Axios Space

A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.

March 28, 2023

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,432 words, this newsletter is a 5½-minute read.

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1 big thing: Launch isn't enough

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Companies focused on sending small payloads to orbit may need to do more than just build and launch rockets in order to stay afloat in a competitive market, analysts tell Axios.

Why it matters: The small-rocket launch industry has seen massive growth in recent years, with dozens of companies working to get their rockets designed to bring small satellites to orbit for governments and other entities off the ground.

  • But analysts have cautioned that a bubble in the space industry has formed with a surplus of companies aiming to build and launch small rockets.
  • Some warn that the bubble is just about ready to burst.

Driving the news: Over the past couple of weeks, Virgin Orbit furloughed employees and paused work on its launchers while searching for funding to keep the company solvent.

  • These financial troubles came after one of the company's rockets failed in January and the nine satellites aboard were destroyed.
  • Astra, another company focused on launching small payloads to orbit, is at risk of being delisted by the Nasdaq.

The intrigue: Some analysts say that simply being able to launch rockets to orbit may not be enough to keep a company afloat.

  • "All the companies that have successfully reached orbit in the last 20 years — they'll all tell you that launch alone isn't enough," Space Capital's Chad Anderson tells Axios. "They're all moving down the value chain from everything from building spacecraft to satellite services and lunar landers."
  • For its part, SpaceX is building out its Starlink satellite constellation as an additional source of revenue, and Firefly Aerospace is developing its Blue Ghost lunar lander to fly payloads to the Moon. Rocket Lab also has its Photon satellite bus that can be used in a variety of orbits.

Yes, but: It may be possible to support a rocket company only through launching payloads to space, but it would likely take major backing from government customers.

  • "What I see companies doing — particularly small launch companies — to close their business case is to build relationships with government customers," BryceTech's Carissa Christensen tells Axios.
  • Governments could be particularly interested in small launchers and their ability to place small satellites in a specific orbit and to quickly launch as needed for military purposes.

Between the lines: Small-rocket launch companies are also facing major competition from SpaceX.

  • The company isn't focused specifically on building a small launch vehicle, but it offers the Falcon 9 as a rideshare that many different satellites can fly to orbit for a relatively cheap price.
  • "You have a very strong muting function that SpaceX is providing to the small launch market, which I think ultimately will force survival of the fittest," Adam Spice, Rocket Lab CFO, said during a panel at the SmallSat Symposium, according to Jeff Foust.
  • "I think there will be a lot fewer players out there in a few years than there are today."

The big picture: Economic headwinds are making it harder for capital-intensive companies — like those building rockets — to raise funds.

  • Space companies tend to require a fair bit of upfront capital to prove a model before generating revenue.
  • "As the waters start to recede, we'll find out who's got swim shorts on here," space analyst Chris Quilty tells Axios. "The survivors at this point may be the ones most successful at raising capital, rather than those that are necessarily furthest along or arguably have the best design for their launch vehicle."

2. An atmosphere-free world

Artist's illustration of a planet orbiting a red star

Artist's illustration of TRAPPIST-1 b orbiting its star. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/J. Olmsted (STScI)

A planet in one of the most intriguing star systems found may not have an atmosphere, according to new data from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Why it matters: While this planet, called TRAPPIST-1 b, may not be habitable, the new discovery could help scientists learn more about whether planets orbiting stars that are smaller and cooler than our Sun could host life.

What they found: A new study published in Nature yesterday found TRAPPIST-1 b — which is tidally locked, only showing one side of the world to its star — has a temperature of about 450°F on its day side and no detectable atmosphere.

  • The planet orbits TRAPPIST-1, an M dwarf star about 40 light-years away from Earth, cooler than the Sun, and host to at least six other worlds, some of which might be habitable.
  • “There are ten times as many of these stars in the Milky Way as there are stars like the Sun, and they are twice as likely to have rocky planets as stars like the Sun,” NASA's Thomas Greene, an author of the study, said in a statement. “But they are also very active ­— they are very bright when they’re young, and they give off flares and X-rays that can wipe out an atmosphere.”
  • These observations show that JWST's power in infrared light allows the telescope to observe planets that are about the size of Earth to learn more about their possible atmospheres.

Between the lines: Other planets in this star system are thought to be potentially habitable, but TRAPPIST-1 b was not one of them.

  • The planet is hit by four times as much radiation as Earth, and its active star often spits out flares.
  • The JWST is also observing other worlds in the star system.
  • "There was one target that I dreamed of having," Pierre-Olivier Lagage, of CEA and an author of the paper, said in the statement. "And it was this one. This is the first time we can detect the emission from a rocky, temperate planet. It’s a really important step in the story of discovering exoplanets."

3. Blue Origin's root cause

A Blue Origin crew capsule descends in Texas under parachutes

A Blue Origin crew capsule descends to Earth in June 2022. Photo: Blue Origin

Blue Origin announced last week that it found the cause of a rocket mishap that caused a flight abort last year.

Why it matters: The Jeff Bezos-founded company needed to understand the source of the failure before being able to launch payloads and customers to suborbital space again.

What's happening: The team investigating the September 2022 failure found that the engine nozzle of the New Shepard vehicle failed, which forced the abort system on the uncrewed capsule to trigger, sending it away from the failing rocket to land safely under parachutes.

  • The capsule was carrying experiments that Blue Origin says will fly again during the rocket's return-to-flight mission.
  • "Public safety was unaffected by the mishap, and no changes to crew safety system designs were recommended as a result of the investigation," Blue Origin wrote in an update.
  • The company says it is changing the design of the nozzle and combustion chamber of the engine to aid in performance and better tolerate the stresses of spaceflight.

How it works: Blue Origin's New Shepard system — which launches from Texas — is designed to deliver six people at a time to the edge of space.

  • The reusable booster propels the capsule high above the Earth before the capsule separates, ultimately reaching about 62 miles above the planet's surface.
  • People onboard the capsule experience weightlessness for about three minutes at the top of the parabola before coming back to Earth.
  • The whole flight takes about 10 minutes.

What's next: Blue Origin added in the update that the company plans to return to flight "soon."

4. Out of this world reading list

A crescent moon shines above the limb of the Earth with the blue glow of the atmosphere

The Moon seen by the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

🌖 Water is trapped in glass beads on the Moon’s surface (Jackie Wattles, CNN)

☀️ Strongest solar storm in nearly 6 years slams into Earth catching forecasters by surprise (Daisy Dobrijevic,

🪐 Catch 5 planets in alignment this week (Briley Lewis, Popular Science)

✨ NASA space operations head Lueders to retire (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Season on Uranus

Two views of Uranus from the Hubble Space Telescope. One was taken in 2014, the other in 2022 showing that the planet's north pole has gotten brighter since 2014

Image: NASA/ESA/STScI/Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC)/Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley)/Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Uranus has always looked like a weirdo in the solar system, and new photos from the Hubble Space Telescope show that's still the case.

  • The world orbits on its side, giving the Hubble a nice view of its north pole, which is hazy and stormy. The 2022 photo above, taken in November and released Thursday, shows that the planet's north pole has brightened.
  • "Hubble has been tracking the size and brightness of the north polar cap and it continues to get brighter year after year," NASA wrote in an image description.
  • "As northern summer solstice approaches in 2028 the cap may grow brighter still, and will be aimed directly toward Earth, allowing good views of the rings and north pole; the ring system will then appear face-on."

🚀 Big thanks to Alison Snyder for editing, Sheryl Miller for copy editing, and Natalie Peeples for illustration. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe.