Axios Space

A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.
February 09, 2021

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,343 words, this week's newsletter is about a 5-minute read.

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

1 big thing: The new Mars club

Illustration of a gold medal ribbon with Mars in place of a medal
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The newest missions to Mars are about life on Earth as much as they're about science on the Red Planet.

Why it matters: The United Arab Emirates and China, which each have missions arriving at Mars this week, have tied geopolitical and national ambitions to their Martian endeavors.

  • Space exploration has always been political, but these missions are being used to demonstrate the countries' technical know-how and prowess far from Earth's orbit.

What's happening: The UAE’s Hope probe made it into orbit around Mars this morning, and China’s Tianwen-1 is expected to do the same at the Red Planet on Wednesday.

  • China’s mission is also expected to release a rover down to the surface of the planet in the coming months, making it one of the most ambitious first-time Mars missions for any nation yet.
  • The UAE is now the fifth nation or space agency to operate a spacecraft at Mars.

Between the lines: Both China and the UAE are driven by the desire to be a regional leader when it comes to space, furthering national ambition and pride in the process.

  • The UAE began its space program in part as a way to create a technical and young workforce that will also help inspire others in the Middle East to enter science and engineering.
  • And they chose Mars in part because of its difficulty.
  • "If you want to stimulate growth really rapidly, and you want to enable an entire generation to develop their skills and capacity and capability at a rapid manner, you need to take on large risks," Sarah Al Amiri, chair of the UAE Space Agency, told Axios. "You wouldn't get there with something that's more guaranteed."

China, on the other hand, is already a leader in space, with a human exploration program, a future space station and ambitious robotic missions to the Moon.

  • "There is a piece of this that is prestige, but it's not about space — it is about doing real science," the Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng told Axios.

The big picture: These missions are starting to paint a new picture of space ambitions where soft power, influence and a demonstration of technical abilities are far more important than a specific race between nations — as it was between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

  • For its part, China initially took a relatively traditional path to the Red Planet. The nation's first attempt to make it to Mars — in 2011 — was part of a collaborative mission with Russia.
  • That mission didn't succeed, but China continued on with its space program, pushing to prove out technology at the Moon and then make it to Mars with not only an orbiter but a rover as well.
  • "If China is able to successfully land on Mars, its first time out, that's actually a pretty good track record, relative to everybody else's first time efforts," Cheng said. "The Chinese are very big on their firsts being bigger, longer, heavier."

The intrigue: The UAE didn't first send a mission to the Moon or import technology wholesale for its Hope probe.

  • Instead, the country focused on building technical knowledge at home that can then be applied elsewhere on Earth, in the tech sector.
  • In total, 200 of the 450 people who worked on the UAE’s Mars mission are Emiratis at the space center, and the nation’s private space industry is emerging.

The bottom line: Scientifically successful or not, these ambitious missions are revealing how much more accessible space is to those nations that are willing to go there.

2. Jared Isaacman's big space dream

Photo illustration of Jared Isaacman and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
Photo Illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Businessman Jared Isaacman is putting his life in SpaceX's hands.

The big picture: Isaacman is leading the first all-civilian mission to space on a chartered flight with SpaceX expected to fly before the end of the year.

  • The new mission — called Inspiration4 — effectively ushers in a new age of private spaceflight that goes beyond government customers and missions.
  • "I'm not nervous at all," Isaacman told me. "I'm immensely confident in SpaceX's technology. I think they're true pioneers, visionaries."

What's happening: Isaacman is giving away one seat on the Crew Dragon to someone who donates to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and another seat to the winner of a contest for entrepreneurs.

  • The fourth seat has been given to a yet-to-be-named St. Jude ambassador who was once treated by the hospital and is now a medical worker.
  • So far, the raffle has generated more than $8 million for the hospital, according to the Inspiration4 website.
  • The mission also aired an ad during the Super Bowl this weekend.

Behind the scenes: This mission came together in just about two months, Isaacman said, adding that he always knew it wouldn't just be "a couple buddies going up in space together," instead opting for a more impactful message.

  • And it's going to be a sprint to launch before the end of the year.
  • Once the final crewmates are announced in about 20 days, they will embark on a rigorous training schedule to get everyone up to speed on what it will take to launch to space and return safely home, even as a passenger.
  • "I'm certainly not asking people who are fortunate enough to get selected as part of this process to give up their day jobs. But we might be asking for a little bit of flexibility from their employers ... to give us a day here or there, but what we're trying to do is a lot of three- and four-day weekends," Isaacman said of the training.

3. The Space Force's PR problem

Illustration of a sewn military badge fashioned as a satellite.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Gen. John Raymond — the head of space operations for the Space Force — said last week that the newest branch of the military is still searching for its footing when communicating its work to the public.

Why it matters: The Space Force — established by the Trump administration — has often been the butt of jokes, including a Netflix satire of the same name, but many in the space industry recognize its utility as the U.S. increasingly relies on space.

  • The public, however, has a harder time finding that utility, according to Raymond.
  • "Space doesn't have a mother," Raymond said during a roundtable Wednesday. "You can't reach out and hug a satellite. You can't see it. You can't touch it. It's hard to have that connection."

Between the lines: Raymond also added that the Space Force's job has been made harder by the classification of materials that make it hard to speak publicly about the threats posed by other actors in orbit.

  • "I really believe we're communicating very well in a number of areas," Raymond said. "I think there's still a challenge that it's hard to understand that connection to space, and we'll keep working at it."

The big picture: Even if the public isn't sure about the Space Force, the Biden administration has said it's here to stay.

  • Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the new military branch has the administration's "full support."

4. Out of this world reading list

The Moon as seen from the International Space Station
Photo: NASA

America's new vision of astronauts (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Clues about Mars' atmosphere may lie on the surface of its moon Phobos (Elizabeth Howell,

SpaceX launches explosive test of prototype Starship (Axios)

Biden supports NASA's Artemis program back to the Moon (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A special supernova

A rare type of star explosion seen in blue and pink
Photo: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Nanjing Univ./P. Zhou et al. Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

Thousands of years ago, a small, dense remnant of a dead star called a white dwarf exploded.

  • The supernova could have been triggered by the white dwarf eating up too much of a companion star or slamming into another white dwarf.
  • Either way, this image taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, shows the aftermath of that explosion, which scientists now think was a special type of supernova known as a Iax supernova. It is also the first of its kind found in the Milky Way.
  • Type Ia supernovas are important because they all achieve nearly the same brightness, so they can be used as yardsticks to measure distances throughout the universe. Type Iax supernovas are less powerful than Type Ia supernovas.
"This supernova remnant is in the background of many Chandra images of our galaxy's supermassive black hole taken over the last 20 years. We finally may have worked out what this object is and how it came to be."
— Zhiyuan Li of Nanjing University, in a statement

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 💫