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.

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.