Jun 9, 2020

Axios Space

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1 big thing: 2024 moonshot may not work

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus and agency shakeups are making NASA's goal of landing people back on the Moon in 2024 seem less likely.

Why it matters: The Trump administration has hung its hat on the Artemis Moon program as its defining space policy, with the goal of accomplishing the first crewed landing before the end of President Trump's second term, if he is re-elected.

"I think basically, making 2024 would be a miracle," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.

What's happening: The coronavirus pandemic forced NASA to shut down much of the work involving its Space Launch System rocket, designed to bring people to the Moon's surface.

  • That likely compounds delays announced earlier this year to the first uncrewed test flight, called Artemis I, of the SLS and Orion capsule.
  • "It is still too early to predict the full impact of COVID-19, but teams are working at the best possible pace to move the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft toward the launch of Artemis I," NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton told Axios via email.
  • NASA says it intends to make up lost ground on development of the rocket and spacecraft by optimizing testing and operations at Stennis Space Center and Kennedy Space Center.
  • The space agency also put the restructuring of its human spaceflight operations on hold, and the agency's head of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, resigned suddenly in May.

Between the lines: That restructuring is more than a minor bureaucratic roadblock to a Moon landing.

  • "One of the important things about Apollo was that it had exceptionally good management and consistent and steady management throughout the program," the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier told Axios.

The Trump administration asked Congress for an influx of funding for the Artemis program for fiscal year 2021 in February, but NASA likely won't see that extra funding before the end of Trump's first term.

  • And if NASA is funded under a continuing resolution ahead of the election, it will further set back the agency's plans.
  • "Every month counts at this point if you're looking at 48 months to landing on the Moon," Dreier said.

What they're saying: Despite recent setbacks, the Trump administration says Artemis is still on track.

  • "By 2024, our astronauts will return to the lunar surface to establish a permanent presence and the launching pad to Mars," Trump said after SpaceX's first crewed launch on May 30.

Meanwhile, NASA is continuing to award contracts for the program to private industry partners, funneling much-needed funds to companies during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The agency will rely on private companies to build human-rated lunar landers, a complicated piece of hardware expected to take a fair amount of time and millions of dollars to develop.
  • But while these types of partnerships may save money, they don't necessarily get new systems flying more quickly, according to Dreier, who referenced NASA's lengthy Commercial Crew development as an example. (The program originated under the Obama administration and took six years to come to fruition last month.)

What to watch: If Trump doesn't win a second term, it's unclear whether the 2024 deadline would stick.

  • It's not yet known exactly what Joe Biden would take on as his space agenda if he were to be elected.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include further comment from NASA.

2. Planet brings it down to Earth

Planet's new 50-centimeter imagery. Photo: Planet Labs Inc.

Planet — a company that operates more than 100 small imagery satellites in orbit — is rolling out plans to bring its trove of data to new customers across industry and government.

Why it matters: Satellite operators are now able to beam back huge amounts of data from orbit each day, but that hasn't necessarily translated into big rewards and commercial success.

Details: Planet's launch of six new SkySats on two upcoming SpaceX launches is expected to let its customers see the same spot on Earth up to 12 times per day.

  • The company is also moving some of its spacecraft in orbit in order to get higher-resolution images, showing objects as small as 50 centimeters instead of 80 centimeters.
  • "The easier we've made it for our customers to consume the data, the more imagery they want," Jim Thomason, Planet's vice president of imagery products, told Axios.
  • To that end, the company is also rolling out a new tool that will allow customers to task its SkySat satellites to get them to take photos of points on the Earth that are of interest.

The big picture: Planet expects its customers will be able to use the higher resolution imaging for urban planning or border security.

  • "Another great example is being able to see rooftops a little bit more clearly so you can better plan how to install solar panels," Mike Safyan, Planet's vice president of launch, told Axios.
  • Companies and governments can also potentially use the rapidly acquired images throughout a day to create "stop motion" images of various areas to see how they change over a short period of time.
3. The space industry responds

The Black Lives Matter mural in D.C. from space. Photo: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

As protests against police brutality and violence erupted around the world, space companies have spoken out in support of those taking to the streets.

Why it matters: These statements suggest that the industry at large is trying to engage with what's happening on the ground and how it affects its employees.

Driving the news: Blue Origin, Axiom Space, Virgin Orbit and others released public statements.

  • The Planetary Society's statement commits the organization to fight racism and find concrete ways to make its portion of the industry more inclusive and diverse.
  • For All Moonkind, a nonprofit, is sponsoring a "Race in Space" webinar on June 18 to bring the conversation about race in the industry to a wide audience.
  • Phase Four — a company focusing on building a new kind of thruster — put out a statement explicitly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and donated to ACCE Action as well.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear whether these statements of support will translate into specific action focused on bringing more diversity to the industry.

  • 87.5% of aerospace industry workers identify as white and 5.6% identify as black or African American, according to 2019 numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
4. Titan is drifting away

Titan in front of Saturn and its rings. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is drifting away from the ringed planet far faster than scientists initially thought.

Why it matters: The discovery could help researchers figure out exactly how old Saturn's system of rings and moons might be.

Details: The new research suggests that Titan likely formed much closer to Saturn than initially thought before migrating out to where it orbits today.

  • The moon is moving away from Saturn at a rate of about 4 inches per year, about 100 times faster than expected, according to a study in the journal Nature Astronomy.
  • A moon's gravity pulls ever so slightly on the planet it orbits, making the world temporarily bulge out.
  • "Over time, the energy created by the bulging and subsiding transfers from the planet to the moon, nudging it farther and farther out," NASA said in a statement.

Between the lines: The new finding pokes holes in some long-standing theories explaining how moons drift away from their planets.

  • Earlier hypotheses suggested moons like Titan, which orbit relatively far from their planets, drift away more slowly than inner moons, which are closer to their planet's gravity.
  • The new study is evidence that these outer moons can still move at a quick clip as they drift away from their planets.

The big picture: Titan isn't the only moon drifting from its home planet. The Moon is also slowly moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches per year.

5. Out of this world reading list

A Falcon 9 rocket takes flight. Photo: SpaceX

The space world's blind spot is race (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Repeating cosmic radio burst follows bizarre 157-day cycle (George Dvorsky, Gizmodo)

First American woman to walk in space makes historic dive (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

Trump campaign removes ad that violated NASA guidelines by showing astronauts (Rashaan Ayesh, Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A Dragon approaches

Photo: NASA

Astronauts often say that looking down on the Earth is one of their favorite pastimes while on the International Space Station, and sometimes they get a view like this.

  • The Crew Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken approaches the International Space Station while flying above the country of Turkey on May 31 in this photo.
  • The spacecraft then docked with the station while both flew over Mongolia and China.

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