Axios Space

A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.

June 04, 2019

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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1 big thing: Space companies fight for cash

Rockets flying in the shape of a dollar sign

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.

  • Sending government payloads to orbit can be a steady source of much-needed income for nascent rocket companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
  • The up to 34 estimated launches that will be procured between fiscal years 2020 and 2024 will be split 60/40 by the two companies the Air Force chooses.

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 multimillion dollar agreements were awarded to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA to help ensure the new launch systems the three companies are developing will meet the Air Force’s needs and timeline if selected as a launch provider.
  • In December, Musk reportedly admitted to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that SpaceX's proposal "missed the mark," potentially complicating its legal case.

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.

  • While the launch business appears to be robust, these companies need to lock in as much guaranteed revenue as possible if they stand a shot of making it in the long run.
  • "The demand for rockets really can't support all the providers. So, it's a kind of vicious fight to stay alive," John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.
  • The Air Force has a lot of skin in the game, too. Whichever launch providers are selected will be on the front lines of geopolitics, projecting the U.S.'s strength against rivals like China and Russia.

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.

2. Rockets on the line

Artist's illustration of Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket.

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.

  • The viability of these rockets will depend on whether there's a market for launching large payloads destined for particular orbits.

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.

  • ULA is in the process of building its Vulcan Centaur rocket. The rocket is designed to be partially reusable, with engines that can fly more than one mission.
  • Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket is meant to loft big payloads to orbit and is expected to be the company's debut in the orbital spaceflight business.
  • All three of these rockets are expected to be able to launch heavy payloads to a variety of orbits. (The New Glenn, for example, will be able to deliver 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit — an orbit where communications and other satellites are usually placed before the satellite maneuvers itself into its final orbit.)

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.

  • The company's Vulcan Centaur will end ULA's reliance on those engines, instead opting for BE-4 engines made by its competitor and collaborator Blue Origin.

3. Big delays mean trouble for NASA's Artemis

Earth seen from the moon.

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.

  • However, according to the report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), NASA can’t afford more delays with the SLS if they want to meet the Trump administration's 2024 deadline.
  • NASA plans to use the SLS as a key part of its plans for the moon, with multiple launches of the rocket expected ahead of a human landing.

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.

  • The GAO criticized NASA's continued cost overruns with the JWST, for example. That telescope is now expected to cost nearly $10 billion, $2 billion more than initially projected.
  • “I think the fact that Webb has been such a poison pill in the middle of NASA’s program still stands out,” Logsdon said. “Particularly NASA robotic science is paying a very high price for the problems with Webb.”

Yes, but: NASA “generally agreed” with the recommendations made, according to the GAO. However, history suggests the space agency may not implement them fully.

  • “We’ve had some very basic recommendations that we’ve been pushing for the past 10 years at least, and they can still be adopted more by NASA,” the GAO’s Cristina Chaplain said in a podcast about the report.
  • Those recommendations include being more "realistic" about the cost and schedules of large programs, being sure to update them along the way.
  • The GAO has also recommended that NASA be sure to include reserves in the human spaceflight systems programs to manage risk and potential cost overruns.

4. Commercializing low-Earth orbit

The International Space Station seen from space.

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.

  • Twelve companies recently completed studies for NASA looking into how the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit in general might be used by private entities for commercial purposes.
  • Many of the companies — including Blue Origin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman — presented ideas for new, free-floating space stations that could play host to tourists and even manufacturing.
  • NASA awarded more than $253 million total to three companies tasked with flying the agency's science experiments to the Moon ahead of the 2024 human landing.
  • On Friday, NASA will announce “plans to open the International Space Station to expanded commercial activities” during an event at Nasdaq.

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.

5. Two planets orbiting a distant star

Two planets seen orbiting a star light-years from Earth.

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.

  • It's notoriously difficult to spot gaps caused by nascent planets forming in disks of gas and dust surrounding stars, but in this case, the researchers caught sight of hydrogen being eaten up by the growing worlds.

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.

  • Scientists discovered the first planet in orbit around PDS 70 in 2018 using the Very Large Telescope in Chile. That world — named PDS 70 b — is thought to be 4–17 times the mass of Jupiter and is the star's innermost planet.
  • The newfound planet, named PDS 70 c, is about 3.3 billion miles from its star, at around the same distance as Neptune is from our sun.
  • Researchers think PDS 70 c is about 1–10 times as massive as Jupiter and was also spotted with the Very Large Telescope.

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.

6. Out of this world reading list

Artist's illustration of Europa Clipper at Europa.

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)

7. Your weekly dose of awe: A solar eclipse in 1900

Animation of the total solar eclipse seen in 1900.
A total solar eclipse seen in 1900. Gif: Royal Astronomical Society/BFI

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.

  • "It's wonderful to see events from our scientific past brought back to life. Astronomers are always keen to embrace new technology, and our forerunners a century ago were no exception," Mike Cruise, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said in a statement.

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.

Go deeper: Here's when the next total solar eclipse will happen

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