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.

Mini-sode 1: NASA’s NICER Mission

Listeners, we’ve heard you! You requested more episodes, so we present the first of our mini episodes. They’ll arrive two weeks after each monthly regular episode, and include Michelle Thaller’s insight on the latest space news. Enjoy episode one:

NASA’s NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) mission will launch in May. Michelle explains the NICER mission’s many applications, including the possibility of using neutron stars as intergalactic global positioning systems.

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 courtesy NASA: A star’s spectacular death in the constellation Taurus was observed on Earth as the supernova of 1054 A.D. Now, almost a thousand years later, a superdense neutron star left behind by the stellar death is spewing out a blizzard of extremely high-energy particles into the expanding debris field known as the Crab Nebula. This composite image uses data from three of NASA’s Great Observatories.

Lessons in Landslides

Space science can help track what’s happening on Earth. In this podcast episode, Orbital Path talks landslides and the satellites that monitor them for the third anniversary of the deadliest landslide in US history.

On March 22, 2014 a 650-foot hillside collapsed and covered the community of Oso, Washington. Forty-three people died. Hear from scientists working to investigate this landslide and predict future ones, as well as a woman who witnessed the landslide.

David Montgomery studied the Oso landslide’s remains as part of the ‘Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance’ (GEER) team that investigated the landslide and tried to pinpoint the causes that lead to the Oso landslide.

Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, studies landslides from space using satellites to create various models. Her goal is to develop a model that can be used as the foundation for a global landslide predicting software that can help keep people living in wet, mountainous regions safe from the slides.

And Asheley Bryson is the manager at the Darrington Sno-Isles Library, which is just a few miles from the site of the landslide. She shares her memories from that day.

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 by Jonathan Godt, courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

Space Robots to Europa!

Galileo discovered Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, in 1610. In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft buzzed past and we realized it was covered in ice. It took a few more years to understand that it also likely had unfrozen liquid water oceans.

In this episode, Kevin Hand, Deputy Project Scientist for the Europa mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) explains how his team plans to launch a series of missions to orbit, land on, and hopefully explore the curious moon’s deep salty oceans with a self-driving space submarine.

Hand thinks Europa has the best chance of fostering living alien life at this moment in time. “If we’ve learned anything about life on Earth, where there’s water, you find life and there’s a whole ton of water out at Europa,” Hand says.

And Tom Cwik, manager for JPL’s space technology program, describes how he looks to Earth-bound submarines, ice drills and self-driving cars for inspiration of how to explore this distant world.

Image credit: Courtesy NASA’s Galileo spacecraft.

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

How the World Came Together to Avoid Ozone Disaster

In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey discovered something that shocked scientists around the world: the ozone layer had a hole in it. And the hole was growing very quickly.

When they were presented with the problem, politicians and world leaders quickly came up with an international agreement to immediately reduce chlorofluorocarbons released into the atmosphere. It was a success story, and we can learn from it on climate change.

In the episode:

Atmospheric chemist Dr. Susan Solomon shares her story of leading a team of scientists to Antarctica, scrambling to understand the problem and pretty quickly finding the root cause: a group of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons that people were releasing into the atmosphere on the other side of the planet.

NASA chemist Dr. Anne Douglass explains ozone and and the very serious consequences of living in a world without an ozone layer. She also compares the decisive Montreal Protocol to the very different modern reaction to climate change, where American politicians openly deny the science at the root of a global crisis.

Warning: Space May Wreak Havoc on Your Body

S125-E-009232 (17 May 2009) --- Astronaut Mike Massimino, STS-125 mission specialist, is pictured as he peers through a window on the aft flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Atlantis during the mission's fourth session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as work continues to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. During the eight-hour, two-minute spacewalk, Massimino and astronaut Michael Good (background), mission specialist, continued repairs and improvements to the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) that will extend the Hubble's life into the next decade.
(17 May 2009) — Astronaut Mike Massimino peers through a window on the aft flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Atlantis during the mission’s fourth session of extravehicular activity (EVA) to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.

Going to Mars is hot right now, just ask Matt Damon. But would you go if you knew your bones would turn into something called “pee brittle”?

Former astronaut Michael Massimino reveals the uncomfortable side of liftoff. And Dr. Jennifer Fogarty from NASA’s Human Research Program elaborates on the physical challenges humans face with longterm weightlessness.

In Search of Planet 9

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-4-13-21-pm-1Proposed mockup of our solar system (the sun is the tiny yellow dot in the middle), and the proposed orbit of Planet 9 (called Planet X here). (Courtesy of Scott Sheppard / Carnegie Institution of Washington)

An Orbital Path episode all about…an orbital path! Planet 9’s, to be exact. The replacement for Pluto as our solar system’s ninth planet is out there somewhere, and astronomers can see the ripples it creates, especially at this time of year.

In this Episode:

On November 5, 2012, astronomer Scott Sheppard and his team discovered a small, frozen space rock at the edge of what we’re able to observe in our solar system. He never anticipated that this observation would hint toward a big change in how we understand solar system: the existence of an undiscovered planet inside our solar system.

Astronomer Mike Brown, better known for “killing Pluto,” is leading the hunt for Planet Nine and he thinks that we won’t have to wait for much longer.

Black Hole Breakthroughs

interstellar_still

Scientific discovery can happen in two ways: “Eureka!” moments of sudden understanding, where researchers glean unexpected insight into new phenomena. Or, a slower, less glamorous hunt for truth that happens day-after-day, for years. But both methods can lead to new understandings that pushes the field forward for future breakthroughs.

In this episode: the sudden realization that led to the discovery of the first ever black hole, and another more methodical search for the moment that a star dies and a black hole is born.

Guests:
Jeremy Schnittman
Paul Murdin
Christopher Kochanek

Image:
Created by Jeremy Schnittman; a simulation of a black hole accretion disk, and also inspired by “Interstellar”.