It was a big year in space: Historic rocket launches; revelations from distant planets; an unprecedented glimpse of the surface of Pluto; evidence of water trails on Mars; SpaceX vs. Blue Origin; the rise of commercial space; and also some big setbacks.
This week on the GeekWire radio show and podcast, we’re joined by Alan Boyle, GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor, who catches us up on the biggest news from space this year, literally putting the universe in perspective. We also look ahead to 2016 and bring things closer to Earth with an explanation of the FAA’s new registration requirements for that recreational drone under your tree for the holidays.
Listen to an extended version of the show below, and continue reading for an edited transcript. Download the MP3 here. And if you love space and science news, be sure to sign up for GeekWire’s weekly Space & Science newsletter, featuring Alan’s coverage.
Todd Bishop: If you were to characterize the overall amount of news from space this year, as compared to years past, was it a busy news year in space?
Alan Boyle: It seems like it’s a little busier. I mean, every year is busy. You’ve got Mars missions, you’ve got all sorts of rocket test flights but it seems as if there are a lot of things just starting to come together in 2015 and they will spill over into 2016 and beyond so we’re really getting to a turning point where we’re starting to look ahead to all sorts of cool stuff coming up in the years ahead and we’ll be talking about that as well.
TB: How much of that has to do with commercial space and this whole idea that space exploration is shifting beyond just government control into private enterprise?
AB: Oh, quite a bit. Here in Seattle, we’ve got Spaceflight Industries, which is really capitalizing on that trend of commercialization and you’ve got all sorts of competition going on. One of the things that we’re seeing is these companies are vying with each other for employees and for contracts and you’re really getting a competitive space, kind of like the space that you see in the tech world now where you’ve got Apple versus Google, now you’ve got SpaceX versus Blue Origin.
TB: Pluto was a major story this year and a major story for you as well. You’re the author of The Case for Pluto. For people who are just catching up on this, what was the big news from Pluto this year?
AB: Well, it looks like a real planet. It has the diversity that you would associate with other worlds, in some ways, as diverse as Mars. You’ve got mountains of ice, you’ve got plains of nitrogen that’s frozen in place but not fully in place, that’s moving around. There are tectonics that are going on there. There might be ice volcanoes, there’s a thin atmosphere, and the pictures have just been great. This is arguably the last frontier. You’re starting to open up an area known as the Kuiper belt which is where all these icy worlds hang out beyond the orbit of Neptune and so it’s just great to see a first up-close glimpse at this new frontier.
TB: When you look at Pluto and the findings from the New Horizons probe, does this change how we should think about Pluto because this is the big debate and you’ve been in the center of this debate as the author of the book. Can we now go back and say, “OK, in fact, Pluto is the ninth planet.”
AB: No, you can’t really say that it’s the ninth planet because there are lots of cool worlds out there that have to be added to the list. In my book, dwarf planets are planets, too. You’ve got Pluto, you’ve got Ceres, you’ve got Eris, you’ve got all these cool worlds and we took a first look at Ceres up close as well, the other dwarf planet that’s had a starring role in 2015. We’re really seeing these worlds as worlds. You can call them planets — I do — you can call them dwarf planets, you can just call them cool stuff in the solar system. That’s fine.
TB: You mentioned Ceres. Where is Ceres in relation to Earth and Pluto? How far out is it?
AB: Oh, it’s between Mars and Jupiter. It’s in that broad asteroid belt if you remember your high school diagram of how the solar system is structured and it’s the biggest asteroid but it’s the smallest dwarf planet that we know of.
TB: Got it. So what did you learn about Ceres that you didn’t before, or that we didn’t know before?
AB: The big thing about Ceres was the bright spots — that there were some mysterious bright spots almost like alien headlights and I think people are finally getting a handle on what those are, that they’re deposits of bright salt that were left behind from water ice that is underneath the surface and so underneath Ceres, you’ve got this big reservoir of water ice and that has implications as well for future asteroid mining. This is the sort of thing that people are going to be looking for as we push our way out deeper into the solar system.
TB: Why is the presence of water ice so significant? What does that mean? Is that fuel for rockets that might mine asteroids?
AB: When you’re talking about asteroids, that’s what you’re talking about is you’ve got a resource out there that would cost $10,000 per kilogram or pound, whatever your favorite rough approximation is to send into space and you’ve got that resource just waiting out there that you can turn not only into rocket fuel but also into water, into breathable air, and there are resources out there that you can use to build stuff in space as well.
TB: Got it. Speaking of water, another giant story this past year, it was more confirmation of what was already suspected, but water on Mars. What do we know about that at the end of 2015 that we did not know at the beginning?
AB: It looks like there is some seasonal change in that these little rivulets of water trickle out when things get warm on Mars and then disappear when things get cold again. There’s still some controversy about those findings. Some people are saying some of the gullies that are being spotted on Mars are actually caused by dry ice, by carbon dioxide rather than water ice but some of them are surely the vestiges of water that existed more fully on Mars billions of years ago and the thinking is that if you go beneath the surface, you’re going to find some pretty interesting stuff including maybe some alien microbes that are still surviving down there.
TB: Actual life.
AB: Actual life. That’s the speculation. Too early to say whether that’s for sure but that’s where you’d have to look. You can’t look on the surface, it’s too forbidding of an environment now. But if you look underneath the surface, that’s where you might find alien life, however you want to define it.
Missions to Mars
TB: One of the things that Elon Musk and others have been talking about is actually traveling to Mars, and I know the movie The Martian brought that into the popular consciousness more than it has been in the past. What does the discovery of water on Mars mean for the potential for expeditions to Mars?
AB: Right, again, that’s another resource that you can draw upon. In fact, Elon Musk is getting ready to unveil his strategy for colonizing Mars and in order to do that, you need to take advantage of the resources that are there and water is #1 on that list.
TB: Who do you think has the better chance of getting to Mars first, Elon Musk or somebody else?
AB: I think Elon is very focused on that. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world as focused with the wherewithal that Elon Musk has and so I wouldn’t bet against him at this point.
TB: The commercial space industry has been driving a lot of the progress in space in general and one of the people who is behind that big push is none other than Jeff Bezos — who we’re used to covering as the founder of Amazon but he’s also the founder of a company based here in the Seattle area called Blue Origin. They had a milestone just recently. What was that and what was the significance of the launch that they did?
AB: Right. It was the occasion of Jeff Bezos’s first tweet ever. For years, for more than a decade, Jeff Bezos has been trying to get toward space with his space venture Blue Origin where he’s able to put a spaceship up to suborbital space, 100 miles up, send the rocket ship up and then down, eventually take people in that spaceship and have tourists or researchers get into it. Now this last month, they finally not only sent a spaceship across the internationally accepted boundary to outer space, 100 kilometers, but they brought it back down safely and landed it on the West Texas launch site. So that was a first for Jeff Bezos and really a milestone for commercial space.
TB: This is considered the Holy Grail of space flight in part because if you can recapture the booster rockets rather than having them get destroyed or somehow fall into the ocean. That makes the economics of space flight much more feasible.
AB: Right, right. A lot of people have been pursuing this, you go back to a rocket called the Delta Clipper. People have been trying to do this for decades — to make rockets reusable — and if they can be made reusable in that way, you could bring the cost of space flight down to maybe 1% of what it is right now.
TB: You actually had an exclusive interview with Jeff Bezos after this successful mission. Obviously he was not on it, it was an unmanned flight, but what was his temperament and overall approach? Did you get a feel for how into this he is?
AB: Oh, he was into it. Yeah, he is. This is something that’s been a childhood dream of his and some biographers have said he started up Amazon to further his space dreams. He loves to share that excitement. When you’re in charge of the world’s largest online retailer, you have to be a little circumspect about how you present yourself and how you present your business but I think with the space venture, he’s a little more open now which wasn’t always the case. Blue Origin was a stealth company for years and years but they’re starting to come out now that they have some great things to talk about.
TB: My one disappointment with the way they presented that launch publicly was they shifted from actual footage of the flight to more of an animation of the eventual people in space and I thought it cheapened what they actually accomplished in some ways. I realized that they were trying to show a vision of what it will be like but to me, it lessened what they had just done.
AB: Right, right. It’s a little confusing to see that but that’s just a quibble. I think that they’re going to be plenty of videos like that to come. The idea is that this craft will be flown hundreds of times and so in terms of how it’s presented in a media way, there will be lots of chances for fine tuning, we hope.
TB: Got it, and as you said, it was the occasion of Jeff Bezos’s first ever tweet which was as we joked, a historic moment in and of itself.
AB: Right, right. It provoked a little bit of a back and forth with Elon Musk because Elon Musk is trying to do the same thing with SpaceX, so there was a little discussion about how significant is this really. I think that it’s significant just seeing that image of a rocketship landing the way that we saw those Bugs Bunny cartoons back in the 60s, that is the way that things are going to have to be in the future if we’re going to get to the final frontier.
SpaceX vs. Blue Origin
TB: How much of a rivalry is there between Blue Origin and SpaceX, between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk?
AB: Earlier in the show, we mentioned how there’s a struggle for employees, there’s a struggle for mind share, there’s a struggle for contracts and so it reflects that. It used to be I think that Jeff and Elon were a little bit closer, they shared that vision of going to space but now I think it’s getting a little more competitive and so you’re seeing a lot of competition and that’s good for the industry.
TB: In fact, this past week, SpaceX successfully landed their Falcon 9 rocket. What does that milestone mean for them?
AB: That’s big. In fact, SpaceX would argue that it’s much bigger than what Blue Origin did because this was a rocket that was powerful enough and big enough to send a payload into orbit. That’s what you’re really talking about is that you really want to have the access to orbit be cheaper. That’s where SpaceX has a case for saying that this success is more significant and was more difficult than what Blue Origin did.
TB: The SpaceX angle is very interesting here in the Seattle region in part because SpaceX just this past year opened a new satellite engineering office in Redmond, Washington, just down the street from Microsoft. Gwynne Shotwell and Elon Musk both seem to scale back their ambitions for that satellite Internet network that that office would be building. What did you take away from that?
AB: I think it was a realistic assessment of what their priorities for SpaceX was going to be, should be because in January, things were moving ahead very quickly with Falcon development and Falcon having development. They had the setback in June when rocket disintegrated after launch to the International Space Station. I think SpaceX had to really take a step back and say, “What’s realistic?” Let’s look at the market too. Can we really compete in this market for Internet services and so they want to take a good hard look at that before they really jump in there. That’s really typical for Elon Musk is that when he plans to do something, it may not happen as quickly as he intends it to but it eventually happens.
TB: If it does happen, when it eventually happens, the whole idea, it’s all tied together. He’s going to launch this satellite network for Internet access and then use the funds from that and the technology and everything he learns from it to essentially lay the groundwork for going to Mars. It’s all interconnected with him and I’m sure he’ll be using Solar City panels and probably drive a Tesla across the landscape up there, right?
AB: Sure, yeah. That’s a larger point is that the ventures that Elon Musk is involved with are all interrelated. You’ve got space exploration, you’ve got solar power, you’ve got electric cars, it’s all of a piece and so the global Internet satellite network is another big piece in that puzzle.
TB: This upcoming year could potentially be a big one. I know one thing that a lot of these commercial space ventures are headed toward is space tourism, the idea that you’ll fly up into the atmosphere, into the stratosphere, somewhere far above and essentially be weightless. How close are we to that with any of these ventures?
AB: We’re not going to see that in 2016 but we might see the start of it in 2017 or 2018 and in 2016, we’ll be laying the groundwork for that. For example, Virgin Galactic, which suffered that disastrous accident in 2014, is planning to roll out its new space ship that addresses the concerns that were raised by that fatal accident during the next year and start flight testing as well. Blue Origin is going to continue its flight testing. Hopefully we’ll see scores of flights over the next year of that New Shepard suborbital spaceship. That will be unmanned, so the risk is lower but it’s going to be a great try-out for those eventual tourist flights to come. Boeing and SpaceX are involved in developing spacecraft that NASA can use to send to astronauts to the International Space Station. We’ll see more testing and that’s going to get real in 2016 even though the flights with people on them aren’t likely to start until 2017.
TB: SpaceX has been doing re-supply missions to the International Space Station. Actually, one of those was the one that disintegrated on its way up this past year, but the whole idea with this new program is to actually shuttle astronauts. It’s essentially a commercial replacement for the former Space Shuttle program in a lot of ways.
NASA Commercial Crew Program
AB: Right, right. These are what you call space taxis. They’re not as capable of bringing up huge payloads as the Space Shuttle was but they will be able to bring up to seven people to the Space Station and then bring them back down again, which will be a great capability for the U.S. to have and they haven’t had that since the Shuttle program was retired in 2011.
TB: Why didn’t they create and have in place a commercial alternative before retiring the Shuttle program?
AB: They made several attempts to do that. There were several concepts that NASA just cycled through, VentureStar, the Aerospace Plane, all sorts of things but it really took a rethinking of how you do space flight to go to this idea of enlisting commercial companies to do spacecraft that are very suited just to send people back and forth. Let’s not worry about sending the cargo, let’s use other types of spacecraft to do that.
TB: How does the Boeing and SpaceX joint contract work? In other words, are they both co-developing the same rockets or are they doing it in parallel?
AB: They’re doing it in parallel. SpaceX has an upgraded version of their Dragon capsule, Dragon 2.0, that will have extra safety features to protect the crew so that if something like what happened in June happens, the crew would be able to survive that. They launch on a Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing is working on what they call the CST-100 Starliner. That is another type of capsule, it looks like Apollo on steroids and that would be launched by an Atlas 5 rocket so they’re two independent systems, that way you have a backup. For example, when the Cygnus and Antares rocket failed in October of 2014, you could rely on SpaceX and its system to re-supply the Space Station and vice versa.
TB: Got it. Interesting, I love that. Starliner. It’s like the space alternative to the Dreamliner. Is that the idea?
AB: Exactly. You’ve got to keep these image people busy and they came up with a pretty good one with that one.
TB: If you were to lay a bet on which company will be first to get tourists into orbit, and I realize that’s a difficult question to ask a journalist, you deal in facts here Alan, but would there be one company that seems to have the lead at this point?
AB: When we’re talking about tourists, that’s different from astronauts and so with SpaceX and Boeing, their first priority is to send NASA astronauts up there and I think it’s really a tossup at this point. If I had to bet, I would bet on SpaceX because they’re already sending cargo craft that are robotically controlled to the Space Station, but when we’re talking about tourists, it could be that Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic are the first to send tourists into space, not into orbit, but on suborbital rides.
Paul Allen’s space ambitions
TB: Got it. How much of that Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo plane traces its origins to SpaceShipOne, which was the Paul Allen venture? What are the common lineages …
AB: It’s a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne. That they’ve done some tweaking in terms of the propulsion system, you have to have a much stronger propulsion system and that’s been a challenge and then they also have to deal with the aerodynamics but the principles are the same. You have what they call a carefree re-entry where even if things go wrong, if you do it right, the spacecraft can right itself.
TB: On this topic, what about (Microsoft co-founder) Paul Allen, because he had his very ambitious Stratolaunch Systems initiative, the whole idea is to send the world’s largest aircraft — basically two 747s melded together — into the stratosphere, launch rockets from there. Where does that stand?
AB: Well, they are trying to adjust to the changing market. I had an occasion to talk with Paul a couple of weeks ago and he said that they’re working on who they will be partnering with and hope to have an announcement out on that so we’ll probably be talking about that for the year in space 2016.
TB: Two last items on our list here that we wanted to talk about, Mars and Jupiter. They obviously go together to some extent. What are the key developments that will be happening there in 2016?
AB: Well we’ve got a launch and an arrival. In March of 2016. we’ve got the launch of the ExoMars orbiter, on a mission that’s managed by the European Space Agency. It will be looking for traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, and whether you can trace that to microbes perhaps living under the surface of Mars. [NASA had planned to launch its InSight lander to Mars as well, but on Dec. 22, mission managers said that mission would have to be delayed until at least 2018 due to a hardware problem.]
TB: Very interesting. Curiosity is still on Mars, what will it be doing in 2016?
AB: Curiosity is at Mount Sharp. Right now it’s studying a huge freaking sand dune on Mount Sharp but this is going to be the year when the rubber really hits the road. In this case, it’s metal, they have metal wheels on Curiosity but they’re really going to be studying the layers of geological stuff at Mount Sharp and hopefully that will tell scientists what the climate history of Mars has been and what the geological history is.
TB: Huge freaking sand dune. I think that’s the technical term?
AB: Right. There’s also a NASA mission that’s been heading to Jupiter for years called Juno. On July 4th of next year, it’s scheduled to arrive into Jovian orbit and to start studying Jupiter from orbit. That’s going to be some great pictures and some great information about our solar system’s biggest planet.
TB: That’s right, it’s sort of the opposite of Pluto, at least in terms of its magnitude.
TB: What are the big things to learn about Jupiter?
AB: Sure, the magnetosphere, the composition of the big thick atmosphere, you know the Great Red Spot, it’s been not so great lately and you might be able to pick up some things about the moons of Jupiter as well as you’re flying by. Find out more about Europa, this mysterious ice-covered moon that may harbor life. People are pretty sure it has a water ocean underneath that ice and it may have life as well.
AB: This year, NASA is due to get more money for putting together a mission to Europa. There’s lots of coming attractions.
New Drone Registration Rules
TB: Let’s get a little bit closer to Earth. This is a bit of a u-turn here but I want to talk about drones. This is where a lot of people are going to be getting gifts under the tree this holiday season and there are some new rules for people who get drones. What do they need to know?
AB: In order to fly the top-end drones, you’re going to have to register them. You go to a website, you go to faa.gov, follow the links for UAS’s unmanned aircraft systems and you click on a button and it’s like you’re buying something but you’re actually registering your drone. Now not all drones have to be registered, if it’s less than a half pound, less than a big stick of butter, then you don’t need to worry about it. That’s just a toy. If you’re talking about the drones that cost more than $100, you’re going to have to register them and you’re going to have to put your registration number on the drone and you’re going to have to have your certificate of registration with you when you fly it outside.
The question is how strictly is this going to be enforced. Probably not that strictly, you don’t need to worry about the drone police knocking on your door but if your drone does get into trouble, for example there was a drone that his Seattle’s Great Wheel, you would probably want to … You wouldn’t want to do that first of all, but if you did and it turned out that you didn’t have your drone registered and they catch up with you, you could face a pretty stiff fine.
TB: Interesting, OK. Now is there a registration fee for the drones?
AB: There is. It’s a $5 registration fee and if you register in the first 30 days, you get that $5 refunded.
TB: Why do they feel the need to do this because I think a lot of people would point to your phones or other things where you could wreak havoc as well, granted in a different way. Where do we draw the line between what needs to be registered with the government and what doesn’t and what would you say to people who are skeptical of registering their drones with the government? Not that you’re the defender of the FAA by any means but I’m just curious, what their response would be.
AB: Their rationale is that we really need to get a handle on this, that the drone market is mushrooming. They expect that somewhere between 700,000 and 1,000,000 recreational drones will be sold by the end of the year and so they really want to know what these folks are doing because they say these are really aircraft, in this class, they are not toys. They are capable aircraft, we need to get a handle on it. We’ve had these incidents where drones have been flown onto the White House grounds or onto some folks at US Open tennis tournament and we need to know who’s responsible and so the idea is we can try to get this system going. That’s their rationale. I sympathize with people who say, “Well, they’ll have to pry my drone from my cold dead hands,” but I think I’m going to do it just in case I get a drone for Christmas.
TB: Is that on your wish list? That was actually one of my questions, are you hoping to get a drone for Christmas?
AB: Not very much. I think that I’ve got other stuff on my wish list. If it happens, I’ll be ready. That’s another point is that you just need to register once. You’re really not registering a drone, you’re registering as a potential drone operator. IF you happen to own a fleet of five drones, you put the same serial number on every drone.
TB: Oh, interesting. Okay, so it’s basically a sticker that you print out.
TB: The commercial drone industry is also taking off, no pun intended. What are the chances of Amazon actually being able to pull off drone delivery and actually get approval from the FAA to deliver packages via drone? Do you have any thoughts on that?
AB: Commercial drone regulations are not going to be coming out until the spring of 2016. I think that will set the tone for what Amazon and other companies are going to do in terms of drone deliveries. It seems like a very technical problem. It seems like it’s a big challenge but we’ll have to see how it’s solved when Amazon puts together its fleet and they seem to be pretty confident about it but I guess that’s the way they are.