Axios Space

A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.
December 21, 2021

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

  • This will be the last Axios Space of 2021. It's been a joy to write this newsletter this year. I'll see y'all again on Jan. 4.
  • Please send your tips, questions and JWST launch predictions to [email protected], or if you received this as an email, just hit reply.

1 big thing: The JWST's time has come

Illustration of a telescope in space with colorful lines.
Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch this week on a journey to reconstruct the history of the universe.

Why it matters: The telescope, billed as the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, is designed to peer into the atmospheres of distant alien planets and see some of the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.

Driving the news: The JWST is expected to launch on Christmas Eve at 7:20am ET from Kourou, French Guiana.

  • You can watch the launch live via NASA TV starting at 6am ET here.

The big questions: For decades, scientists have tried to piece together the early history of the universe, and the JWST is the first observatory that may give them a real shot at answering long-standing questions. They include:

  • How do stars evolve within massive clouds of dust?
  • What are the atmospheres of distant planets made of — and how different are they from Earth?
  • How did the first galaxies assemble after the Big Bang?

"This telescope will not just rewrite our history of the early universe, but write it," Caitlin Casey, a University of Texas at Austin scientist who plans to use the JWST for her research, told me. "There are so many unknowns and blanks that we haven't yet filled in."

  • For the project Casey is leading, the JWST will stare deeply at a patch of sky about three times the size of the Moon in our night sky, hopefully capturing a view of some of the universe's earliest galaxies.
  • Casey and her colleagues will use that data to try to piece together a cohesive picture of what the universe looked like not long after it formed.
  • The JWST will peer out into the universe primarily in infrared light making it more able to cut through dust and capture the faint light emitted by distant, early galaxies more efficiently than the Hubble.

The backstory: The $10 billion JWST has faced a number of technical setbacks, delays and a ballooning budget during its decades-long development.

  • The telescope was recommended by a committee in 1996.
  • Construction began in 2004, but the project quickly ballooned, at one point being called the "telescope that ate astronomy."
  • Getting this telescope to space will allow other big projects in line behind it — like the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope — to eventually launch.

Between the lines: The JWST delays, however, have allowed scientists and engineers to include science goals that weren't possible when the telescope began development.

  • When the observatory's development began, scientists hadn't yet found many planets around stars other than the Sun. Today, they know there are thousands of them.
  • "It's fully possible that we might be able to find bio-signatures of life in the atmospheres of other planets," Steven Finkelstein, a scientist using the JWST to learn more about galaxies, told me.

Yes, but: All of this science hinges on the telescope actually working the way it's meant to, and a safe launch is only the beginning.

  • Once the JWST gets to space, it will spend about a month in transit to a point about 1 million miles from Earth. (Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, this observatory won't be close enough to our planet for an astronaut servicing mission if something were to go wrong.)
  • During that transit, the telescope's large sun shield, its instruments and mirrors will all deploy over the course of weeks.
  • NASA calls it "the most complex sequence of deployments ever attempted in a single space mission," noting there are more than 300 single points of failure items that could go wrong.

The bottom line: "I'm confident because we have the best engineering team in the world, we've practiced this on the ground over and over, we've tested all the hardware, and now it's time," JWST scientist Jane Rigby told me.

2. A brand new spaceport

A rendering of a spaceport recently approved in Georgia
Rendering of Spaceport Camden. Image: Courtesy of the Camden County Board of Commissioners

Camden County on the Georgia coast just secured the country’s 13th commercial spaceport operator license from the FAA, but not everyone in the region is happy to see it, my colleague Emma Hurt, of Axios Atlanta, writes.

Why it matters: Communities are trying to cash in on the rise of private spaceflight as companies work to launch people and satellites into orbit.

Yes, but: For years, opponents of Spaceport Camden have argued that this unprecedented site, which proposes sending vertical launch rockets over a popular national park and private homes, amounts to a boondoggle that will not actually translate into economic impact.

Catch up quick: Camden began its quest for a spaceport license in 2012 in the name of diversifying the region’s economy. The project has weathered multiple delays and persistent opposition.

Who’s against it? The National Park Service formally opposed the project, saying it poses “unacceptable risk” to Cumberland Island National Seashore.

  • Some county residents and environmental advocates are trying to force a referendum on the county’s intention to purchase the land for the proposed spaceport.
  • Opposition has centered on the risk of fire to private homes and the National Seashore from rocket debris and concerns about wasteful spending by the county.

Of note: Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, sent the Park Service a letter late last week appearing to try to assuage the agency’s concerns by clarifying that “to obtain a Vehicle Operator License, many more reviews remain, and no outcome is guaranteed,” Monteith wrote.

The big picture: The FAA has a dual mandate, to both regulate and promote commercial space. Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, chair of the House transportation committee, has said Spaceport Camden is further evidence it’s time to enable the agency to be more discriminatory about where spaceports are located.

  • "Everybody wants a spaceport," he told Marketplace. "And everybody can’t have a spaceport. It’s not safe."

Go deeper: Read more from Emma about the controversy over this new spaceport.

3. Listen to Jupiter's moon Ganymede

Craters, bright and dark patches seen on Jupiter's moon Ganymede
Ganymede as seen from Juno. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Scientists using NASA's Juno spacecraft have created an audio track of the probe's flyby of Jupiter's moon Ganymede using electromagnetic data captured during the mission.

Why it matters: This type of converted data can help scientists learn more about Jupiter's extreme magnetic field and how it interacts with the planet's largest moon.

Details: The 50-second video released last week sounds alien. (Listen.)

  • "If you listen closely, you can hear the abrupt change to higher frequencies around the midpoint of the recording, which represents entry into a different region in Ganymede's magnetosphere," Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton said in a statement.
  • The change in frequency could be due to Juno passing from Ganymede's night side to the moon's day side, William Kurth, who works on the mission said, but more analysis is needed to account for those changes.

The big picture: Juno started orbiting Jupiter in 2016, and since then, the spacecraft has been beaming back data to help researchers learn more about the massive planet.

  • Photos from Juno are helping scientists realize that storms on Jupiter look a lot like the cyclones found in Earth's oceans.
  • “When I saw the richness of the turbulence around the Jovian cyclones, with all the filaments and smaller eddies, it reminded me of the turbulence you see in the ocean around eddies,” Lia Siegelman, an oceanographer who studies this, said in the statement.
  • It's possible that by understanding Jupiter's long-lived storms, researchers may be able to figure out more about how storms on Earth also work, according to NASA.

4. Out of this world reading list

A streak of a rocket seen above a field in California
A SpaceX Starlink launch seen from California. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX aces 100th rocket landing after Dragon cargo ship launch (Amy Thompson, Space.com)

Engine computer problem delays first SLS launch (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

COVID-19 outbreak at SpaceX yields 132 positive cases (Lila Seidman and Samantha Masunaga, LA Times)

This asteroid sample could reveal our solar system's origin story (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Flying solo on Mars

The small Ingenuity helicopter on Mars
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

One of the feel-good space stories of the year was the Ingenuity helicopter's unprecedented mission on Mars.

The latest: On Dec. 5, the little helicopter flew for more than 30 minutes during its 17th flight, traveling 2.2 miles at an altitude of about 40 feet, according to NASA.

  • Ingenuity has been scouting out areas of interest for the Perseverance rover, a task that could be useful in the future if human missions to Mars also make use of a drone.
  • “Few thought we would make it to flight one, fewer still to five. And no one thought we would make it this far,” said Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, David Nather and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition and to Emma for contributing. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🌌