Greetings, and thanks for reading Axios Space, our weekly look at the science and business of space exploration. Today's Smart Brevity word count: 1,607 words/~ 6 minute read.
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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Northrop Grumman are fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of sending spy satellites and other national security payloads to orbit for the U.S. military through the mid-2020s.
Why it matters: Billions of dollars in taxpayer money is on the line, along with the viability of entirely new, massive rockets, like Blue Origin's New Glenn and ULA's Vulcan Centaur launcher.
Driving the news: SpaceX — which along with ULA launches national security payloads — is now suing the U.S. government, claiming the company was wrongly denied a Launch Service Agreement by the Air Force in 2018.
The big picture: The skirmish illustrates the new space race isn't exclusively about romantic ideas of building a city on Mars or establishing a civilization in orbit, but navigating the unsexy realm of government contracting.
Between the lines: The stakes are so high for these companies in part because right now there isn't enough of a private sector launch business to go around.
What's next: The companies need to submit their proposals by Aug. 1. The Air Force is expected to pick its two providers in 2020, one year before any of the new rockets are expected to make their first flights.
Artist's illustration of the New Glenn rocket. Photo: Blue Origin
Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA are developing new, heavy lift rockets that are expected to launch for the first time in 2021.
The big picture: The Air Force awarded Blue Origin $500 million to help the company develop its New Glenn rocket as part of the 2018 agreement. Northrop Grumman was given $792 million, and ULA received $967 million.
Where it stands: A ground test of the first stage of Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket on Thursday ended after the engine's nozzle appeared to explode.
History lesson: ULA's workhorse Atlas V rocket uses Russian-made RD-180 engines, but the Pentagon has been trying to wean off the use of Russian-made rocket engines for national security-related launches.
Earth rising above the limb of the moon during Apollo 11. Photo: NASA/JSC
Long-delayed NASA programs like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket could threaten the space agency’s future missions, like the Artemis program to send people back to the Moon by 2024, according to an independent report released May 30.
Why it matters: NASA is asking Congress for an extra $1.6 billion above its original budget request for fiscal year 2020 to jumpstart Artemis.
Details: According to the GAO report citing NASA officials, it’s “unlikely” the SLS will see its first flight in 2020, as the space agency expects. That said, NASA is planning to use some of the extra funding requested for Artemis to continue developing and testing the SLS.
Yes, but: NASA “generally agreed” with the recommendations made, according to the GAO. However, history suggests the space agency may not implement them fully.
The International Space Station. Photo: NASA
While NASA’s high-profile, expensive missions anchor the space agency’s plans for exploration, the agency is also supporting a number of private companies in their bids to commercialize space.
Driving the news: A number of NASA announcements in the past week have specifically broadened the roles the agency’s commercial partners will play in the future of spaceflight.
Background: NASA has long needed commercial partners to make its space-faring dreams come true. NASA supplies and experiments are currently delivered to the ISS by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. Boeing and SpaceX hope to launch astronauts to the station for the agency within the next year.
The bottom line: If operations in low-Earth orbit can be given over to private entities — with NASA as a customer — agency administrator Jim Bridenstine says that could free the space agency up to figure out how to send people deeper into the solar system with the coming moon mission and eventually Mars.
PDS 70 (center) with PDS 70 b (left) and PDS 70 c (right). Photo: ESO and S. Haffert
Two planets have been spotted growing around a star 370 light-years from our own Sun, according to a study in the journal Nature Astronomy this week.
The big picture: By studying these forming planets, scientists will be able to get a glimpse into how planet formation occurs on a large scale.
What they found: The star — named PDS 70 — is a bit smaller than our sun, but it's much younger, at 6 million years old.
What's next: These large planets are likely ideal targets for the JWST — expected to launch in 2021. The huge telescope, which is thought of as the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, is designed to parse out the composition of the atmospheres of planets far from our own solar system.
Artist's illustration of the Europa Clipper mission. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Paul Allen's Stratolaunch closing operations (Eric M. Johnson and Joey Roulette, Reuters)
Questions surround NASA’s shutdown of a cosmic-ray instrument (David Kramer, Physics Today)
America’s first private moon lander will be made in India (Tim Fernholz, Quartz)
Report points to problems with NASA's Europa plans (Axios)
The astronauts who have visited the International Space Station (Axios)
A film clip showing a total solar eclipse in 1900 has been restored. The video (now available on YouTube) was taken by British magician Nevil Maskelyne during a trip to North Carolina to see the eclipse.
Even today, people will travel far and wide to get into a solar eclipse's path of totality. By one estimate, 215 million people saw a total solar eclipse in 2017 that stretched across the United States.
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