Minisode 5: Scary Math

In a scary time, in a scary world, in a scary universe, NASA astronomer Andrew Booth says one of the things that frightens him most is math.

Specifically, the power of mathematics to describe the universe.

That’s because, beyond the comforting world of Newtonian physics, math gets mind-bendingly weird. So from the relative safety of their backyard hot tub, Dr. Michelle Thaller and Booth (who happen to be married) try to sort out what it really means to live not in just three dimensions, but in eleven — as mathematics now tells us we do.

Join us in the hot tub as we turn on the jets, get wet, and weird…and just a little freaked out.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo: To see Michelle and Andrew in hot tub please use dimension 5.

Episode 22: Journey to the Sun

Locked up on the Greek island of Crete, Icarus and his dad made wings out of  beeswax and bird feathers. They soared to freedom — but Icarus got cocky, flew too close to the sun, and fell into the sea. 

A few thousand years later, NASA is ready to do the job right.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to fly in 2018. The spacecraft has a giant heat shield, tested to withstand 2,500-degree temperatures.

For something so basic to all of our lives — and fundamental to the science of astronomy — the sun remains surprisingly mysterious. To learn more, Michelle meets up with Nicky Viall, a NASA heliophysicist working on the mission. She describes how direct measurements of the sun’s super-hot plasma, and solar wind, may dramatically enhance our understanding of the star at the center of our lives.



Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo credit: NASA

Minisode 4: Hot Tub Physics!

After a full day in a clean suit, there’s nothing like …
a dip in the hot tub.

NASA astronomer Andrew Booth spends his days working with lasers, developing some of the word’s most advanced telescopes. When he gets home from work, he loves to pour a glass of wine and slip into the hot tub.

And ponder some of the weirder aspects of astrophysics.

Orbital Path host Dr. Michelle Thaller (who happens to be married to Booth) rather avidly shares this enthusiasm.

For Orbital Path’s first adventure in Hot Tub Physics, the topic is: The weirdness of light. And something called interferometry. And telescopes that don’t work unless a single particle of light can be two places at exactly the same time.

Which raises the question: Are we living in a parallel universe?

Join us in the hot tub as we get wet and weird (the water’s just fine)!

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

(You didn’t really expect a NASA photo this time, did you?)

Episode 21: First Light

There was a time before planets and suns. A time before oxygen. You could say there was time, even, before what we think of as light.

Back in 1989, the Big Bang theory was still in question. But that year, a NASA team led by cosmologist John Mather launched a mission to probe the earliest moments of the universe.

Mather won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). This work dramatically confirmed the Big Bang theory — and, as part of it, Mather and his team took a picture of the very first light escaping into our universe.

In this episode, Dr. Thaller visits Mather to talk about these discoveries, which transformed scientific understanding of the universe. We also hear about Mather’s current project: an orbiting space telescope twice the size of the Hubble. It promises to capture the first light of galaxies and stars, and even distant planets not unlike our own.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo credit: NASA

For more, here’s a vintage 1989 video on the COBE project.

Episode 20: Holy Sheet!

NASA is relying on hi-tech lasers — and some vintage U.S. Navy hand-me-downs — to learn about the polar regions of a remarkable, watery planet. It’s located in the Orion spur of our galaxy. NASA scientists have detected mountain ranges completely under ice. But the remaining mysteries of the ice here are profound, and what the science tells us could have dramatic impact on human life.

In this episode, Dr. Thaller visits with two key members of NASA’s IceBridge mission — Christy Hansen, Airborne Sciences Manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Joe MacGregor, Deputy Project Scientist for Operation IceBridge.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo credit: NASA

Episode 19: We Are Stardust

Dr. Michelle Thaller visits the NASA lab that discovered that meteorites contain some of the very same chemical elements that we contain. Then, Michelle talks to a Vatican planetary scientist about how science and religion can meet on the topic of life beyond Earth.

Episode 18: Cassini Countdown

When the Cassini spacecraft blasted into space on October 15, 1997, even the most optimistic scientists would have had a hard time predicting the mission’s success. One of Cassini’s biggest legacies will be how she gave us a clearer picture of Saturn’s 62 moons, including two worlds that scientists now think could potentially host life.

Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with the Cassini mission’s Project Scientist Linda Spilker and with Julie Webster, a longtime Cassini engineer. Cassini will crash-land into Saturn’s atmosphere this September, ending nearly 20 years of exploration of our own solar system.

Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and editor Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Image caption: The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Feb. 4, 2015 using a spectral filter centered at 752 nanometers, in the near-infrared portion of the spectrum. Courtesy NASA.

Making (Gravitational) Waves

Nearly 100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves — huge undulations in the fabric of space-time itself — in 2015, detectors here on Earth finally picked up the signal of these massive disturbances.

Dr. Michelle Thaller pulls apart the power and mystery of gravitational waves, and talks with Dr. Janna Levin, theoretical astrophysicist and author of the book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space.

Image caption: The LISA Pathfinder Mission paves the way for our first space-based gravitational wave detector. Having these detectors in space, instead of on Earth will make them much more sensitive and have less interference from other Earth-based noises, in our search for more clarity on gravitational waves.
Image courtesy NASA JPL / ESA.

Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and editor Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.