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Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting October 3rd. I am Steve Mirsky.This week on the podcast: Space, the final frontier. We'll talk about that, plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. George Musser is our astronomy expert at Scientific American and Steven Ashley is our technology guru; together they created the special section in the October issue of Scientific American on the future of space exploration. To find out more, I sat down with them in the library at Scientific American.
Steve: I'm here with Steve Ashley.
Ashley: How are you doing Steve?
Steve: And George Musser.
Musser: Hi Steve.
Steve: And we have this special report that you guys co-created in the October issue of Scientific American on the future of exploring space. So, what was the impetus for doing this kind of a survey now?
Musser: Well the real impetus is that we've just come up to the fiftieth anniversary of the dawn of the space age, on October 5th?some people think it is October 4th, but actually it's October 5th, 1957 at 01:30 local time in the morning at Kazakhstan, that Sputnik 1 was launched, really kicking off the space age.
Steve: So that's the past, but this special section is concentrating on the future of space exploration; and you guys co-wrote a brief introduction to this section and now you have a couple of other pieces in there. Steve, you edited this piece about specifically related to the future of moon missions.
Ashley: Yes. I edited a piece that was written by several NASA engineers and Lockheed Martin engineer on the Apollo Constellation program, which is going to be United States' next attempt to send humans to the moon.
Steve: And what are we going to do there?
Ashley: (laughs) still remains to be seen, Steve. I would say that the point is just to try to establish a foothold on the moon's surface, allowing exploration over [the] long term and perhaps even exploitation of the lunar surface.
Steve: Exploitation, minerals, anything that might be available there that could be of use back here?
Ashley: That will be a little bit more in the future, but in the short-term, you will be able to do science because you will be outside of the Earth's atmosphere, which would normally hinder observations; various kinds of scientific experiments will be made possible by this.
Steve: So you could put a telescope on the moon.
Ashley: Exactly so.
Steve: And that would give you the crystal-clear images that we are used to now from the Hubble.
Ashley: Yes, but in [a] much more stable platform, which allows better calculations, better observations, and perhaps new discoveries.
Steve: Is this going to be kind of from scratch or are we going to take advantage of the things that we learned from Apollo.
Ashley: Well that's an interesting point. Basically, the constellation of Orion system is based on the Apollo moon mission system, which was sent up decades ago, but basically they are using off-the-shelf technology that's been updated with new technology and savings cost, so the idea is to save cost along the way.
Steve: I think you said somewhere in the introduction to the whole section that the space shuttle is an ambitious spacecraft with limited goals, and now we are going to use limited spacecraft to try to perform ambitious tasks.
Ashley: Well, the space shuttle is an amazing aircraft that basically flies up into space and back down on wings. The big thing about the new Apollo?I'm sorry?Orion Constellation Program is, it's going to be based on very much the old fashion[ed], so to speak, Apollo-type of architecture where boosters that are jettisoned after their use are used; so in other words, you go up on one stage that drops off, you go up on the next stage, that drops off and finally into orbit and at the end, you are not left with much of a craft, but it does work and it's proven and it's cheaper in general.
Steve: And when will all this allegedly start taking place? When do we think we are going to start actually sending any other stuff up?
Ashley: I believe that we start some of the test work in around 2012, and then missions perhaps will start in 2015, depends.
Steve: Now, George, you are the author of a piece, it's kind of more philosophical?five essential things to do in space. And why don't we go through these point by point and you can just sort of briefly summarize what's in the article. And number one is monitor Earth's climate, and you talk about how we've really dropped the ball on this.
Musser: Yes, you [should] really clarify that the five things to do in space are the five planetary scientific balls in the space.
Steve: Oh yeah! Absolutely! We're not talking about, you know, basketball in space.
Musser: Exactly, exactly, which some people might consider legitimate, but this article focuses on the planetary science.
Steve: Okay, so five scientific things to do in space.
Musser: And let me qualify one more way and that is I'm neglecting?and now I'm going get shot down for this by some people?things like the Hubble Space Telescope, some of the space telescopes that look beyond our solar system. We really wanted in this section to narrow our focus to our solar system.
Musser: So with those disclaimers, I can …
Steve: Now that's important; so these are five essential things to do in space that are limited to our solar system.
Steve: Except for the last one, to a degree ...
Musser: Okay! Let's not get in …
Steve: Okay! So, number one: Monitor Earth's climate.
Musser: Yeah! A lot of people don't think, first of all, that the space program bears on the Earth's climate, bears on the Earth; it's about space, it's beyond our planet, the Moon, Mars and those sorts of things. But I think if you ask most planetary scientists why do we go to explore the planets? The number one reason they will give?the scientists themselves will give?is to understand our own planet; that's why we go to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, all these places, is to know our own planet better. So, in this item number one, I've given here, I am talking really about sensors, detectors, satellites around our planet to understand the climate of our planet, for obvious reasons.
Steve: Now you point out?now I had no idea about this, but ?some of our existing orbiting infrastructure has decayed to the point where we've had to buy data from other countries, other countries that we probably helped put satellites into space.
Musser: And that's not necessarily a bad thing. It should be an international program. But I think the complaint I'm raising here?and that's what I hear from a lot of scientist[s]?is that there has been this gap in planning for Earth-monitoring satellites. There were some cost overruns, there were some budget cuts, and net result is they are really trying to eek out a lot of these satellites that are monitoring the climate; and the problem is if they go belly up before the replacement can fly, then you got gaps in your data. You don't know for instance, whether the solar illumination of the Earth is going up or it's going down, and obviously you need to know that to know about global warming and its effects.
Steve: Right! If you have a gap in the data, you can't tell if there has been a continuous change in solar intensity or whether you just have an instrument up there that is calibrated differently.
Steve: So the second item you have here is to prepare an asteroid defense. So, we've been hearing about this for a while, and it was about 10 years ago that the two big movies were made about the Armageddon and whatever the other one was called?Deep Impact right, with Téa Leoni getting crushed by a humongous wave at the end, while Maximilian Schell cradles her in his arms,very good
father [fodder] film, yeah!
Steve: Right! But this is a really interesting case because it's almost literally pie in the sky, and yet if that pie hits, if you have the one in a million, one per million year chance
at certain[it] hits, well then all your planning will really come into play, because if you don't do it, it wipes out everything.
Musser: Yeah! And we're not taking here we should throw every dollar we have into this. It's just a prudent amount of insurance for this kind of eventuality that isn't really being made right now. People have talked about it, you've heard a lot about it. You'd expect the president to have someone
's, who knows what to do if the call came, but they really don't, they don't have a plan.
Steve: And you are talking?when you say, you know, prudent amounts of money?you are talking about a few hundred million dollars right.
Musser: Yeah! Even that is spread out over a number of years.
Steve: And a hundred million dollar sounds like a lot of money, but when you think about what we are spending, well, how much do we spend in Iraq everyday?
Musser: Oh! I won't go there.
Steve: Yeah! I'm not sure actually.
Ashley: Seven billion dollars a month.
Steve: Seven billion a month from Steve Ashley, so a few hundred million dollars to try to just, you know, get a little idea about whether anything is coming that's going to wipe out perhaps an entire city or an entire continent, or the whole planet, might be thought of as just a decent way to spend a little bit of money on insurance.
Musser: Right! And you know,
once[ones that] they take out a city or city-size region, are fairly common. They don't happen every year.
Steve: Happens once every thousand years.
Musser: I mean, so in the next century, it's a 1 in 10 chance of happening, which is a sizable chance; and if you multiply its effect times that probability, you get a certain dollar figure in, you know, a billion dollars or whatever that turns out to be a year of effective damage, statistical damage. That's how much you should expect to be spending on your insurance policy.
Musser: I don't know what the numbers are, you should check.
Steve: Right! But you are going to do the same thing with your medical insurance.
Steve: And again, you might expect to get that 1 in 10 chance over the next 100 years; it might not hit in an inhabited area, so that you don't get that kind of destruction, but then again it might.
Musser: Actually it's interesting. The ones that hit in the ocean, even if they don't hit a city, they are most destructive because they set up a tsunami.
Steve: And do we know when [was] the last time one of those might have happened? I mean, the Tunguska event is now thought to be one of these, right?
Musser: That's usually taken to be the last major example.
Steve: Right, except in the movie, Ghost Busters, but well, we won't go there. So, you are just advising that we at least do some serious thinking about spending a little bit of our federal money on, you know, putting an insurance plan into effect.
Musser: Insurance plan, exactly!
Steve: And one of the things that you point out there [that] is very interesting is our current system of detection can't really tell the difference between a small bright object and a big dark object.
Musser: And that's obviously a problem because you'd like to know what's coming in. There is also blind spots in the sky, areas our telescopes don't reach that well.
Steve: And those blind spots?you point out in the article?are just where the most dangerous possible intruders might be.
Musser: Because they usually lie in our orbit and those are areas that are only visible to ground-base[d] telescope[s] at dusk or dawn.
Steve: Right! You get a lot of solar interference at that point.
Musser: Right, right!
Steve: So, item three: Seek out new life.
Musser: Okay, we'll get there.
Steve: A new civilization of single cell organisms.
Musser: Exactly! I mean this is really the thing that got me personally interested in planetary science back when I was a kid. It's the life in the universe, are?we?alone type of question, and here we're talking really about life in our solar system. We're talking about microbes on Mars; Europa maybe, in the oceans of Europa. People are talking about past life on Venus and the atmospheres of Jupiter, who knows? The point is there hasn't been a complete inventory of the places where life might be.
Steve: And if we were to find even small amount of microbial life on some other body, it would just be a compelling piece of evidence that life is probably a natural consequence of a lot of natural phenomenon.
Musser: And therefore might be common in the rest of the galaxy as well. And the other thing is?and this goes back to the point I had made earlier about studying other planets to study ourselves?you could use that other type of life as a point of comparison for understanding biology on Earth. Some of the weird aspects of biology on Earth might become more apparent, if we had that point of comparison.
Steve: What kind of weird aspects of life on Earth are you talking about?
Musser: Well, things like the genetic code, how is that put together? Is DNA or the particular type of amino acid chemistry, essential to life?period? Or is it just kind of an artifact to the way life happened to emerge on Earth? We don't have any record of life on Earth prior to 3.8 or so billion years ago. What happened? How did life originate on Earth? There is some kind of precursor chemistry that had to take place. That precursor chemistry may also exist on Titan, for example.
Steve: And we're doing some looking for that kind of information already, but we're talking about more sophisticated analysis.
Musser: Right! And the programs we are only talking about in the article are continuations of current programs?they are not a whole new set of things that haven't yet been done at all. The Cassini-Huygens mission in
the Saturn's system has been an example of doing that kind of research.
Steve: And your fourth item is: Explain the genesis of the planets. Now that's pretty interesting.
Musser: Yeah! And this goes back even before life itself. How did you get planets? Period! Just in what used to be empty space of the galaxy? What caused these things
to be[we] call ed planets to form and how did they form? And that period again of cosmic history isn't well known; there[their] traces have been largely lost and happens to be pieced together by [a] lot of lines of evidence. And there is whole areas of the solar system to explore that will help us gain more evidence; for instance: looking into comet nuclei, go[ing] into Venus and getting some kind of sample of a rock on Venus;understand[ing] more about Jupiter and its role, for example.
Steve: Getting a sample of anything on Venus is a pretty terrifying technological task.
Musser: I think, realistically, getting the sample of any planet, the moon even?I mean look at how many billions we spent on getting those moon rocks back. Mars, they still don't have a sample [that was]
from actually collected on the surface of Mars and brought to back to Earth. We have meteoroids that we think came from Mars, but not actual known samples from sample locations. And those samples are absolutely crucial. Even a single rock, even a single scrap of a rock, can give you the isotopes, the chemistry, the information you need to determine the history of that entire world; and that's what we need from Venus as well.
Steve: And your fifth item: Break out of the solar system.
Musser: I put this one in partly for fun, because I personally think it would be wonderful for humanity. It's part of our destinies somehow to break out of the solar system and enter the rest of the galaxy; but also there is real important scientific mysteries and problems to be solved out there. How does our Sun and its planetary retinue plug in to the galaxy? How does it really maintain its magnetic field, the particles, the gases that surround our solar system?
Steve: The solar system is not merely a human construct. There is actually a boundary out there, where there are different kind of phenomena going on between what is inside the boundary and what's outside the boundary.
Musser: Exactly! There is an objective sense of so much you can talk about the solar system and the domain of the Sun, and there are different boundaries you can draw. There are boundaries of the Sun's gravity, there are boundaries of the Sun's magnetic fields. The one that's really most relevant here though is the boundary of the Sun's particles. So the Sun is blasting out particles, making a lot of elementary particles, protons and so forth, and they are blowing out like a wind. It's called the solar wind, and there is an incoming interstellar wind of a sort, caused by the motion of our solar system through the galaxies?sort of like the (unclear 17:03) in a car or motorcycle?and where those two collide and meet and come to a standstill is considered, in a sense, the boundary that most interests scientists today.
Steve: Yeah! There is an equilibrium point somewhere out there, where the stuff coming in is meeting the stuff going out.
Musser: Right! And a lot of interesting things happen that have relevance again to Earth: The cosmic rays that might influence our climate might either be generated from that region or be modulated by it.
Steve: So it's kind of a grand research agenda that you've put forth here, and, you know, in the big picture it's really not all that expensive.
Musser: Oh! I mean, these scientific programs are fairly modest, when you consider that they will spread out over time; a billion here and billion there adds up to real money.
Steve: Right! As Everett Dirksen famously said.
Musser: Oh! I thought it was my quote. Now, so we are talking not insubstantial amounts of money, but we are talking about doing [this] over 20 to 30 years.
Steve: Well gentlemen, where do you think now?you end the whole piece by talking about, you know, what we are going to look back on in 2057 as having been accomplished? Let's bring it a little closer to home. Where do you think we are going to be in 10 years? I mean this is sort of a hackneyed, bad journalists' question, but do you think?I mean, obviously, it all depends on what we decide to do now?but where do you think the political and scientific will is right now, and where will that lead us, lets say, in the next decade or two?
Ashley: Steve, I think you could expect the NASA bureaucracy to generate enough money through the congress to probably start some moon missions again; they will be working off of the solar?I'm sorry?the space station and then jumping off to the closer planets perhaps; some more Martian rovers would be, you know, landing by that time hopefully or at least being shot off toward the planets by then. I think, then you also will see some more new kinds of technologies, where they are going to be using plasma rockets increasingly, which are basically shooting out tiny ions to slowly accelerate spacecraft far distances at eventually very high rates of velocity. The point is that by 20 years, we'll have had several probes out there and [be] seeing things that we have not seen before, and perhaps we'll have people on the moon.
Steve: And people on Mars in 2030, yes or no?
Ashley: That I would be surprised [by].
Musser: Yeah! I think even NASA's projections don't have it until the late 2030s.
Steve: Guys, it's [a] really fun section, I think everybody [will] enjoy reading it, and it's available free on our Web site.
Ashley: That is correct, Steve.
Steve: So you don't even have to buy Scientific American to check it out. Just go to www.SciAm.com and scroll down and you'll find the whole special report entitled "The Future of Exploring Space". Thanks a lot, guys.
Ashley: Thank you very much.
Musser: Thanks, Steve.
Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: In animal studies, the popular spice, ginger, shows some promise as a therapy for bacteria-induced diarrhea.
Story number 2: Zebra fish have four stripes, and now researchers have figured out exactly how one of the four stripes forms from scratch.
Story number 3: Sputnik's radio transmitter sent signals back to Earth from its launch in 1957 until July 31st, 1969, just a few days after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
And story number 4: Cockroaches learn better in the evening than in the morning.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. Ginger did appear to prevent bacterial diarrhea in animal studies. The work was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Diarrhea is the leading cause of infant death in developing countries; almost 400,000 people die of it annually. A particular compound in ginger called zingerone appears to block the toxin produced by the strains of E. coli that cause diarrhea.
Story number 2 is true. Researchers have traced the complete development of one of the four stripes in zebra fish. They used time-lapse photography of developing embryos of a normal and a mutant zebra fish as well as genetic analysis to figure out how the fish got its stripe. The work appeared in the journal Development. Such studies are useful in unraveling the secrets of development in general, which is a terrific thing if you're trying to prevent birth defects.
And story number 4 is true. Researcher[s] studying memory and learning found that cockroaches couldn't learn anything first thing in the morning; maybe they are just exhausted from running around your kitchen all night. For more, check out the October 2nd episode of the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 3, about Sputnik's beeps lasting until after the first moon landing, is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that Sputnik fell out of orbit and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere on January 4th, 1958. And the radio transmitter stopped sending beeps to Earth before that; it was after 23 days in orbit when its battery died.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Check out numerous features at our Web site including the blog, "Ask the Experts", and the latest science news, all at www.SciAm.com. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.