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


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.

Jeremy Schnittman
Paul Murdin
Christopher Kochanek

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

Done in the Sun

Coronal mass ejection courtesy of NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

The sun can seem like a friendly celestial body. It is the source of summer, crops, and basically all life on Earth. But just as the sun decided when life on Earth could begin, it will also decide when life on Earth will definitely end.

Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with Dr. C. Alex Young, Associate Director for Science in the Heliophysics Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. We’ll hear about the impressive fleet of spacecraft NASA uses to monitor the Sun, including the upcoming Solar Probe Plus, an exciting new mission to delve closer to our star than ever before.

Episode Extras

C. Alex Young’s office doormat at NASA Goddard!

This 2015 video celebrates five years of solar observations from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory:

Follow along with the development of Solar Probe Plus, slated for launch in 2018.

Find out about the fleet of Sun-observing spacecraft NASA uses to monitor our home star.

Howdy, Neighbor

When Proxima b’s discovery appeared in Nature on August 24, the media breathlessly announced a new Earth-like planet just 4.2 light years away from Earth.

Astronomers have, for years, anticipated a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Michelle Thaller talks with astrophysicist Dr. Patricia Boyd about NASA’s ongoing search for exoplanets and what’s the next step in human exploration of other worlds.

Don’t miss the episode extra below. Michelle stands outside the clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope is being built and walks us through what we’re seeing:

Don’t miss the next Orbital Path episode, either! Subscribe here.

A Tale of Two Asteroids

The asteroid belt is portrayed in movies as a crowded place with massive rocks bouncing each other like pool balls, capable of sending a mile-wide missile hurtling toward Earth at any moment. The reality is much more fascinating.

Host Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with Dr. Lucy McFadden, Co-Investigator of NASA’s Dawn Mission to orbit the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. She shares what they’ve learned by traveling 130 million miles to visit places we’ve always viewed from afar.

Episode Extras

PIA15506_hiresThis image of asteroid Vesta is one of many images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft to create an animation showing the diversity of minerals through color representation.

PIA20562_hiresThis view from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a fresh crater among older terrain on Ceres.

Learn more about Dawn and see even more amazing photos right here.

Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Chasing An Eclipse


Michael Kentrianakis loves eclipses and has seen them from all over the world. Host Michelle Thaller and Mike talk about the stages of the eclipse we can see in his video that went viral a few months ago after an Alaska Airlines flight. That flight was diverted for better eclipse viewing thanks to Joe Rao, who has convinced airlines to do this before. We’ll hear how he pulled it off and learn where best to view the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

Episode Extras

Mike Kentrianakis taking a photo of the eclipse.

MeLookingLindsayCourtesy6FMike viewing the eclipse with a solar filter.

Joe Rao and the captain.

Full group of eclipse chasers on the flight.

Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photos courtesy of Michael Kentrianakis.