with solar power cells in the shape of an X off a long, skinny body in orbit around Mars
Artist's illustration of a nuclear propulsion system and habitat around Mars. Image: NASA

Nuclear power is a good bet to get people to and from Mars, according to a new report. However, there's still a long way to go before it's viable.

Why it matters: NASA has plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, but the technology needed for such an extreme mission is still in development.

What's happening: The new report from the National Academy of Sciences suggests NASA should start investing resources into learning more about how to safely test and use nuclear propulsion to get cargo and people to Mars.

  • NASA has used chemical propulsion — think fiery rockets — for its human exploration of the Moon, but solely relying on rockets for a trip to and from Mars could be costly and infeasible.
  • The report, instead, assessed the current state of nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) and nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) with an eye toward launching a crewed mission to Mars in 2039.

What they're saying: "Nuclear propulsion systems have the potential to substantially reduce trip time compared to non-nuclear approaches," Roger Myers co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.

  • "Synergy with other space mission applications and terrestrial power programs is also significant and will bring about added value.”

Yes, but: While both NEP and NTP could theoretically get people to Mars more quickly than chemical propulsion alone, both technologies have current limitations.

  • NEP, for example, would need its power scaled up by many orders of magnitude, according to the report, something that hasn't been achieved before.
  • With NEP, NASA would also need to develop some kind of chemical propulsion to get the craft out of Earth's and Mars' orbits.
  • NTP, on the other hand, wouldn't need a complementary chemical system, but its propellant would need to stay warm, which is not the easiest thing to accomplish in space.
  • The report's authors also note it's difficult to test NTP safely on the ground.

What's next: The report recommends NASA should make "a significant set of architecture and investment decisions in the coming year," if the space agency hopes to take nuclear options seriously.

  • "Significant acceleration in the pace of technology maturation is required if NASA and its partners are to complete this mission within the stated timeline," Bobby Braun, a co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in the statement.

5. Out of this world reading list

Photo illustration of a Masaï woman juxtaposed with images of galaxies and colorful planets.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Gérard Sioen/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Afrofuturism: The rise of Black science fiction and fantasy (Russell Contreras, Axios)

White dwarfs wear the crushed corpses of planets in their atmospheres (Brandon Specktor, Live Science)

NASA's climate communications might not recover from Trump (Laura Tenenbaum, TIME)

Erdoğan says Turkey will reach the Moon by 2023 (Jacob Knutson, Axios)

A nearby star may have a planet orbiting in its habitable zone (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A first look at Mars

Mars as seen by the UAE's Hope probe.
Photo: United Arab Emirates Space Agency/AFP via Getty Images

The United Arab Emirates' Hope probe made it into orbit around Mars last week, vaulting the nation into the elite club of space-faring countries that have operated at the Red Planet.

  • This image, released on Valentine's Day, is one of the rewards for that work: Hope's first photo of Mars.
  • The spacecraft will now study the planet's atmosphere and weather from orbit for at least two years.

Big thanks to David Nather, Alison Snyder and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. (And happy birthday to my mom!) If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🔭