Welcome to This Week in Outer Space, where you’ll find a roundup of the best space coverage from Yahoo News and our partners from the past week or so. Last week, we learned that Americans aren’t super thrilled about paying for space missions (but still love them). This week, we’ve got radio signals from deep space, a not-actually-pink “Pink Moon,” an introduction to the rockstar astronaut supergroup who’ll be heading to the moon aboard Artemis II and more. But first, an expensive hiccup for the private space industry’s crown jewel.
SpaceX is great at launching satellites. Keeping them in orbit? Maybe not so much.
Elon Musk’s arguably least chaotic venture has had a pretty good run in space lately. Aside from a few last-minute delays, SpaceX launches have been running like clockwork, and continued tests of its extra-large Starship rocket appear to show that bigger and better things may be right around the corner. However, it turns out that not everything it's putting in orbit is staying there, which is not super great news for the world's go-to space delivery service.
Back in February, 40 first-generation Starlink satellites were struck by a geomagnetic storm and fell to Earth in a somewhat spectacular fashion. Now, at the time, SpaceX already had thousands of satellites in orbit, and even though losing a few can be costly and a bit of a bummer, that's the reality of doing business in space. Geomagnetic storms caused by an interaction of Earth’s magnetic field and solar activity happen somewhat frequently, and while NASA is working on a way to predict them more accurately, these kinds of accidents are bound to happen.
But it turns out the next generation of miniature Starlink satellites aren't faring a whole lot better. In late March, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that the “V2 Mini” satellites were "experiencing some issues," and since then, at least one has been deorbited. Unless they're able to course-correct, a dozen or so more might be on their way down.
This may not be a long-term problem, though. These V2 Mini satellites are already set to be replaced by the next generation of larger satellites. The issue is that SpaceX's current daily driver, the Falcon 9, can't handle them. So, they'll need to get their Starship ready before the big-boy V2s can take their place among the stars.
Strange radio signals detected from Earth-like planet
In search-for-life-on-other-planets news, a study published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy revealed evidence of a magnetic field on the rocky exoplanet YZ Ceti b, which orbits a star about 12 light-years away from Earth.
"The search for potentially habitable or life-bearing worlds in other solar systems depends in part on being able to determine if rocky, Earth-like exoplanets actually have magnetic fields," Joe Pesce, program director at the National Science Foundation and the author of the study, said in a statement. "This research shows not only that this particular rocky exoplanet likely has a magnetic field but provides a promising method to find more.”
It’s the first possible detection of a magnetic field on a planet beyond our solar system, Pesce added. It was discovered by the Very Large Array radio telescopes in New Mexico, which look exactly as their title suggests.
As Live Science notes, magnetic fields are “particularly interesting to astronomers because they’re an important part of making a planet habitable. Without a magnetic field, energetic particles from a star can erode a planet’s atmosphere, stripping away the blanket of gas that can support life.”
The only slight problem here: YZ Ceti b isn’t a habitable planet.
“YZ Ceti b is quite close to its star — far too close to be a pleasant temperature for life,” Life Science says. “And it’s also orbiting at such a pace that one of its years is only two Earth days long.”
Alas, the hunt for signs of extraterrestrial life across the cosmos continues.
NASA announces astronauts for next moon mission
On Monday, NASA revealed the names of the astronauts who will fly to the moon as part of the Artemis II mission. The four-person crew includes the first woman, Christina Koch; the first African American, Victor Glover; and first international crew member, Jeremy Hansen, from Canada, ever to take part in a lunar mission.
They, along with mission commander Reid Wiseman, will be the first humans to fly to the vicinity of the moon in more than 50 years.
“This is humanity’s crew,” NASA Director Bill Nelson said at a splashy announcement event at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
According to NASA, the mission of the Artemis II will be to test the Orion spacecraft’s life-support systems to “prove the capabilities and techniques required to live and work in deep space in ways only humans can do.”
They won’t land on the moon during the 10-day trip, slated to begin no earlier than the end of 2024. But if all goes well, their work will pave the way for a touchdown by a subsequent crew.
The astronauts learned of their crew assignment at a previously scheduled meeting. And all three showed up late.
“I was late. Very late,” Koch, who grew up in North Carolina, recalled in an interview with the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.
Wiseman was across town at a doctor’s appointment and had to dial in 40 minutes after the meeting started.
Glover was at lunch and running late, too.
“One way or another, all of us were late,” he said.
April’s 'pink' moon isn’t actually pink, but that’s OK
Skygazers got a glimpse of the first full moon of spring earlier this week, when April’s full moon, known as the “pink” moon, was visible in the northern and southern hemispheres late Wednesday and early Thursday.
Why is it called the pink moon? Not because it’s a Nick Drake fan — and not for its color. In the 1930s, the Farmer’s Almanac began publishing Native American names for full moons. And according to the publication, April’s full moon “often corresponded with the early springtime blooms of a certain pink wildflower native to eastern North America: Phlox subulata — commonly called creeping phlox or moss phlox — which also went by the name 'moss pink.'"
It also determines the date of Easter. As USA Today explains, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon (or the first full moon of spring, which began on March 20), which means that this coming Sunday, April 9, is Easter.
The next full moon, known as the flower moon, will be on May 5, aka Cinco de Moon-o.
May 5, 2023, at 1:34 p.m. EDT. The flower moon.
June 3, 2023, at 11:42 p.m. EDT. The strawberry moon.
July 3, 2023, at 7:39 a.m. EDT. The buck moon.
Aug. 1, 2023, at 2:32 p.m. EDT. The sturgeon moon.
Aug. 30, 2023, at 9:36 p.m. EDT. The blue moon.
Sept. 29, 2023, at 5:57 a.m. EDT. The harvest moon.
Oct. 28, 2023, at 4:24 p.m. EDT. The hunter's moon.
Nov. 27, 2023, at 4:16 a.m. EST. The beaver moon.
Dec. 26, 2023, at 7:33 p.m. EST. The cold moon.
Sir Richard Branson calls time on Virgin Orbit
Last week, it looked like Virgin Orbit, the satellite launch spin-off of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, was on life support. This week, they decided to pull the plug.
After failing to secure additional funding, Virgin Orbit stock plummeted to 15 cents, as the company filed for bankruptcy. The few remaining staff are now focused on a sale, but no potential buyers have been publicly identified.
While Virgin Orbit faced global economic headwinds, as our friends at Yahoo Finance can surely better explain, its demise has a much simpler lesson at its core: If your company is supposed to put satellites in space and you can’t do that reliably, things are unlikely to work out. However, the 675 or so Virgin Orbit staff likely won’t have a hard time finding new jobs — qualified workers are in high demand in the aerospace industry.
And in the long line of spin-offs, it appears Virgin Orbit may have been more Joey than Frasier.
Bonus round! Even more space news from our partners
More than 700 million years ago, the Earth froze over into a giant snowball — but a new study may have uncovered how primordial life survived the Cryogenian Period.
The award for most terrifying headline of the week goes to Space.com’s Briley Lewis, with “Aliens could be hiding in 'terminator zones' on planets with eternal night.”