NASA, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic dominate the news: this week in space

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, has died at 95. His legacy as a combat pilot, spaceman, senator, and loving family man will succeed him, along with the John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Godspeed, John Glenn.

SpaceX just lost a major contract as an after-effect of its launch problems. Setbacks in scheduling because of their October launchpad explosion and subsequent investigation have cost SpaceX their launch contract for an S-band satellite by Inmarsat, a British satellite company. Inmarsat does still intend to launch another satellite, the Inmarsat-5 F4, with SpaceX come 2017. For this year, though, Inmarsat’s schedule wouldn’t wait.

Virgin Galactic is making a comeback from catastrophe, with a cautious return to manned flight on board its VSS Unity. They had a pilot, Michael Alsbury, killed when the VSS Enterprise crashed into the Mojave, so everyone’s been triple-checking everything. Saturday was the first manned glide test for the VSS Unity, and everything seems to have gone well.

Researchers from Australia have developed an optical chip for upgrading the telescopes we use to find exoplanets, and the chip works a bit like noise-canceling headphones. To cancel out unwanted noise, active noise canceling applies acoustic interference. This optical chip characterizes the glow from an exoplanet’s parent star, and then exactly cancels it out, letting us better image the exoplanets themselves. “This chip is an [optical] interferometer that adds equal but opposite light waves from a host sun which cancels out the light from the sun, allowing the much weaker planet light to be seen,” said senior author Dr. Steve Madden.

Electric-blue ice clouds seeded by meteor dust have been spied over Antarctica by a NASA satellite. Why are they such a crazy color? Aliens. They’re lit from behind and beneath by the eerie glow of the midnight sun.

NASA also released a video look inside their flying telescope, SOFIA. SOFIA stands for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It’s a telescope mounted on a plane, because a plane can get it above the obscuring water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, and that’s cheaper than launching a telescope into space. NASA uses SOFIA for astronomy, but also for education and outreach. The plane is a super-long-haul 747 widebody, capable of flying on all-night observation flights to go wherever the right place is to observe whatever NASA wants to look at.

Also, NASA launched a new giphy page and accompanying Pinterest board, full of gorgeous and informative images. Among many others, they included several pics of what will happen when the Milky Way and Andromeda collide, some five billion years hence. They also uploaded construction shots from the James Webb Space Telescope, a bunch of solar science images, and even some pics of the hexagonal rings around Saturn’s poles. Go take a look!

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