Nov 23, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: How space sticks in the minds of amateur astronauts

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Coming back to Earth from orbit has been marked by a loss of anonymity, packed days and little time for reflection for the all-civilian Inspiration4 crew.

Why it matters: The astronauts' celebrity status is a sign amateur spacefaring hasn't arrived. The public still reveres those who take on the risks and rewards of space travel.

  • Many in the space industry dream that one day flying to space won't just be for the ultra-rich or extremely lucky. Instead, heading to orbit will be more akin to flying on an airplane.
  • If space travel is truly going to be similar to air travel, becoming an astronaut shouldn't necessarily impart celebrity status on individuals, says Inspiration4 mission commander Jared Isaacman.

Catch up quick: The Inspiration4 crew — Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski — flew to orbit for their three-day mission in mid-September.

  • The launch was SpaceX's first all-civilian mission to orbit and acted as a proof of concept for the company as it tries to launch more people in the future.
  • The crew performed experiments and flew sentimental items to orbit as they stared out the capsule's windows and worked together to monitor the health of the Dragon spacecraft throughout the flight.
  • "You're seeing the Earth in a totally different way," Sembroski said. "And seeing sunrise and sunset, every 90 minutes, being able to see all parts of the world, in that period of time. People say the world's getting smaller, and when you go around it in an hour and a half, it feels really small."

Details: For the first week or so after coming home, some of the crew members had dreams they were still in space, and all four of them still feel bonded as a team.

  • Proctor — an artist and poet — said her art has been heavily influenced by being in space since coming back to the ground. She also mentioned that it will be hard to go back to her day job as a professor after having this life-changing experience and she's doubling down on her work as an artist.
  • Arceneaux and Sembroski have been recognized when they've attended events or around their towns.
  • "People say, 'What's it like to get back to normal?'" Sembroski told me. "Things aren't. They're going to be forever different."

The big picture: NASA astronauts and others have described being changed by their experiences flying to space for short and long missions.

  • Astronauts talk about becoming environmentalists, for example, after returning to Earth because of what they experienced in space.
  • One of the major marketing points for private missions is that everyday people will have the chance to experience that "overview effect" for themselves, which the Inspiration4 crew did.

What's next: Future private space explorers "will be different and look at the world differently coming back, but I don't necessarily know what we've experienced will be common amongst" future private astronauts, Isaacman says of their celebrity status.

  • "If it's working right, it shouldn't be."

Go deeper: Listen to the second season of the podcast "How It Happened" all about the Inspiration4 mission.

2. Redirecting an asteroid

Illustration: Trent Joaquin/Axios

SpaceX is set to launch a NASA spacecraft on a mission to learn how to change the course of an asteroid in deep space.

Why it matters: The mission — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) — will test the technology needed to redirect a dangerous asteroid if one is ever found on course with Earth.

Driving the news: The SpaceX Falcon 9 is expected to launch DART to space at 1:21am ET Wednesday.

  • NASA will air live coverage of the launch starting at 12:30am ET Tuesday, for all you night owls.

How it works: Once in space, DART will make its way to a tiny asteroid called a "moonlet" named Dimorphos that orbits the larger asteroid Didymos.

  • DART, which will weigh about 1,345 pounds at launch, will slam into Dimorphos in fall 2022 to see if it can shift the course of the moonlet.
  • The asteroid system isn't in danger of impacting Earth, making it a good target for this type of experiment. It's also positioned well for scientists on Earth to monitor the two asteroids in the system with observatories on the ground.
  • "The right time to deflect an asteroid is as far away from the Earth as we can," Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer for NASA, said during a news conference. "The farther away in space it is ... the less force it takes to change the orbit enough that it will be a miss instead of a hit."

The big picture: NASA and other space agencies track potentially dangerous asteroids as they make their way around the Sun.

  • So far, NASA is believed to have found 90% of all the near-Earth objects 3,280 feet long or larger, and the agency is now working on finding 90% of those types of objects that are 459 feet long or larger.
  • As of June 2021, the agency had found about 40% of the asteroids in that smaller size range.

What to watch: Eventually, new telescopes on the ground and in space, like the Near-Earth Object Surveyor space telescope currently in development at NASA, will allow scientists to find and track asteroids that are difficult to see today.

3. Last blasts of a dying star

The white dwarf KPD 0005+5106 seen in X-ray. Photo: NASA/CXC/ASIAA/Y.-H. Chu, et al.

A white dwarf star 1,300 light-years from Earth is blasting out radiation and ripping apart a companion in its orbit.

Why it matters: One day, scientists think the Sun will burn through its fuel and become a dense white dwarf. By learning more about this star, astronomers might be able to get a better sense of the future of our solar system.

What's happening: A study in The Astrophysical Journal suggests the white dwarf KPD 0005+5106 actually plays host to a companion — either a low-mass star or a planet.

  • Researchers think X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton suggests the white dwarf's companion could be a planet with half of the mass of Jupiter.
  • That planet's material is being pulled from the world into the atmosphere of the white dwarf and it would only survive for "a few hundred million years before eventually being destroyed," according to a press release.
  • "This is a slow demise for this object that's basically being ripped apart by constant gravitational forces," Martín A. Guerrero, of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Spain, and an author of the study said in the statement. "It would be a very unpleasant place to be."

The big picture: The white dwarf is actually one of the hottest known white dwarf stars, with a surface temperature of 360,000°F. (The Sun's temperature is about 10,000°F, for comparison.)

  • "This companion object is about 500,000 miles away from the white dwarf, only about one-thirtieth of the distance from Mercury to the Sun," Jesús Toala of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a co-author of the study, said in the statement.
  • "Whatever this object is, it's getting blasted with heat."
4. Out of this world reading list

A new kind of thruster that uses iodine propulsion firing in space. Photo: ThrustMe

Blue Origin to send "Good Morning America" host to edge of space (Jackie Wattles, CNN)

JWST launch delayed after payload processing incident (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

"False fossils" littered across Mars may complicate the search for life on Red Planet (Harry Baker, Live Science)

Sierra Space raises $1.4 billion at $4.5 billion valuation (Dan Primack, Axios)

A new kind of propulsion could aid in space exploration (Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Springtime on Uranus

Science: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley); Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

A new view of Uranus as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope shows off what springtime looks like in the planet's northern hemisphere.

  • The photo shows Uranus' polar region is brightening, possibly due to an increase in ultraviolet radiation absorbed from the Sun, according to a press release.
  • "Researchers are studying how the brightening polar hood results from changes in the concentration of atmospheric methane gas and the characteristics of haze particles, as well as the atmospheric flow patterns," the release says.

The big picture: This shot is one of a series Hubble has taken recently of the outer planets in our solar system.

  • You can explore Hubble's "grand tour" of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune here. (And be sure to tell me which one is your favorite.)

Big thanks to Alison Snyder and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. And Happy Thanksgiving! 🦃