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This week in science: A moon mission, galaxy radio waves and tracking fishing boats

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is time for our regular science news roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast, Regina Barber and Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, you two.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hello.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: So regular listeners will know the way this works is you two have brought us three science stories that caught your attention this week. What are they?

BARBER: OK. We've got a moon mission gone awry.

BRUMFIEL: Tracking fishing across the world's oceans with AI.

BARBER: And mysterious radio circles that had astronomers baffled.

KELLY: Baffled. All right, I'm already intrigued, but I'm going to start you with the mission to the moon. Geoff, what was this mission to the moon? How did it go awry?

BRUMFIEL: So this was a little robotic spacecraft called the Peregrine Lander. It was built by a company called Astrobotic. It would have been the first American probe to land on the moon since the Apollo era of the late '60s and early '70s. It launched on Monday. Everything looked good, but then it experienced a problem with its propulsion system, and by Tuesday, the company had figured out there was a leak and that the spacecraft wasn't going to make it to the moon. They have been able to do some experiments that were loaded onto the Peregrine before it lost power, however.

KELLY: OK. So this was a private company, private mission. What does it mean for NASA?

BRUMFIEL: You know, this is an interesting time for NASA. It's trying to send humans back to the surface of the moon. And in the 1960s, it did it, but it did it on its own, using an enormous expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

BARBER: Yeah. And now, fast-forward more than a half a century, and NASA's budget is much tighter. It's trying to use the private sector to do things cheaply. It's given this company, Astrobotic, and other companies money in hopes that they could become a delivery service to the moon. Basically, you could take NASA's equipment and supplies up there for less.

BRUMFIEL: And it's true - the private sector can be cheaper. But we're also seeing the downside, which is there's just more risk involved. Things can go wrong.

KELLY: And, big picture, where does this leave NASA's mission, which you just told me was trying to get humans back to the moon?

BARBER: Yeah, well, there's good news that NASA has invested in other companies as well. A second one, called Intuitive Machines, will attempt to launch its own moon mission next month, and Astrobotic will get another try. They're supposed to deliver a rover to the lunar surface later this year, though they'll likely want to learn from their mistakes in this mission first. So it might be delayed.

BRUMFIEL: NASA also announced this week that it's pushing back its plans to send humans to the moon because of ongoing issues with the capsule that's supposed to carry them. So it's now aiming to have astronauts orbit around the moon in 2025 and maybe land there in 2026. So that's all pushing everything back by about a year from the previous schedule.

But this year is still going to be a pretty exciting one for the moon. We've got several commercial missions. We've got another Chinese lander scheduled to fly there and collect a sample from the far side of the moon. That's something that's never been done before. And more flights of Elon Musk's giant Starship - which, you know, isn't completely related to the moon, but Starship may end up doubling as a lunar lander for astronauts in the future. So it's important for NASA's plans.

KELLY: All right. I'm going to move us back to planet Earth, where I gather you have found us some really good news - a use of AI, artificial intelligence, that is unambiguously good. What is it, Regina?

BARBER: Yeah, that's right. We're always worrying about AI, like, taking our jobs, taking over the world or something. But we have a case where AI is being used to do something really important, and that's to track fishing boats.

BRUMFIEL: So commercial fishing is a really big source of food for much of the world. But there's sort of a problem with it, which is the oceans aren't owned by anyone. The boats move around. The fish move around. And so it's really hard to keep track of who's fishing where and what's going on.

KELLY: Yeah. And among the things going on, of course, is too much fishing, overfishing, illegal fishing. This is going to be helpful with that?

BARBER: Yeah. I mean, there's nonprofits like Global Fishing Watch, and they're trying to bring more transparency to the fishing industry. And they want to help quantify who's fishing where so the oceans can be better managed. Earlier this month, Global Fishing Watch announced that they had a breakthrough. They used an AI algorithm to look at an enormous number of satellite images, and it could identify millions of vessels between 2017 and 2021. And that led to some surprising discoveries.

KELLY: Like what?

BRUMFIEL: Well, first off, they found out that three-quarters of industrial fishing vessels had gone undetected in previous surveys. Fernando Paolo is with Global Fishing Watch. He said that came as a real shock.

FERNANDO PAOLO: We knew we were missing a big chunk of activity. We didn't know how much. In fact, we had to completely remake our fishing maps because of these findings.

BRUMFIEL: They could see some big fishing hotspots they'd basically completely missed before - for example, in the Bay of Bengal and off the coast of North Korea.

KELLY: So fascinating. So they can see all these fishing vessels they didn't know were out there. What does that mean? What are they going to do with this?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, it's important to remember that not all these vessels are fishing illegally. There's different rules about, you know, who's supposed to carry tracking equipment and transponders, things that have been used to conduct surveys of vessels in the past. But the hope is this tool can really show governments all over the world where the action is and leave them better equipped to try and manage the world's fisheries.

KELLY: OK. Our last topic - I'm so excited for this one since we're NPR, and we're radio - mysterious radio rings in space. Regina, go.

BARBER: I - right. I mean, I'm super excited about this too because it's so rare that astronomers detect something in space they've never seen before. Like, for example, astronomers have recently been excited about, like, pictures of the early universe showing baby galaxies we've never seen before. But we knew they were galaxies, right? But in 2019, scientists detected these glowing rings in the radio end of the light spectrum in several parts of the sky, and they truly had no idea what they were. They named them ORCs.

KELLY: ORCs.

BRUMFIEL: And this isn't that - yeah, not "Lord Of The Ring" orcs. This is something called an odd radio circle. These rings were huge. Like, one of them was four times the size of the Milky Way.

KELLY: Four times the size of the Milky Way - so absolutely ginormous...

BARBER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...But they had no idea what they were? That's a little terrifying.

BARBER: Yeah, they had no idea. So I talked to Alison Coil about this. She's an astronomer and a professor at the University of California San Diego, and she published a paper in Nature about one radio ring in particular. So on top of the weird ring being there, there was a galaxy in the center that had something very strange going on.

ALISON COIL: So there was this, like, absurd amount of oxygen two (ph) gas, lots of it and really extended.

BRUMFIEL: And I mean, I should say an absurd amount of oxygen for an astronomer is not the same as an absurd...

BARBER: Right.

BRUMFIEL: ...Amount of oxygen for the rest of us. I mean, it's still, you know, vastly less dense than our atmosphere, but it's way more than you'd expect to see around a galaxy.

KELLY: OK. So y'all are stacking up clues here. We've got mystery oxygen. We've got mystery radio rings. Did we figure it out? Like, did one help explain the other?

BARBER: Yeah, so the oxygen turned out to be a clue that helped Alison and her team find out where these radio rings came from. She said the oxygen showed evidence of being shocked, so that's gas that's been created by a big, very fast-moving explosion.

COIL: So then I had to go to theorists and be like, why would there be all of this shocked gas?

BRUMFIEL: And after running some simulations, they concluded it had to do with the stars in the galaxy. Basically, they think big bunch of those stars were born all at once in what they call a starburst. And then they lived their little star lives and grew old together. And eventually, the biggest ones all exploded all at the same time, and those explosions are what created the shock wave.

BARBER: And that shock wave created these mysterious radio rings. At least, that's what the simulations say. Mystery solved pretty quick after 2019 - and now that we know what they are, we can start studying more of them.

KELLY: I love it. I love a good mystery. Regina, Geoff, thanks to you both.

BARBER: Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks.

KELLY: That is Regina Barber and Geoff Brumfiel from NPR's science podcast Short Wave, where you can learn about new discoveries and everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLVR SONG, "BACK N FORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.

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