February 04, 2020

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1 big thing: Tracking junk in space is big business

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Private companies may soon surpass the government in their ability to track thousands of pieces of space junk that put satellites in danger and could cause millions of dollars in damage.

The big picture: Hundreds of satellites are expected to launch to orbit in the next few years, greatly increasing the number of spacecraft circling Earth.

  • The danger isn't in quantity though — space is big.
  • The risk comes from not knowing where defunct satellites, spent rocket bodies or other debris are located.

Driving the news: Last week, two dead spacecraft may have come within just a few meters of colliding above Pennsylvania.

  • People and companies on the ground were tracking the event closely, but there were many different estimates about where exactly the satellites were, complicating predictions around whether they would collide.

The intrigue: The Air Force is able to follow more than 20,000 pieces of space junk and satellites, but NASA estimates there are millions of other tiny pieces of untracked debris that could harm working satellites.

  • "The stuff the government does is good," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios. "It's got its place, but we all know that the tea leaves aren't as dependable as they could be. The accuracy is not great."

What's happening: A handful of companies are now trying to make a profit by tracking satellites and space junk.

  • LeoLabs — which sounded the alarm about the possible collision last week — plans to have six ground-based radars to track pieces of space junk down to 2 centimeters.
  • NorthStar Earth and Space expects to launch the first of its space junk-tracking satellites as early as next year after raising more than $38 million in 2018.
  • Others are working to compile the data collected by companies in order to make their own predictions and satellite tracks.

Yes, but: The best way to figure out where exactly all of the junk in orbit is may be to combine data from multiple sources and aggregate it in one place.

  • Companies are also building their businesses around the idea that satellite operators, and even insurance providers for the space industry, will want to use their data to make sure that spacecraft remain safe in orbit.
  • However, it's not clear those organizations will want to pay for the service in the future when they could either create their own tracking methods or use free services instead.

2. Axiom's big space station future

Artist's illustration of Axiom's space station modules. Image: Axiom Space

Axiom Space wants to build a space station for a new age of exploration, and last week, the Houston-based company started moving ahead with its plans in earnest.

  • NASA announced that the company has been chosen to add its first module to the International Space Station, opening up the orbiting laboratory to more commercial activities in the future.

The big picture: NASA wants to foster commercial enterprise in orbit so it becomes a user, not a provider, of services, freeing up the agency to focus on its broader goals like flying people to the Moon and Mars.

  • If Axiom succeeds in building and operating a commercial space station, it will mark a turning point for how space is used and who has access to it.
  • Axiom's station will be focused on catering to private companies and space agencies or even tourists who want to experience outer space for themselves.

Details: Axiom expects to launch its first module to the station by the second half of 2024, with a habitation module coming about six months later and a manufacturing module launching six months after that, Axiom co-founder Michael Suffredini told Axios.

  • When the International Space Station comes to an end, Axiom plans to remove its modules and become a free-standing station that can be accessed by the company's customers.
  • Axiom already has a deal with either Boeing or SpaceX — the company wouldn't confirm which — to fly an Axiom crew to the station in 2021.
  • "We expect to procure flights from both providers over time to fly our missions," Suffredini said. "We're beginning these flights early in order to set the cadence and the rhythm."

But, but, but: Axiom's business is potentially risky. The company will face a number of technical challenges around getting its station up and running, and the demand for a private space station in orbit isn't yet well understood.

3. A new look at our nearest star

Artist's illustration of the Solar Orbiter. Image: NASA/NASA Goddard

A new mission expected to launch to space from Florida on Sunday will give scientists an unprecedented view of the Sun.

Why it matters: Despite decades of studying our closest star, scientists still can't accurately predict our Sun's behavior — when it will eject solar flares, sprout sunspots or how the solar wind works.

  • The joint NASA/European Space Agency mission, called Solar Orbiter, is designed to help researchers find a way to predict this space weather, which can harm satellites, astronauts and even the electrical grid.

Details: The spacecraft will snap photos of the Sun's poles for the first time, hopefully helping researchers figure out how the star's magnetic field is generated and what drives the solar wind.

  • Solar Orbiter's mission is expected to last about seven years, passing as close as 26 million miles from the star.
  • "Solar Orbiter will give us a comprehensive, full view of the entire Sun and how the Sun is impacting throughout the entire solar system," Holly Gilbert, NASA's project scientist for the mission, said in a video.

What to watch: Solar Orbiter data will complement information gathered by the Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018.

  • The Parker probe will be closer to the Sun, allowing it to learn more about the star from close range, while the Solar Orbiter will be farther away giving those data points context.
  • Occasionally, the orbits of the two spacecraft will line up such that both will be able to sample the same stream of solar wind from different positions.

4. Out of this world reading list

The surface of the Sun. Photo: NSO/AURA/NSF

A small rocket maker is running a different kind of space race (Ashlee Vance, Bloomberg)

Why is this Russian spacecraft suddenly stalking a secret U.S. spy satellite? (David Axe, The Daily Beast)

Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa calls off TV search for Moon trip "life partner" (Mihir Zaveri, New York Times)

New telescope takes highest-resolution photo of the Sun's surface (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A selfie in space


Spacewalks are busy for astronauts making repairs outside the International Space Station, but there's usually time for a quick selfie.

  • European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano snapped this photo of himself while making repairs to an instrument designed to detect cosmic rays during a spacewalk on Jan. 25.
  • Parmitano is scheduled to return to Earth with his space station crewmates — NASA's Christina Koch and Russia's Alexander Skvortsov — on Thursday.

Flashback: Parmitano had a scary moment in 2013 when his helmet started to fill with water during a spacewalk, forcing him to rush back to the airlock to remove his suit.

  • Parmitano recovered from the mishap, but NASA put a number of safety precautions in place during subsequent spacewalks to make sure it wouldn't happen again.

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