Senators warn NASA against going 'woke' — Inside the best space stories of the week

Northern lights south of the Mason-Dixon line, a new view of the Milky Way and an extra-weird bonus round of space news from our partners.

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. This week, we’ve got “woke” NASA, good news for fans of the aurora borealis and bad news for anyone with a Milky Way galaxy tattoo.

Has NASA become too 'woke'? Short answer: No, of course not.

Longer answer: At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, two GOP senators, Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took issue with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and what Schmitt described as “misguided woke policies related to climate change and diversity, equity and inclusion” set forth by the Biden administration.

“Looking at this year’s budget request, I see things like $22 million for the quote ‘Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity,' which has little to do with what you have called a space race between the free world and China,” said Cruz in his opening remarks.

“I can assure you that China has no interest in out DEI-ing us, and they’re not intimidated at all by this divisive, radical policy that’s found its way in this budget,” said Schmitt.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifies, with a name card in front of him that says: The Honorable Bill Nelson.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifies before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on the fiscal year 2024 budget at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 27. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Nelson didn’t directly respond to either of those comments, perhaps because he didn’t need to. NASA has struggled with diversity for a long time, but it's no secret that NASA owes some of its greatest achievements to its diverse workforce — there’s an Oscar-nominated movie about the Black women who did the math to get us safely to the moon the first time around. It’s possible that Schmitt hadn’t heard the story, but Cruz definitely has — he even helped introduce a bill to honor the women in 2018 and was there when NASA officially renamed the street in front of its headquarters "Hidden Figures Way" in 2019.

Later on, Cruz spent much of his time questioning Nelson on climate regulations, including a plan for NASA to phase out its fleet of gas-powered cars and trucks for electric vehicles.

Here, Nelson clarified that as the leader of arguably the preeminent climate research organization in the world, he thinks it's actually a pretty good idea to comply with government-wide efforts to phase out the internal combustion engine.

“If you’re suggesting that we should abandon the entire national effort to move toward electric vehicles, I would say that there’s a significant difference of opinion about that,” said Nelson.

Now, one thing to note here is that even though it may seem like these were heated exchanges, the whole thing was incredibly cordial. Bill Nelson was a senator for 18 years and is very friendly with both Schmitt and Cruz. However, Cruz made it clear that Nelson may not receive such a warm welcome in the House.

“We’ve got a Republican House of Representatives now. If NASA is seen as partisan, that is very bad for space and space exploration, and so I hope NASA will continue its tradition of staying out of those battles,” warned Cruz.

“The reality, Senator Cruz — and you know I love you — is the fact that we have political differences, and it was on display in this very room over a number of years, but I can guarantee you that NASA is being run in a nonpartisan way,” said Nelson.

It turns out we might be wrong about what the Milky Way looks like

Galaxies come in different shapes and sizes. Now, we’ve never actually been able to see the whole thing at once but, traditionally, the Milky Way has been depicted as a spiral galaxy with four major arms — looking something like this:

Artist rendering of the Milky Way galaxy depicted with four arms (Alex Mit/Getty Images)
Artist rendering of the Milky Way galaxy depicted with four arms (Alex Mit/Getty Images)

However, recent data analysis from the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates that our galaxy might only have two main arms. Now, what does this mean for you? Probably not much, but a lot of astronomy textbooks may have to get reprinted if the data holds up.

Giant solar flares: bad for telecommunications, great for skywatchers

Normally, to see the northern lights you’d have to travel to remote areas in frigid lands close to the north pole, but thanks to an increase in solar activity, the aurora borealis is becoming increasingly visible, sometimes as far south as Texas. The phenomenon is caused by collisions between charged particles from the sun's solar wind and atoms and molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of colorful light. So, with the sun approaching its “solar maximum” over the next few years, the kinds of geomagnetic storms on which these light shows are predicated are only going to become more common.

However, there is a downside: increased solar activity can cause outages for anything requiring a radio signal — including telecommunications and navigation systems. NASA is working on a system to detect these solar storms before they occur. However, there’s not much anyone can do to avoid their negative effects.

Bonus round! Even more space news from our partners.

"Beetlejuice" (the movie) is getting a sequel, while Betelgeuse (the star) is “being weird,” showing signs that it may be approaching supernova.

Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky takes us on a trip down memory lane with all the things astronomers thought might be aliens — but turned out to be much less exciting.

Ninety light-years from Earth, in the Crater constellation, there’s a planet covered in volcanoes, and astronomers think there could be liquid water on the side facing away from its sun.

The more we find out about black holes, the weirder they get. LiveScience’s Paul Sutter has the story of why “some black holes may actually be tangles in the fabric of space-time.”

(Cover illustration: Kyle McCauley/Yahoo News; Photos: Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters)