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A giant sunspot is sending solar flares towards Earth

And other weekly space news

Welcome to another installment of weekly space news from Ad Astra! I’m Swapna Krishna.

This installment is going to look a little different than the previous emails you’ve received! In an effort to save your inboxes, going forward I will only send out this newsletter once a week (twice if there’s really pressing news). I will continue to publish in between on the website only; those are linked in this email.

Now, onto the news!

This week:

Intuitive Machines IM-1 update coming soon!

If you’re here for an Intuitive Machines update, I had one Wednesday, and the next one will come soon. There’s a lot to discuss from this latest press conference, so I didn’t want to mix that in with this news round-up. 

Here are all the IM-1 stories I’ve published this week.

Near miss: A piece of Russian space junk almost collided with a NASA spacecraft

Let’s start with satellite collisions.  On February 28, 2024, NASA sent out an update that the Defense Department was monitoring a possible collision between NASA’s Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission, or TIMED, spacecraft and the Russian Cosmos 2221 satellite.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

TIMED was designed to study an area of Earth’s atmosphere that we didn’t know a lot about when this spacecraft launched in 2001 — Earth’s mesosphere and lower thermosphere and ionosphere. This is basically the boundary between what we traditionally consider Earth’s atmosphere and space. It’s still an operational satellite.

Credit: Alex Gerst/NASA

Cosmos 2221 launched in 1992, and it’s a Russian Electronic and Signals Intelligence (ELINT) satellite — basically for gathering radio intelligence. It’s a dead spacecraft, so basically at this point it’s space junk in a decaying orbit as it slowly falls back to Earth; currently, it’s 373 miles or around 600 km above the Earth’s surface.

Check out that mean altitude decline, Credit: Inthesky.org

Thankfully, there was no collision. This is considered a near-miss, and there likely won’t be another possible collision between the two as their orbits are moving apart from each other, but it was a close one. According to Leo Labs, the two spacecraft flew within 20 meters, or about 65 feet, of one another. That’s is WAY WAY too close for comfort.

I’ve talked quite a bit about the perils of space junk, and this is yet another example. Neither of these satellites have maneuvering capabilities, which means that all we could do is watch them by one another and just hope they didn’t crash. Not only would that have been a devastating end to the long-running NASA atmospheric mission, but the collision would have created countless new pieces of space junk that could have threatened other spacecraft.

Dwarf galaxies might have made the universe transparent

Scientists announced this week that small galaxies might have played a key role in making the universe what it is today. It has to do with the ionization of the universe, which is what made the universe transparent. 

The epoch of reionization occurred around 500 to 900 million years after the Big Bang, and it’s when the universe became ionized, and therefore, see through. Before this, during recombination, the universe was opaque — think trying to see the starry night sky on a cloudy evening. This was what the universe was like; you couldn’t see through it. 

Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

But during reionization, neutral hydrogen became ionized gas. Once the epoch of reionization was complete, light was able to freely travel during the universe. This “first light” is what cosmic microwave background, or CMB, is. But scientists didn’t know what caused ionization of the universe — but thanks to JWST, they may have figured it out. 

These scientists were able to make spectroscopic observation of galaxies from the era of reionization. Remember, looking out deep into the universe is like looking back in time because of the time this light takes to reach us. Additionally, as light travels through the universe, the wavelength stretches into the infrared as our universe expands. This is the idea behind redshift, and it’s why we need an incredibly sensitive infrared-optimized observatory like JWST to see these early galaxies.

Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

These scientists specifically studied the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster to be able to make observations of galaxies this far away. The reason this specific galaxy cluster is important is because of gravitational lensing. 

Credit: NASA, ESA, Zolt G. Levay (STScI), Ann Feild (STScI)

Gravitational lensing occurs when massive objects in space—like galaxy clusters—actually warp the fabric of space. What they do that’s extremely valuable for scientists is bend light and sometimes actually magnify objects that are even further away. In this way, scientists can study galaxies from the very early universe that we wouldn’t normally be able to see.

You can see it in action here in this 2023 JWST photo of Abell 2744, also called Pandora’s Cluster. You see the red, flat, stretched galaxies? That’s space being warped by gravitational lensing. This image was taken with exposures of 4 to 6 hours, with about 30 hours total of observation time.

Okay, back to these early galaxies — so what did scientists uncover? Well, in an article published in the journal Nature,  scientists outline their findings that small galaxies in the early universe — similar to dwarf galaxies in our current universe — played a huge role in the reionization of the universe. These galaxies way outnumbered larger galaxies during the time period, and they apparently were incredibly efficient at producing ionizing radiation — way more than scientists predicted. That means these small galaxies played an outsized role in the reionization of the universe.

Credit: Atek et al. (2024)

A lot of scientists have been focusing on the puzzling large early galaxies we’ve found thanks to JWST, and that’s been front and center. But these scientists have made it clear that we should also be looking at small galaxies to understand the mysteries of the early universe.

A massive sunspot has been sending solar flares towards Earth

If you’re in the mood for sunspot-spotting, check out the largest sunspot of the current solar cycle, called AR 3590.


This sunspot, which is currently pointed directly our planet, unleashed three massive X-class solar flares (X-class flares are the most powerful solar flares) on February 21 and 22. Solar flares are like giant flashes of light.

Credit: NASA/SDO

They’re bursts of electromagnetic radiation and can specifically affect radio communication, and each of these events caused a temporary blackout in radio communications here on Earth. (It’s worth noting that the huge AT&T cell phone outage was not caused by space weather, it was software issue.)

None of these blackouts have been devastating but that sunspot is still pointed in our direction. If there’s a coronal mass ejection, or CME, that could have much greater impacts on Earth.

Credit: NASA/SDO

CMEs travel much more slowly than solar flares (and are easier to predict). They’re giant expulsions of solar material — the sun’s plasma and magnetic field — hurled out into space. They can wreak havoc on all kinds of communications and electrical systems and actually cause satellites to fall back to Earth, but CMEs are also what produce vivid aurora, like the Northern Lights.

Credit: Swapna Krishna

The sun is on an 11-year solar cycle, and scientists think that we will hit solar maximum — which is the period of peak solar activity — this year.

Japan’s SLIM moon lander survived the lunar night!

Credit: JAXA

Here’s some great news: Remember Japan’s moon lander SLIM, or Smart Lander for Investigating Moon? It went quiet on February 1 and wasn’t expected to survive the lunar night. However, this week, engineers at JAXA, Japan’s space agency, pinged SLIM — and it responded! (I love that hashtag, GoodAfterMoon.)

We don’t have a lot of updates — we know that they have been limiting communications because temperatures are so high. It can get up to 250 degrees F (or 121 degrees C) during lunar day and they want to give the equipment a chance to cool off (for more on the moon’s extremes, check out my video on Intuitive Machines’ heat protection for their lander). But we did get a new image from the multi-band camera of the landing site, the Shioli crater.

Credit: JAXA

If you recall, SLIM also ended up facing the wrong direction on the moon. In this case, it was because one of the engines failed during descent about 50 meters above the moon’s surface, which resulted in horizontal movement. It ended up basically upside down. It did achieve a pinpoint landing on the moon, the first spacecraft to ever do that — just in the wrong direction. The lander will likely go quiet again soon, but it’s been nice to have it back even for a little while.

Crew-8 will head to the International Space Station this week

If you missed it, I posted a rundown of the Crew-8 mission, in which SpaceX will take three NASA astronauts and one cosmonaut, to the International Space Station. That’s scheduled to launch this week. If you’re interested in learning more about that mission, check it out.

Three new moons discovered in our solar system

In some fun news, scientists have found new moons orbiting the planets of Uranus and Neptune. These are the faintest moons ever discovered using ground-based telescopes.

Credit: Scott Sheppard

One moon orbits Uranus, and it’s just 5 miles, or 8 km in size, which means it’s likely the smallest of the planet’s moons. It’s called S/2023 U1, but will eventually be named for a literary character like Uranus’s 27 other moons, including Miranda and Ariel.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

It’s the first new moon we’ve found for Uranus in 20 years, and it has a 680-day orbit of the planet.

The other two moons orbit Neptune. S/2002 N5 is about 23 km or 14 miles in size, and has an orbit of 9 years. It’s brighter, while S/2021 N1 is fainter. It has a 27-year orbit and is about 14 km or 8.5 miles in size. Both moons will also eventually be renamed for a Greek sea goddess.

All three moons were discovered using ground-based telescopes, which took five-minute exposures over three to four-hour viewing sessions across multiple nights. They were able to find the moons by layering all these exposures and tracking movement in relation to the host planets.

We know why Starship’s second launch failed

This week, the FAA closed its investigation into Starship’s second launch, which occurred on November 18. Starship is SpaceX’s interplanetary launch system, and it’s also part of NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the surface of the moon. The HLS, or human landing system to take astronauts to the surface, is just a modified version of Starship.

Credit: SpaceX

Back in November,  for that second test, the launch system had a successful first stage separation. But then the Super Heavy booster broke apart over the Gulf of Mexico instead of successfully splashing down. Meanwhile, the second stage was supposed to ascend to orbit, but it also broke apart during ascent. 

According to an update from SpaceX, there was a leak in the aft section of the second stage vehicle when Starship began dumping liquid oxygen (this was a planned maneuver, because they wanted to carry the amount of propellant they’d need during a mission for this test, but they had to dump some of it for controlled re-entry). Well, because of the leak, it caught fire.

The first stage was lost because several of the engines shut down during the boostback burn. They think this happened because of a blockage in the fuel lines. The FAA has approved SpaceX’s reasoning for these failures, and provided 17 corrective actions for SpaceX’s Starship launch system. 

This means that the third test launch of Starship will likely happen in mid-to-late March from the company’s launch site near Boca Chica, Texas, but it depends on how quickly SpaceX can address these issues and obtain a launch license from the FAA.