Todd Zwillich is my kind of radio host/reporter. He is a big-time space cadet – and I mean that as a compliment. He invited me down to SOHO to the WNYC studios on Friday for a little space chat. It was a good day to talk about what is – er – up in space since it was Hubble’s 19th birthday. Here is a rough transcript of our conversation:
Todd Zwillich, The Takeaway: It has been 37 years since we did something like this:
[On tape]: In about two to three or maybe four even paces can bring you to a very smooth stop, like a football player, you just have to put a foot out to the side and cut a little bit.
Todd Zwillich, The Takeaway: All right, that was sound of astronauts describing what it’s like to walk on the moon. Of course, that was back in 1969. Now NASA says it wants to make another lunar visit a priority. Just yesterday some new details came out from a study giving us some new facts on moon dust and its composition. Moon dust, in case you didn’t know, is incredibly sticky which can be a hindrance to equipment and space armor and until now, nobody knew why. Well, joining us now is our friend and longtime science broadcaster Miles O’Brien, we’re going to talk about the moon, but we also have to talk about a lot of other fantastic stuff going on in the sky beyond the moon. I can’t tell you how excited I am. Miles, I can’t even speak I’m so excited, welcome.
Miles O’Brien: Todd, it’s a great pleasure. Hey, happy Hubble Day! Nineteen years ago, where were you?
Katherine Lanpher, The Takeaway: Oh, he was probably five.
Todd Zwillich: Not quite, I was in college, but I am celebrating later on today and believe me Hubble Day is not lost on me on the anniversary of the Hubble telescope and there is some news on Hubble 2-it’s about to get an upgrade…
Miles O’Brien: A makeover.
Todd Zwillich: Let’s go to the moon first…
Miles O’Brien: Yeah, let’s go.
Todd Zwillich: What do we know about lunar dust that we didn’t know before and why is it important?
Miles O’Brien: Well, it appears the astronauts ought to bring some Downy Fabric Softener, cause this dust- well, think about it for a moment: as we orbit the sun, we are bombarded by all these ions from the sun, it’s called the Solar Wind. Now we have a magnetic field on our planet that protects us from all that, the moon doesn’t have that. And so what happens is all that little talcum powder dust up there gets charged, magnetically, gets that static-y kind of thing and it sticks to everything. This is a big deal if you’re thinking about buildings some kind of moon colony because if you want to put solar rays down, scientific devices, equipment could overheat and of course the stuff gets on all the gear and all the clothing, the outer clothing, and ultimately it could be breathed by the astronauts who live there and it could be a problem. So this is one of the little things they have to deal with. Seemingly little, could be a very big deal in the long run.
Todd Zwillich: Potentially a deal-breaker. All this research is prompted by NASA’s saying the moon is a priority for them. Of course we’ve already been there. How much of a priority is this and how likely is a return to the moon, do you think? I mean, everybody’s talking about Mars, how likely is a return to the moon?
Miles O’Brien: Well, NASA wants to get to the moon, but they may not have the money right now to do that. As it stands right now, they’re talking about moving that expected day back to, perhaps as late as 2020 or even beyond. A lot of people ask me that: “Why would we? We’ve been there, we’ve done that. Why would we go back?” Well if you want to go to Mars someday, if that is the goal of the space program and a lot of people would say that would be a very interesting endeavor, you have to learn a lot of things about how to live in a distant place. Just to have a conversation with an astronaut on Mars, it’s 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back. The punch lines for jokes kind of get delayed on those things…
Todd Zwillich: Hey they get delayed around here and we have a lot less of a latency than that.
Miles O’Brien: Exactly. So imagine how much autonomy and independence that crew would have to have. So there’s a lot of things you can learn by setting up camp on the moon. The concern that a lot of people have is: you go to the moon, you spend all the effort there, and it becomes a bit of a dead end. Hopefully it’s just a way point.
Todd Zwillich :Alright, well some people have called the shuttle a dead end because it only goes in a 200 to 300 mile orbit. Not very geared towards exploration, however the shuttle is going up soon to give Hubble, the Hubble space telescope an upgrade, it’s Hubble’s last upgrade before the mission is supposed to be over and they either shoot it out into space or tow it back to earth so it can erode in orbit. The last round of Hubble deep field photographs of distant galaxies were absolutely spectacular. Tell us, what is the upgrade and what is it going to enable Hubble to do in this last round?
Miles O’Brien: Well, these deep field surveys are so interesting…
Todd Zwillich: They’re amazing.
Miles O’Brien: They’re amazing, because what they do is they just sort of train at one little spot in the universe and really allow the kind of time exposure to occur and what you find when you do that is, there’s a lot more out there than we thing.
Todd Zwillich: And what we actually see is a way to look back in time because we galaxies that are in their primordial form because the light has taken billions of years to get to Hubble you’re looking back in time.
Miles O’Brien: We can get almost to the point of the big bang now, we’re at that point. I’m told you can’t see the big bang because there’s too much static; you have to dial through the static…
Todd Zwillich: And there wasn’t visible light yet, for the first couple billion years.
Miles O’Brien: So imagine what a time machine this has been and all the things we have learned. They’re going to go up and give Hubble a makeover and allow it to operate for another decade or so, hopefully, and continue what it has done. It’s difficult to say what the new findings will be, but for example, they’re going to go up and try to fix this advanced camera for surveys, which conked out. The advanced camera for surveys, before it conked out, actually imaged another planet orbiting another star. It’s sun. That’s the first time that’s ever been done and that raises all kinds of possibilities about is there anybody looking back at us.
Todd Zwillich: Ok, Earth-like planets is the issue there-planets orbiting other stars. We’ve already discovered, already observed different kinds of planets. People think we’ve only discovered one or two- we’ve discovered hundreds. They call them things like “Hot Jupiter” and “Super Earth”, we have not been able to observe any planets that are truly like earth- small and rocky- but we’ve seen some Jupiter like ones, orbiting close to suns, we’ve got a satellite out now called Kepler. What is it going to be able to accomplish?
Miles O’Brien: Well Kepler. Here’s the thing with Kepler: what we’ve ssen so far is sort of by inference. Big planets that actually cause the star near them to wiggle and that’s how we know they’re there. We haven’t been able to lay eyes on an earth-like planet because they don’t reflect enough life in comparison with the star they’re nearby. Kepler is going to solve that problem. To be able to identify these small, rocky planets that could be ideal for life, could have water, by sort of blocking out the light of the sun, in essence, and able to see it. So this is a big deal because it’s going to point at a certain part of the sky and we expect that we’ll find perhaps dozens of earth-like planets. Imagine that.
Todd Zwillich: Maybe even, I mean dozens, it’s possible hundreds.
Miles O’Brien: Yes, I was being conservative.
Todd Zwillich: A good science reporter, always very conservative. And, also, scientists were shocked by huge Jupiter-like planets orbiting very close to suns not far away, like our own Jupiter. That was a shock to astronomer and Kepler might shed some light onto why that is. Miles O’Brien, long-time science writer and broadcaster, thanks for joining us to talk about the shuttle, to talk about the moon — more importantly Hubble and Kepler and the deep-field studies. We loved having you, I loved having you. Can you tell?
Miles O’Brien: The final frontier. Thank you, Todd. I’ll come by anytime.
Katherine Lanphen: Back down to Earth, fellas. Back down to Earth.