April 23, 2019

Greetings, and welcome to Axios Space, our weekly look at the business and science of space exploration.

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1 big thing: The science case for returning to the Moon

llustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Geopolitics may be driving the Trump administration's planned return to the Moon by 2024, but, if risk and reward are balanced, science could benefit from the lunar return as well.

The big picture: The Moon acts as a time capsule of our solar system and Earth specifically. Clues into how the Moon formed 4.5 billion years ago — after a large object slammed into the Earth, carving out our natural satellite — are preserved in its geology.

  • "Understanding the Moon has such critical importance for understanding the Earth, for starters, because the Earth's earliest history is essentially lost" due to plate tectonics and weathering, planetary geologist Brett Denevi, of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, tells Axios.
  • That preservation allows scientists to turn back the clock, revealing clues about our part of space when life was just forming about 3.9 billion years ago.

"This is going to be a treasure trove for planetary science," says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.

But, but, but: Human spaceflight is expensive and risky. In President Trump's budget released in March, the agency requested $10.7 billion to continue developing and building the components needed to send people back to the moon by 2028.

  • For that price, NASA could send 4 Curiosity rovers to Mars with money to spare.
  • NASA is weighing the added cost of an accelerated timeline.
  • That money could also be used to explore worlds we've only gotten a tantalizing look at so far, like Neptune or Uranus, which have never been studied from close range by a dedicated except mission for Voyager 2's flybys.

"... [t]here are good science cases for sending people to the moon. I think that a lot of those science cases, when you factor in the cost, the timing and all that, a lot of that could be done with robotic missions," theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack tells Axios.

On the other hand: Rovers and landers are incredibly useful for science, but the science they do is often cumbersome by comparison to what a human can accomplish on the ground.

  • It might take weeks of planning to set a rover on a certain course to investigate a rock formation just a few feet away, whereas a person could simply walk over to an outcropping.
  • A human mission to the moon would also allow astronauts to bring home hundreds of pounds of moon rocks, as opposed to robotic sample return, which has historically only resulted in grams of material.
  • The Apollo cache of rocks is still viable for scientific inquiry, but a new trove of rocks from a different part of the moon that is preserved using modern scientific standards would be a boon for study.

The bottom line: The Apollo program was motivated by a determination to beat the Soviet Union to the lunar surface, but science still gained from it.

Go deeper:

2. SpaceX's Crew Dragon setback

The Crew Dragon vehicle ahead of its first uncrewed launch to the ISS. Photo: SpaceX

One of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsules — the company's vehicle designed to fly NASA astronauts into space — experienced a malfunction during ground testing in Florida on Saturday.

What we know: According to an unconfirmed video reportedly showing the incident, the Crew Dragon capsule appeared to be engulfed in flames during the failure.

No one was hurt as a result of the incident, according to SpaceX.

Why it matters: The anomaly could push back SpaceX's plans to launch humans from U.S. soil this summer.

  • The capsule was the same Crew Dragon that successfully flew to and docked with the space station in March.
  • "Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test," a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement.
  • "Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners."

Driving the news: Details about exactly what happened are scant, but it comes in the context of repeated delays to NASA's Commercial Crew program.

  • NASA has been working toward launching people from U.S. soil again since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
  • SpaceX and Boeing are in the final stages of development for their respective spacecraft, but it's not a sure thing that either company will launch humans to orbit before the end of the year.
  • Boeing has already delayed the first uncrewed flight of its Starliner capsule to the station, moving it from this spring to August at the earliest.
  • SpaceX was originally targeting July for its first crewed flight, but there were rumors of a delay even before this mishap.

What they're saying:

  • "Tough day for our @SpaceX team not good - but thankfully no one got hurt and with everything we learn from this anomaly Crew Dragon will be a safer vehicle for all her future crews," former NASA astronaut and SpaceX director of space operations Garrett Reisman said on Twitter.
  • "We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Be smart: Because the root cause of the failure hasn't been released, it's difficult to know exactly how much of a delay this might cause for SpaceX. If the problem is traced back to an issue with the test stand, for example, that won't be as serious as a design flaw with the capsule itself.

3. Happy birthday, NEOWISE

A comet in red moving across the sky.
Comet C/2018 Y1 Iwamoto seen by NEOWISE. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A zombie spacecraft just celebrated the 5 year anniversary of its second mission.

Background: The satellite, now called NEOWISE, started off its life in space as NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer but went into hibernation in 2011 after two years of work peering deeply into the sky to study galaxies and other objects.

  • The space agency turned the telescope back on in September 2013 and started it on its new mission as NEOWISE to hunt for asteroids not far from Earth.

Details: On April 11, NASA released the spacecraft's 5th year of asteroid data, allowing the entire scientific community to access the information.

  • The probe has taken measurements of about 1,000 asteroids since its new mission began.

The big picture: NASA is tracking the thousands of potentially dangerous near-Earth objects like comets or asteroids lurking in nearby space. The space agency also plans to launch the DART mission in 2021 to test if we can change the course of an asteroid on a collision-course with Earth.

  • NASA estimates that it has tracked about 90% of the near-Earth objects that are 1 kilometer in size or larger.

4. Tracking invasive species from space

A satellite photo showing the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. Photo: Satellite image via Maxar Technologies

Satellite data is helping to track invasive species of plants threatening the natural wildlife of the Galapagos Islands.

Details: Densely forested lands are sometimes difficult to map from the ground but photos taken from orbit — provided by Maxar satellites to the Charles Darwin Foundation — are pointing researchers to the places where invasive flora are thriving.

  • The satellite photos mapped 15 square miles on the island of Floreana and 55 square miles on Santa Cruz.

"We need to know this in order to know where to take action, and how to most effectively take action to manage these invasive species," Carolina Carrión, geospatial specialist at the Charles Darwin Foundation, tells Axios.

  • One of those plants, the blackberry, can be found in small or large patches over a widespread area, Carrión said. Extremely detailed imagery can help scientists to hunt for and remove these and other invasive plants.

The partnership involved machine learning to quickly map and detect invasive species, even in mixed forests.

  • Researchers also flew drones above the forest canopy to map species and prove the technology needed to track invasive ones using satellites.

What's next? The imagery could be helpful in telling researchers how quickly one invasive species is taking root over a period of time and inform long-term conservation efforts.

5. Growing spider silk on Mars

Mars seen in 2018. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

Hard-working microbes engineered to produce strong spider silk could one day aid astronauts living on Mars.

Why it matters: NASA is looking for ways to reduce the amount of material needed to launch to space for long-duration missions. Engineering microbes to make spider silk could aid in that effort.

Spider silk — which can be as strong as steel, but incredibly light — could be useful on Mars, where space explorers might use it in place of heavy materials that would be expensive and unwieldy to transport from Earth. They could use it to build strong fabrics and possibly even surgical sutures, for example.

  • A lab led by Fuzhong Zhang at Washington University in St. Louis has produced a spider silk made by microbes that is as tough and strong as natural spider silk.
  • They're working to scale up production of the spider silk to "be able to produce meters worth, kilometers-long fibers continuously and relatively easily within the lab," Zhang told Axios.

Yes, but: Creating enough spider silk isn't the only challenge ahead for this work. The spider silk production process needs to be contained inside its own fermentor to reduce the risk of contamination, according to Zhang, which could be a technical challenge on Mars.

  • NASA will also need to protect these microbes from radiation during the journey to Mars.
  • Another NASA lab is also working to create an easily produced food source for the microbes to fuel their work on the Red Planet.

7. Your weekly dose of awe: Our pale blue dot

Our Pale Blue Dot. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It may not look like much at first glance, but that little "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam," as Carl Sagan said, is all of us.

This Pale Blue Dot image is something worth coming back to each Earth Day. It shows just how fragile and small we are.

  • "That's here. That's home. That's us," Sagan wrote in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. "On it every one you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives."

The photo — taken by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990 — shows the Earth from more than 4 billion miles away. Talk about a healthy dose of perspective.

Thanks for reading. See you back here next Tuesday! 👾