Nov 12, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,206 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 4 minutes to read.

Please send your tips, questions and unexplored worlds to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or just reply to this email.

1 big thing: Mercury is having a moment

Color-enhanced view of Mercury. Photo: NASA/JHU-APL/Carnegie

Scientists are pushing space agencies around the world to send dedicated missions to the small, relatively unexplored planet Mercury.

Why it matters: With its odd, huge core, magnetic field and unexplained chemistry, the planet is like nowhere else in the solar system.

  • "Mercury seems to be a bit of an oddball," planetary scientist Paul Byrne told Axios.

The big picture: NASA has long-dedicated many of its limited resources to studying Mars and the Moon from close range, effectively leaving planets like Mercury, Venus, Uranus and Neptune somewhat left behind.

  • NASA's MESSENGER mission, which ended in 2015, provided a wealth of data for scientists interested in Mercury, but it also left them clamoring for answers about the small planet's chemistry and composition.

What's happening: NASA is considering establishing an assessment group that will focus on bringing scientists focused on Mercury together and will help advocate for missions.

  • "This community was focused around MESSENGER for a long time and is currently self-organizing," Shoshana Weider, support scientist in NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told Axios via email. "But it is important to the community, and to NASA, that we recognize ... the efforts and interests of these scientists.”
  • The European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched the BepiColombo mission to Mercury last year. The two spacecraft in the mission should make it into orbit around the innermost planet in 2025.

Details: MESSENGER mapped Mercury’s surface and also found that about 85% of the planet’s volume is taken up by a huge metal core.

  • The ratio of potassium and thorium on Mercury also suggests that the planet may have formed elsewhere in the solar system or there could be a flaw in the models used to explain planetary formation, BepiColombo scientist Johannes Benkhoff told Axios.
  • "We thought we could predict some of what Mercury would be like, and we were wrong, so we have to go back and [re-examine] some of our basic, fundamental knowledge about the solar system," planetary geologist Brett Denevi told Axios.

What's next: Some planetary scientists hope to convince NASA to send a rover or lander to Mercury in the 2030s to study the planet from its surface to get more information about the small world than an orbiter could.

  • Scientists working with NASA will soon begin a study of what would be needed for such a mission — technically and budget-wise.
2. The transit of Mercury

Mercury as it transits across the face of the Sun. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Monday's transit of Mercury gave millions of people the chance to see the smallest major planet in our solar system in much the same way that scientists spot worlds around other stars.

The big picture: Exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than our Sun — can be detected when a star's light dips as the planet passes across the face of its star.

Details: Mercury's transits can illuminate its exosphere — the planet's extremely thin atmosphere — for telescopes.

  • “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there,” NASA scientist Rosemary Killen said in a statement.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is able to parse out some elements of exoplanetary atmospheres this way as well, by watching as the planets pass in front of their stars.
  • NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will investigate exoplanet atmospheres in even more detail after its expected launch in 2021.

ICYMI: Sorry, but transits of Mercury are relatively rare events. The next one is expected to occur in 2032.

3. Tracking satellites in daylight

Photo: NASA/Reid Wiseman

As space gets more crowded with satellites and space junk, one company wants to make it easier and cheaper to know where things are in orbit during daylight hours.

  • Numerica received a $750,000 contract from the U.S. Air Force during the first Space Pitch Day last week, with the chance to apply for up to $3 million.

Why it matters: Experts say better means of keeping track of satellites and space junk will be essential as more satellites are launched.

  • Ground-based telescopes are able to track satellites at night without interference from sunlight, but without other means of tracking, that leaves a gap during the day, when many satellites are maneuvering, Numerica vice president Jeff Aristoff told Axios.

Details: Some tracking systems use radar and other expensive technology to track satellites during daytime hours, but Numerica has developed a relatively cheap, autonomous system that Aristoff says can be deployed worldwide.

  • Numerica has tested its system, but it's hoping to raise funding in order to deploy it on a larger scale.

What's happening: The Air Force's Space Pitch Day is part of the organization's bid to modernize and relax the way it interacts with private companies.

  • “What you see here is your Air Force trying to do things differently; experimenting with how we can work closer with the commercial space market particularly the small businesses,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center commander, said according to Space News.
4. Mega-constellation movement

Starlink satellites ahead of deployment in space. Photo: SpaceX

Despite an uncertain market, companies are moving forward in their plans to launch thousands of internet-beaming satellites to low-Earth orbit — and some are already facing setbacks.

Why it matters: SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others are betting big on these global broadband constellations in the hopes that the fleets of small satellites will help tap them into underserved markets and increase their bottom lines.

  • However, it's not yet clear which companies will be able to gain a foothold and actually make their plans profitable.

What's happening: On Monday, SpaceX launched its second batch of 60 Starlink satellites to orbit.

  • The company expects to be able to provide Starlink coverage to people in Canada and the northern parts of the U.S. as early as next year, with full, global coverage to follow after about 24 launches.
  • OneWeb announced the delay of the launch of a clutch of its satellites from December to January in order to further test the spacecraft.
  • Another company, Telesat, is now expected to choose a manufacturer for its broadband constellation in early 2020 instead of this year as initially expected.
  • For its part, Amazon’s Project Kuiper has filed with the FCC to get going with its own constellation.

Yes, but: While analysts agree there are millions of people around the world who could benefit from better access to broadband, it's not yet clear that these constellations will be the best way to deliver it.

  • Safely flying hundreds or even thousands of satellites in tandem is technically difficult, and it's unclear how expensive the broadband service provided by these constellations — which will likely cost billions of dollars to build — will be for consumers.
  • "We don't know how big the market is for consumer broadband, but it may not be much bigger than we have today," technology consultant Tim Farrar told Axios.
5. Out of this world reading list

Opening up a previously sealed Apollo Moon rock sample. Photo: NASA/James Blair

If I touched the Moon, what would it feel like? (Randall Munroe, New York Times)

Senators propose extending ISS' life to 2030 (Elizabeth Howell, Space.com)

NASA's "hidden figures" to be awarded congressional gold medals (Robert Pearlman, CollectSPACE)

NASA opens untouched Apollo Moon rock sample (Sophie Lewis, CBS News)

Proposed interstellar mission reaches for the stars (Lee Billings, Scientific American)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Space-time warp

Photo: NASA/ESA/E. Rivera-Thorsen

Sometimes our deepest views of the universe are the most indirect.

  • This photo, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a galaxy about 11 billion light-years away whose image has been distorted and magnified by a massive galaxy cluster 4.6 billion light-years away.
  • The cluster has bent the light of the more distant galaxy, known as the Sunburst Arc, around it, allowing scientists to see it in a way they couldn't have otherwise.
  • That warping — called gravitational lensing — has created "12 images of the background galaxy, distributed over four major arcs," seen in this photo, according to NASA.

"The magnification allows Hubble to view structures as small as 520 light-years across that would be too small to see without the turboboost from the lensing effect," NASA said in a statement.

Miriam Kramer

Thanks for spending time with me this week! If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. ☿