Planetary Radio • Dec 09, 2020

Welcoming a New Leader, and China on the Final Frontier

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Bethany Ehlmann

President, The Planetary Society; Professor of Planetary Science, California Institute of Technology; Director, Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech

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Jim Bell

Past President (2008-2020), Board of Directors of The Planetary Society; Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University; Principal Investigator, NASA Perseverance rover Mastcam-Z instruments

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Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

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Andrew Jones

Contributing editor for The Planetary Society

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Carl Sagan was first in the job. Now it has been handed to Caltech planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann. We’ll talk with the Planetary Society’s new president about her Moon mission and more. Society CEO Bill Nye and president emeritus Jim Bell also join in. Then we welcome back China space program expert Andrew Jones for an update on the nation’s lunar sample return effort and a survey of many other missions and developments. The new Planetary Society baseball cap will go with a great new book about the Apollo program to the winner of a new space trivia contest.

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Meet our new president, Bethany Ehlmann Ehlmann is a professor of planetary science at Caltech and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in public outreach, space policy, planetary science, and astrobiology in her role as president of the Board of Directors of The Planetary Society.

Lunar Surface Panorama from Chang'e-5
Lunar Surface Panorama from Chang'e-5 China's Chang'e-5 spacecraft captured this image of the lunar surface shortly after landing in the Ocean of Storms on 1 December 2020.Image: CNSA / CLEP
Chang'e-5 ascent vehicle blasts off
Chang'e-5 ascent vehicle blasts off The Chang'e-5 ascent vehicle containing lunar samples blasts off from the Moon on 4 December 2020. The lander captured this image from an upward-looking camera; the bright light at the right is the Sun.Image: CNSA / CLEP / Edited by The Planetary Society
Chang'e-5 ascent vehicle released
Chang'e-5 ascent vehicle released China's Chang'e-5 orbiter captured this image as it released the ascent vehicle on 6 December 2020. Having successfully transferred its Moon samples to the orbiter for return to Earth, the ascent vehicle later crashed itself into the lunar surface.Image: CNSA / CLEP / Edited by The Planetary Society

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Trivia Contest

This week's prizes:

The brand-new Planetary Society baseball cap, available from the Chop Shop Planetary Society store. And a copy of Teasel Muir-Harmony’s great new book Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo.

This week's question:

What are the only 2 lunar maria named after people?

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, December 16th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

How many aluminum panels are in the Arecibo dish, the main reflector?


The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the 25 November space trivia contest:

How many of the 88 IAU-defined modern constellations have “dog” in their name? It will be “dog” in Latin, and we’re talking about domestic dogs, not foxes, wolves, or werewolves.


The three IAU-defined constellations that have domestic dogs in their names are Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Canes Venatici.


Mat Kaplan: Welcoming a new leader and an update on China's exploration of the final frontier, this week on ... Welcome indeed, I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society, with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. We've got a double feature for you, beginning with congratulations for planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann of Caltech. She has had quite a week: First, NASA gave Bethany and her team the go-ahead for the Lunar Trailblazer mission, followed by her peers on The Planetary Society board of directors electing her as the organization's sixth president.

Mat Kaplan: President Emeritus Jim Bell and Society CEO Bill Nye will join us, then we'll enjoy the return of Andrew Jones. The timing couldn't be better, as China celebrates the success, at least so far, of its Chang'e-5 lunar sample return mission. That's where our conversation with Andrew will start, but you may be surprised to hear how very busy China is staying out there beyond low Earth orbit. Want to win won of those new Planetary Society baseball caps? How about we throw in a great new book about the Apollo Program? First, you'll have to pass through Bruce Betts' new What's Up Space trivia contest.

Mat Kaplan: Congrats are also in order for the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, and its Hayabusa2 team. After a more than six-year trek, the spacecraft successfully returned material from asteroid Ryugu on Saturday, December 5th. You can discover more about the mission at The latest edition of our weekly newsletter also covers another SpaceX Dragon capsule's journey to the International Space Station. It's the first flight of a new version of the cargo ship based on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Mat Kaplan: Don't forget, you can have the downlink delivered free to your inbox each week. The PlanRad ratings and reviews continue to roll in and I continue to be very grateful. Help us out by leaving your thoughts and stars on Apple Podcasts. Here's some space trivia: Do you know who served as The Planetary Society's first president? It was our co-founder, Carl Sagan, followed by his friend and fellow co-founder, Bruce Murray. Then came former NASA Associate Administrator, Wes Huntress.

Mat Kaplan: Next was none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson, and for the last 12 years, we've been ably led and served by Arizona State University professor, planetary scientist, and bestselling author Jim Bell. Jim and CEO Bill Nye joined me a couple of days ago to welcome and praise Caltech's Bethany Ehlmann. Our online conversation also gave us the opportunity to ask Bethany about her upcoming robotic mission that will tell us much more about the water on that forbidding globe called ... Bethany, Jim, Bill, welcome all of you to Planetary Radio.

Mat Kaplan: Not the first time any of you have been heard on the show, but I don't think we've ever had something like this to talk about before. Bill, there was a board meeting of The Planetary Society last Friday. Tell us what happened, the significant action at the top of that meeting.

Bill Nye: Oh, my goodness. We elected a new president, and I know many of our listeners are just so excited, a new president. Yeah, a new president. So it's required by the by-laws of my beloved colleague, Jim Bell, who's been president for 12 years, and now he has handed the reins to Bethany Ehlmann, planetary scientist, Caltech professor, and now principal investigator on a mission, and I am just delighted, because Bethany is going to step into this role and make it her own. As you may know, I served as vice-president for a number of years. It's just fun. It's just a cool thing, a wonderful thing to be an officer of the board of directors. Over to you.

Mat Kaplan: Bethany, congratulations on becoming only the sixth president of the society in our 41 years.

Bethany Ehlmann: Thank you. It's a great legacy, the set of presidents of the society, so it's an honor to be in this slot, and I got some huge shoes to fill. But fortunately, space continues to be exciting, here at the beginning of the 21st century. So I'm confident that we've got some great work ahead as a society.

Mat Kaplan: Well, you are, in your other life, helping to keep it exciting, and we'll talk about that mission in a few minutes that Bill brought up. But Jim Bell, I want to go to you and what this means to you, handing this off to Bethany.

Jim Bell: Hey, Matt. Thanks for having us all on the show, and wow, yeah, it was a very exciting day on Friday. And as Bill mentioned, I've been president of the board since 2008, and what an amazing ride, and we've grown so much, and so many things have happened, and we've had new people on the board, and new initiative, and amazing projects.

Jim Bell: And it's been spectacular, but everybody knows that the key to success, and sustainability, and growth of organizations or countries is changes in leadership. And it was time, it was really time to hand the reins over, as Bill said, to give some responsibility to a new generation and a new amazing, amazing colleague, the award-winning Bethany Ehlmann, and-

Bill Nye: And everybody just noticed, Jim, when you were delivering your remarks in the board meeting, and everybody, it's the coronaverse we're living in, and we were conducting this meeting electronically, virtually, Jim got choked up, he got verklempt. It was quite moving.

Jim Bell: I got a little verklempt, I did, and it's been just an amazing, amazing time working with the society as part of the leadership team. And I'm staying on the board, the board-

Bill Nye: Yeah, you don't get to leave.

Jim Bell: The board would still have me, and I love being on the board, I love helping with the strategic direction of the society, and it's just going to be even more fun to be doing that under Bethany's leadership.

Bethany Ehlmann: Which is a delight, because Jim has such a wealth of experience. Those of you on the line who have been long-term society members know that these last 12 years have been very exciting in terms of the breadth, and the scope, and the number of members and launching LightSail 2, and getting through all the ups and downs of that, to this great mission in space that we crowdfunded. It's been a tremendous experience to have joined the board under and watched Jim's leadership. And so I'm very glad he's staying on, because we'll need his advice going forward.

Jim Bell: Thank you, my colleague.

Mat Kaplan: Bethany, I think ... I'm not sure if it was the last time we saw each other in person, but it was one of the last times at least, was at Arizona State University in a conference room, with Jim leading a discussion about Mastcam-Z, those wonderful stereo cameras which will be the main eyes of the Perseverance rover. And you were there, and it just makes me think of how the two of you know each other professionally far beyond your relationship within The Planetary Society.

Bethany Ehlmann: Yeah, that's right. I met Jim when I was still an undergraduate student, and we got connected because we were both working on the Spirit and Opportunity missions. Of course, our roles were rather different, with Jim leading the Pancams, the camera systems of the two rovers, and then I was really fortunate, I was an undergrad tagging along with the Deputy Principal Investigator, Ray Arvidson, from Washington University.

Bethany Ehlmann: I got to work out there at JPL at the end of my senior year, work on the rovers, which was the opportunity of a lifetime and really is quite a bit of the reason I'm here. And it was really exciting to work on that team with all these senior scientists, and really see how planetary exploration gets done.

Jim Bell: And Mat, she really is an amazing planetary scientist. Bethany is involved in so many projects across the solar system, not just Mars, the Moon, and asteroids, etc., as part of the legacy of the leadership of the society is to have a really strong involvement in representation from the professional planetary science community. And Bethany, just, ever since we met, her trajectory has been going up, up, up. And so it's great to be working together with her on Mastcam-Z. She is part of the camera team for Mastcam-Z, and it'll be great working together under her leadership on the board.

Mat Kaplan: Bethany, not to speak for you, but you could easily say it takes one to know one. Bill, these are two very accomplished planetary scientists.

Bill Nye: Mat, this is what I tell everybody about The Planetary Society: We are the real deal. With respect to my colleagues out in the world who just want to go to Mars on a rocket, these are people that actually study actual planets for reals, ever since the beginning, since Carl, Bruce Murray, who was the head of JPL during the heyday of the Voyager and Viking missions. Ever since the beginning of the society, we have had professional planetary scientists comprising the board, and it's fantastic. I am honored to know you. So everybody, if you're a member, just understand the place is in excellent hands.

Bill Nye: And when they're talking about the ... When Jim and Bethany are talking about the last few years, the society was financially not doing as well as you would hope. That is to say it looked like we were going to go out of business several years ago, but we made a bunch of changes, we hired the right people, we got Bethany on the board with Jim. And now, the future is really bright, and as Bethany pointed out, the future of planetary exploration the next couple decades is really exciting. So everybody, if you're a member, thank you for your support, and our new president, Dr. Bethany Ehlmann, is going to be fantastic. And don't worry, Jim Bell remains on the board.

Mat Kaplan: I think The Eagles put it best, "You can check out any time you like." Bethany, before we go, I promised the audience that we would get to hear a little bit about this other good news you got last week. Tell us about Lunar Trailblazer.

Bethany Ehlmann: That's right, last week was a big week. One of the other aspects of my job that's just a ton of fun is the hat I get to play as a planetary scientist who actually leads a planetary science mission. And I'm the Principal Investigator of the Lunar Trailblazer mission, which is a small satellite ride along mission that will study the Moon's water cycle and figure out where there is water ice that robotic missions can explore, that astronauts can use, and why the heck there is water on the sunlit side of the Moon, which was one of the big surprises of the 2000s, when that was measured.

Bethany Ehlmann: So the big news last week was that after a year of hard work on preliminary design, some trials and tribulations that our team worked and worked their way through some technical challenges, and we made it through, and we were confirmed at NASA headquarters by the Associate Administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen. And so that news came out as well. So with that, it's onward to the Moon. And we're in fact today placing some of the orders to purchase some of our components to get building on our instruments and that satellite, which will be delivered at the end of 2022.

Bill Nye: Bethany, just, I thought you said, "The water cycle on the Moon"?

Bethany Ehlmann: Yeah, that's right.

Bill Nye: If I may, what? What?

Bethany Ehlmann: What? What? Yeah, the Moon is wet. Haven't you heard, Bill?

Bill Nye: I have heard. In fact, it was a guy, a grad student under you, Dr. Bell, that was really into lunar ice, Matt-

Jim Bell: Matt Siegler?

Bill Nye: Yes, Matt Siegler, [crosstalk 00:12:13]-

Jim Bell: Yes, undergraduate. Undergraduate, yes.

Bill Nye: Yeah, yeah.

Jim Bell: Yeah, it was [inaudible 00:12:15].

Bethany Ehlmann: Undergrad Matt.

Jim Bell: Yeah.

Bethany Ehlmann: He then went and worked with Dave Page at UCLA.

Jim Bell: And now he's Professor Matt, right?

Bethany Ehlmann: Now he's Professor Matt.

Jim Bell: How these kids grow up, Bill. They just grow up and then they're running the world, you know?

Bill Nye: It's crazy, it's crazy.

Mat Kaplan: Bethany, it was only a couple of weeks ago that we had Casey Hannibal on the show, talking about this data that has come from SOFIA, that big infrared telescope in the side of a 747, that also told us more about water on the Moon. Is your mission, is it complementary to that?

Bethany Ehlmann: Very much, Mat. So we know the Moon is wet, and by "wet" I don't mean liquid water sloshing around on the Moon. What I mean is that we know that there's ice in at least some of the regions at the poles, and then the funny thing is we also know that the H2O or OH molecule is on certain parts of the sunlit side of the Moon. Now, the question is, for that OH, H2O molecule, what the heck is it, really? Should we envision it water molecules hopping around, maybe as a function of temperature? Maybe some of them eventually are escaping off to space, some of them hop their way down to the cold traps.

Bethany Ehlmann: Is it the implanted solar wind, hydrogen, H, bonding with the Os in mineral? Or is it something else? Is it H2O, the molecule, trapped? Maybe it came out of the lunar interior in volcanic de-gassing long ago, and so it's water actually from the interior of the Moon. We don't really know. Now, what Casey and the SOFIA team did is they stared with the SOFIA Observatory, which mostly gets out of Earth's atmosphere and the water in Earth's atmosphere.

Bethany Ehlmann: They stared at a little portion of the Moon, and for that portion, their data are most consistent with it being the H2O molecule trapped in crystalline rock. So what Lunar Trailblazer will do is make maps over a much larger area of the Moon, see if that signature varies as a function of the type of rock, the time of day, and will really add many more pieces to the puzzle that Casey and team did a great job of unraveling with the SOFIA data.

Mat Kaplan: My goodness. So there's at least three ways that you could have ... It's hydroxyl, right? OH?

Bethany Ehlmann: Yeah, OH.

Mat Kaplan: That's amazing, yeah. So you guys, I am so old. "How old are you?" I'm so old.

Jim Bell: How old are you?

Bethany Ehlmann: How old are you?

Mat Kaplan: When I worked on 747s, we worked, I worked on that airplane. United Airlines ordered the 747 that was short, the SP, Special Performance, and that was ideally suited to this mission of mounting a telescope on the side of a 747, with this giant wind deflector, and it works. Anyway, you guys, this is so cool.

Bethany Ehlmann: This is [crosstalk 00:15:09]-

Mat Kaplan: This is so cool.

Bethany Ehlmann: ... Nye, the Science Guy, you are helping make the planes that made the SOFIA Observatory happen. I like it.

Mat Kaplan: Pretty much.

Bill Nye: This is so cool. Bethany, not welcome aboard, but welcome to your position as President. Thank you so much for accepting the job, and Jim, thank you for your years of service, and I'm delighted that you're staying on the board with us.

Mat Kaplan: Jim, before you go, update on Perseverance? Still trucking along toward the Red Planet, right?

Jim Bell: You mean that rover that's landing in 72 days, 22 hours, 15 minutes, and 13 seconds, on February 18th?

Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:15:44].

Jim Bell: 2021, 72 days from now? Yes, everything's going well. All the instruments have been checked out and [inaudible 00:15:51] successfully, [crosstalk 00:15:53]-

Bill Nye: Including the microphone.

Jim Bell: Including the Mastcam, including the microphone, including the Mastcam-Zs, cameras, and now we're going through a whole bunch of practice tests, practice operations tests, and simulation of problems, and watching the team recover from potential problems, etc., etc. So we have a lot to do to get ready, but also everyone's just super excited. The rover's in great health, spacecraft's in great shape, and it's really just going to be up to the entry, descent, and landing engineers now to get it safely down to the surface.

Bill Nye: Speaking of which, when do you guys and gals start living on Mars time?

Jim Bell: We start on landing, where we're living on a combination of Mars time and COVID time. Most of the team will not be at JPL, like we normally are. There'll be a small team of engineers, JPL engineers working at JPL, socially distancing as appropriate. But most of the science team, the instrument teams will be at our home institutions or our homes trying to start the mission virtually. And so we've been practicing that in some of our operations tests as well. It's going to be a very bizarre and new experience with lots of challenges, but we're working on the tools, and capabilities, and sociological interactions that will allow us to do that.

Bethany Ehlmann: Yeah, I mean, I'm going to be working on Jim's Mastcam-Z camera team from the guest bedroom in my home. How crazy is that? Operating things on Mars from your guest bedroom.

Jim Bell: Yeah, yeah.

Mat Kaplan: Sign of the times.

Bill Nye: It really is. It's amazing, and we all rely on this technology that enables us to communicate like this, and it really derived from the space program. You could make that argument. Anyway, you guys, thank you Bethany, thank you Jim, thank you Dr. Ehlmann, Dr. Bell for your presidential leadership, and thank you Mat for having us on the show.

Mat Kaplan: It's a delight to have the three of you back, and I'm sure this won't be the last time for any of you. Bill Nye, Jim Bell, and the new President of The Planetary Society, Bethany Ehlmann. Thanks for your service, folks, and for your leadership.

Jim Bell: Thanks Mat, thanks Bill, thanks Bethany.

Bethany Ehlmann: Thanks Mat, thanks everyone.

Bill Nye: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Mat Kaplan: Caltech planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann is the new President of The Planetary Society, taking over that position from Jim Bell of Arizona State University, and Bill Nye is Chief Executive Officer of the society. Andrew Jones is standing by with his great report on China's busy space program. He'll join me ...

Jennifer Vaughn: Hi, this is Jennifer Vaughn, The Planetary Society's Chief Operating Officer. 2020 has been a year like no other. It challenged us, changed us, and helped us grow. Now, we look forward to a 2021 with many reasons for help. Help us create a great start for this promising new year at When you invest in the Planetary Fund, your year-end gift will be matched up to $100,000 thanks to a generous member. Your support will enable us to explore worlds, defend Earth, and find life elsewhere across the cosmos. Please, learn more and then donate today at Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: Andrew, great pleasure to welcome you back, and we have so much to talk about, specifically about the Chinese space program and their many accomplishments in just the last few months. You are in Finland, of course. That's where you and your family live, and so of course you have a sauna, and of course it is the quietest spot in the house, and that's where you are talking to us from. I hope the heat is not turned on.

Andrew Jones: No, the heat is not turned on. I'm dressed appropriately, I don't have a beer, and I'm not hitting myself with birch branches, so no worries, but it does give me a bit of peace, so that's good.

Mat Kaplan: Well, let's use that temporary island of peace, because I know you have small children there as well, to talk about all this, beginning of course with what is getting the most attention right now, and that has to be this mission which is just about ready to return to Earth. What's up with Chang'e-5? And I'll note that we're talking a couple of days before this show is published, so it's up to date as we know it to be right now.

Andrew Jones: That's right. So this mission is really fast in terms of lunar missions. So we had the launch on November 23, on a Long March-5 from Wenchang, which is China's new coastal spaceport. So that was quite spectacular in itself. The failure of that rocket back in July 2017 meant that we're only now getting round to Chang'e-5. So yeah, three-year delay, but it's been very much worth the wait.

Mat Kaplan: I'll say.

Andrew Jones: From there, we've seen a lot of very stunning footage. So the early part of the mission, it's about four and a half days to the Moon, so we didn't see anything for these trajectory, direction maneuvers, or the insertion into lunar orbit. But from there, we've seen almost sci-fi kind of images, which have been fantastic. So we had the separation of the lander from the Chang'e-5 orbiter, and then we had this descent onto the Moon, which is really just worth watching quite a few times actually, because you get to see so many different things going on.

Mat Kaplan: Yes.

Andrew Jones: You see the spacecraft decelerating a bit as it moves across the Oceanus Procellarum, the target area; you see the spacecraft turn vertical, so you have the landing camera now facing straight down onto the Moon; and you see two different phases where the lander adjusts itself to some degree. And as it's going down, you see all these craters which become bigger, and so big you can't see them anymore, and new craters rising.

Andrew Jones: It's almost like a fractal scene going on there. Then, you see a final kind of hovering phase where the spacecraft chooses where it's going to land in this hazard avoidance mode, and then finally it sets down. And because the Moon just all looks the same you're not actually sure when it's going to land down until you see these blast marks coming out, and finally the soft landing. So that was quite something.

Mat Kaplan: Absolutely spectacular, you are so right.

Andrew Jones: So we were kind of hoping to see this live, and there was a stream up from China, but that went dead about 10 or 20 minutes before we were expecting the start of the descent, so disappointment there. But then this footage ... Well, first, the confirmation of success came, and then we got to see footage of the landing, and from there it's been a bit more open. We had a live streaming of the sampling operations, and this mission is so condensed that they basically have one lunar day to get everything done, even less than that given the sunlight conditions and so on.

Andrew Jones: So they, within a couple of hours, started sampling. We got to see the drill going down into the regolith to collect these pristine samples from below the surface, and then also got to see the robotic arm which they have, with a double-ended scoop, which would be taking material from the surface. So we got to see those things in action. It was taking about 15 minutes, I think, the arm to scoop and deliver some material into this canister, and we got to see all of this live. There was some commentary and some good explanations to what was going on, which was being translated live by someone from China Central Television, and that was great.

Andrew Jones: The ascent vehicle taking off from on top of the lander is really something to see, as is the descent vehicle then meeting up with the orbiter. That footage is, again, quite fantastic, and that was the first robotic lunar orbit rendezvous and docking, so that was quite a step. And that was something, both the liftoff from the Moon and this docking was something that China hasn't done before. The robotic lunar orbit rendezvous had never been done before by any country.

Andrew Jones: So these were big steps for China in terms of engineering and so on, but also these have implications for further exploration, both robotically, because they're looking at going to a near-Earth asteroid in the next few years, also potentially a Mars sampler. This kind of mission profile that China has is similar, in a sense, to the Apollo missions. So this is also part of taking the first steps towards eventually putting Chinese astronauts on the Moon.

Andrew Jones: So this was all really, really big, not just for getting the samples home but also looking to the future. From here, the samples have been transferred from the ascent vehicle into the re-entry capsule, which was attached to the orbiter, the ascent vehicles being detached, jettisoned from the orbiter. So that's all still now in lunar orbit.

Andrew Jones: The ascent vehicle still has propellants, so they're looking at an extended mission for this, and the orbiter is waiting for the optimum window for it to make its trans-Earth injection and come back, because they're looking to make a precise landing in inner Mongolia, which is where the astronauts in the Shenzhou missions also land. So they have to time that just right to come back at the right time, and skip off the atmosphere once, and then come down and finally land in inner Mongolia.

Andrew Jones: So we're waiting for the timing of that. So it's looking like that's going to be late Saturday, US time. But there's always surprises, so it might happen earlier, but that's certainly what it's looking like, and that would be the 23-day mission which they've stated at the outset.

Mat Kaplan: What a tremendous success, at least so far, for China. And I love the comparison to Apollo, because basically, this is the Apollo mission profile: If you substitute robots and a sample of lunar regolith for Armstrong and Aldrin, you're looking at exactly how that took place. And it seems that you are implying, and I've read elsewhere, that China sees this just as the United States did over 50 years ago, as the way to get people to and from the Moon.

Andrew Jones: Absolutely. China, actually, they put out an early mission architecture for getting astronauts to the Moon, and they listed some of the spacecraft and the capabilities which they need and which they have already. In May, they launched a Long March-5B, which is designed to launch the modules for their space station, which they'll start doing next year, in 2021. But the payload, the test payload they had for this, which in terms of mass was comparable to one of these space station modules, was a prototype for a new spacecraft for deep space exploration, upgraded shielding for radiation, also shielding for high-speed re-entry, coming back from the Moon, and this test went really well.

Andrew Jones: So adding life support systems and so on, they might be able to fly this in the next few years. So this test was kind of similar to the Orion EFT-1 flight, which was back in 2014. And I guess the question mark being now which one of those ships flies first, it might be Orion or it might be this new Chinese craft. But yeah, this is another indication, if you like, that China's quite serious about sending astronauts to the Moon. And there was also ...

Andrew Jones: They're working on a new rocket, which would be specifically for launching this spacecraft, kind of based on the Long March-5, but looking more like a version of the Falcon Heavy. So this is something that they're studying mysteriously now. So there's all these different aspects, they're putting together all the different pieces. This isn't something which they've officially approved, a crewed project to put astronauts on the Moon, but that could come either next year, when they release the next new five-year plan, or then in the five years after. But we're going to see some updates on this, and this is definitely something that we should be taking seriously.

Andrew Jones: The other thing I should say from Chang'e-5, actually, and I think this is already in the Bruce Murray Library, the panorama, they've released a couple of panoramas, and these are huge images. And the zoom you can get, you can zoom in on the leg of on the Chang'e-5 lander legs, and you can see how it's impacted, and in granular detail with the regolith, zoom all around. It's really worth taking a look at.

Mat Kaplan: I did not know that. I've seen a fair number of videos of the mission, but here in our own library, at, the Bruce Murray Space Image Library. We'll put up links to a lot of what you're talking about on this week's show page, Even as Chang'e-5 heads toward that return to Earth, and Mongolia as you said, there is other activity on the Moon underway right now by China. What's happening with the other Chang'e spacecraft?

Andrew Jones: Yeah, it's quite something to note that China has, for the moment, I think it was eight spacecraft which are operational, on or around the Moon. Almost forget that. China's first landing was in 2013, with Chang'e-3. So that lander is basically retired, but that still wakes up. Its radioisotope peta units are still working. So it has one payload left, which is an ultraviolet telescope. I think that's been somewhat diminished by cosmic ray strikes and so on, but still, in terms of longevity tests, that's still impressive, seven years on.

Andrew Jones: On the far side of the Moon, we saw the first ever soft landing on the far side, January 2019. The spacecraft are both still doing well, all eight of the main science payloads are still working. And I think this year we've had quite a lot of science coming out of Chang'e-4. The ground-penetrating radar which they have, with two different frequencies, they've taken a look down through the first 10s of meters and found quite differentiated layering, which suggests that there's been quite a lot of thermal activity at different times.

Andrew Jones: And also, with a different frequency, going down to hundreds of meters. Scientists are getting a good look at the local history there. There was a German payload on there which has been recording the radiation dosage, and that's of great interest to future human landings and the projects which various countries have planned for the next few years. Lots of analyses of rock composition and so on, and what that tells about the local area in Von Kármán crater. So there's lots going on with that. I think, actually lunar day 25 should start pretty much as this show goes out, on the Wednesday.

Andrew Jones: So yeah, that's still going strong as well. The relay satellite which they launched to facilitate this mission on the lunar far side, because the far side never faces the Earth. Queqiao, that's still running well. They have the Chang'e-5 test service module, kind of like the orbiter for Chang'e-5. That carried a re-entry module which tested this skip re-entry which Chang'e-5's going to use. But the orbiter module's still in operation around the Moon.

Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:31:14] flotilla.

Andrew Jones: Yeah, so those missions might be extended and they might do something interesting with those, just like they did with this Chang'e-5 test mission, which as Emily Lakdawalla pointed out, when they sent the service module to Earth-Moon Lagrange point two back in 2014, she realized that that might be because they're planning a landing on the lunar far side. So that was the first clue of what they had coming down the pipeline, and it turned out to be true. So it's going to be worth watching.

Mat Kaplan: Great call by our former colleague. Let's turn to another mission. I don't know that there's that much to say about it right now, but I did read that Tianwen-1 is well along on its trip to Mars, with its compatriots also making this trip during this cycle, the Perseverance rover of course, and Hope mission from the United Arab Emirates. Is there anything to add about how Tianwen-1 is doing with another very ambitious mission, with an orbiter and a lander, rover?

Andrew Jones: The last update that I can remember was, I think it was mid-November, it was just a quick update saying that Tianwen-1 had traveled about 300 million kilometers and was about just over 60 million kilometers away from the Earth. So everything's going well with that. They tested a few payloads at that time, everything seems to be going well. Sub-systems are all fine.

Andrew Jones: On October 1st, which was China's National Day, they pulled this little experiment where they detached a small sensor from the spacecraft which had a camera on each side, so you get to see basically what they wanted to do, was have this jettison away, and take pictures of the spacecraft, and show the Chinese national flag. So this was a bit of techno-nationalism, which is very much an international language. You get to see an image of the spacecraft in deep space, which is quite cool, and also you get to see this sensor tumbling away into deep space. That's, again, something worth taking a look at.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, there must've been people at NASA kicking themselves for not thinking of that. Of course, they did turn on the microphone on Perseverance and picked up a little bit of hum from the spacecraft itself. I guess in space, no one can hear you being envious. Let's turn to looking farther out in our solar system, and even beyond: What is this other mission proposal for the outer solar system from China?

Andrew Jones: China has an exploration roadmap for space: One thing which they've had on the horizon in terms of their plans for a while is a mission to Jupiter. So this is still at the early stages, because this won't be launching till around 2030. However, looking at the proposals, and we've seen a couple of proposals come out in some degree of detail, this could be a very, very interesting mission. So how are we doing in terms of humanity for landing on planetary bodies that aren't the Moon?

Mat Kaplan: Well, okay, if you count Mars, and you have to go back awfully far for Venus, and then of course [inaudible 00:34:29] success at Titan, and of asteroids and so on. But there's an awful lot more out there that scientists would love to be studying up close and personal.

Andrew Jones: Indeed. So two proposals I've seen for this mission: First, the Jupiter Callisto Orbiter and the Jupiter System Observer. These are based on Chang'e heritage technology. China's kind of still at the stage where they are building the science for their missions based on what engineering they have. So they're not designing something like the mission to Titan with Dragonflies or anything, but still looking to push out a bit further. These proposals are joint collaboration between Chinese and European scientists.

Andrew Jones: So the idea would be that this mission complements Juno and Europe's JUICE mission, which is coming up much sooner than I thought, actually. One of these proposals would be focusing more on the different Jovian satellites, and their different size, and mass, and composition, and so on, and try to gain insights into how the Jupiter system evolved altogether. Also, Jupiter Trojans might come into this, so the mission might have some kind of further flight beyond Jupiter. But again, this is quite hazy.

Andrew Jones: The idea would be to put down a lander on Callisto, which would be somewhere round about 2036, so this is going to be a long way out. Callisto is outside of the main radiation belt of Jupiter, so that makes things a lot easier in terms of having a spacecraft which can survive in the Jupiter system. The idea would be to check for the sub-surface ocean which is thought to be there, the differentiation to see the layering or lack thereof for Callisto, which is a very interesting moon in this regard, and the exosphere, and lots of other aspects, like the oxygen which is purported to be in this exosphere.

Andrew Jones: This is very early stage, and I'll be writing up the details that we know. I would say that, looking at the people who are involved in this, this is a very, very impressive proposal, with some very prestigious people involved. So there's a good chance we might see something like these missions.

Mat Kaplan: It's just more and more evidence of how ambitious they are and how quickly things are moving, even looking at a landing in 2036.

Andrew Jones: Yeah, and I should say, China's kind of a newcomer to space exploration, but if you look at the name for the mission which they're proposing, it would be Gan De, who is a Chinese astronomer born in the fourth century BCE, and there's a claim that he actually made the first observations of the Galilean, what would become called the Galilean moons.

Andrew Jones: So the idea would be that you can actually see the Galilean moons with your own naked eye if you occlude Jupiter. So that's a bit controversial, the claim itself is a bit controversial, but there's some documentation and evidence that maybe this did or did not happen. Going a long way back, China made big contributions to astronomy a long time ago. They're trying to reflect that in the name of the mission, so that's something that we might see.

Mat Kaplan: Absolutely fascinating. Keep an eye on for this new piece by Andrew, and I will watch for that as well. I can't wait to see what you'll have dug up. Last time you visited with us, we talked about an interstellar mission, so called, by China, that is at least being considered. What's the latest on that? Remind us.

Andrew Jones: Yeah, so the idea for that was to launch two small probes towards separate ends of the solar system, so one heading towards the head of the heliosphere, would be the one towards the tail. And the idea would be to run a range of experiments with regards to cosmic rays, and dust, and the heliopause, and take a range of measurements which would be following on from what the Voyagers have done. They're all going to have fly-bys, and there will probably be images and so on taken. One of them was going to, think, have an impacter on a fly-by of Neptune, which would've been of great interest, and be something really, really spectacular perhaps. However, I'm not sure if that's happening.

Andrew Jones: This proposal, which hasn't been accepted as far as I know, but it's a very strong candidate if you look at the people who were involved with the mission, and the fact that they're talking about it so much. It looks like some form of this mission's going to go ahead, but they're looking at the trajectories for the two probes. What they are looking at is visiting some Kuiper belt objects on their way out. One would head towards [inaudible 00:39:37], I learnt from actually researching this, was [inaudible 00:39:41] has a moon called [inaudible 00:39:42]. So that would be one, and the other target would have been something which slips my mind.

Mat Kaplan: Don't worry. [inaudible 00:39:50] is plenty ambitious enough. That's a real wow.

Andrew Jones: They're certainly looking at maximizing what they can get out of this in science terms.

Mat Kaplan: I also, Andrew, read just this morning about a mission I had not previously heard of. Of course, you had, not surprisingly, GECAM, Gravitational Wave Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor, which may take the 2020 award for most tortured space acronym. What's going on here? What do they have in mind?

Andrew Jones: This actually might launch in the next few days. Well, I say "it", I should say "they", because what this is is two small satellites, and I think they're around about 140 kilograms each. The idea is to launch so that one will be on one side of the Earth and the other will be orbiting on the other side. So the idea would be that you get a complete field of view coverage of the sky, and what they're going to do is be picking up gamma ray and X-ray bursts. The point of this mission is to cover the sky and then, using actually China's navigation constellation, Beidou, detect, say, a gamma ray burst, and then be able to feed messages down to the ground.

Andrew Jones: And by picking up two readings from the same gamma ray burst, give a good localization of where it came from, and then other telescopes on the ground would be able then to point at that sky, that area of sky, and find out if these events are related to gravitational wave events. So basically, they're looking at colliding neutron stars, and black holes, and really massive explosive events going on in the universe, and try to help this kind of multi-messenger astronomy which we have going now.

Andrew Jones: My understanding is that they will give new sensitivity, it doesn't exist at the moment, to the search for the gravitational ... Sorry, the electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves. So this is something they put together really fast. So we had the ... Was it 2017? With the first gravitational wave detection. So this mission's been put together really fast. This was an institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Institute of High Energy Physics. They've been doing lots of missions and experiments related to X-ray and gamma ray detectors, so they were well placed to put a mission together fast and get these satellites up there.

Andrew Jones: So that's something we might see in the next few days, but being China, we're not quite sure when it's happening or if we'll get more notice at all. So something to watch. There'll be a lot of news about it when it goes up, if it comes up successfully.

Mat Kaplan: So interesting, and really pure space science here. I mean, maybe bring some additional prestige to China, but it does seem like this is really part of wanting to know how the universe works, which is after all why so much of this stuff happens, the building of LIGO and other space science efforts.

Andrew Jones: Absolutely. China's only just, in the last few years, started its pure space science missions, but I think we had four in the last few years, one looking at dark matter, quantum communications satellite, which was also testing entanglement and all kinds of Einsteinian theories and so on. From there, they've actually approved a new round of missions, and this was one of the smaller missions which was kind of fast tracked. But yeah, over the next few years we're going to see a lot of very interesting space science missions. So that's another area in which China is now emerging.

Mat Kaplan: We only have a few moments left, but I wonder if you could say something, because you follow this as well, about what is happening in the space industry in China, commercial developments there, or at least semi-commercial developments might be a better way to put it. A lot happening, including, you had mentioned to me as we were preparing for this, some mysterious space plane. And I wonder, is this more like a Dream Chaser or an X-37?

Andrew Jones: Well, I was hoping you could tell me, because we really don't know much about it at all. Yeah, we had a few clues. I think three or four years ago, [CASK 00:44:03], which is the main space contractor for China, they mentioned they were going to try to launch something around 2020 which would be reusable and have the features of both a spacecraft and an aircraft, so suggesting something fixed winged. Then, we saw a mission patch come out on social media, Chinese social media this year, which referenced the Long March 2F, which is used to launch astronauts. However, there was no Shenzhou missions coming up because the space station modules weren't ready to go up.

Andrew Jones: So I was like, "Huh, okay, what could this be?" Then, there were modifications which we could see going on, using satellite images. There were modifications going on to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, which is in the Gobi Desert. Putting all of this together, we were like, "Okay, they're going to try something soon." There was a release of air space closure notices. This was kind of the launch pad at Jiuquan, which is for this Long March 2F. So we kind of knew what was going on, but there's been complete secrecy around this.

Andrew Jones: We know this basically went up for a few days, it released a satellite, which is probably just a test of having a space plane which can release payloads and so on. And then it came back down, and we haven't heard anything about it since. So no images, but this is something they're talking about lowering the cost of access to space for astronauts and for payloads. So this is, again, another area in which China is making big strides forward, and definitely needs to be watched.

Mat Kaplan: Now, I'm going to call it as X-37 like for the moment, with all this secrecy. And on the more commercial side, do you see evidence that China intends to compete with the SpaceXs of the world?

Andrew Jones: Well, now, that's a big question. In 2014, China made a change in its policy allowing private capital into the space sector, and allowed companies and individuals to break off and to start making their own companies. That is, I think, quite clearly a reaction to what's going on in the US, in launch with regards to SpaceX, and then, say, looking at Planet Labs and so on, and [inaudible 00:46:13] and communications. Next year, we will see some interesting tests from two launch companies, one LandSpace and the other would be ispace. And they're both developing liquid methane, liquid oxygen launch vehicles which will be reusable. So vertical takeoff, vertical landing using variable thrust engines so they can land just like a Falcon 9.

Andrew Jones: This is a very interesting development, and they've done it relatively quickly. I think LandSpace will be going expendable first, but ispace, they will be doing some hop tests, first a few meters, then a kilometer, then 100 kilometers. So again, another area in which there's so much going on, lots of innovation, lots of things which could have a big impact on the space industry.

Mat Kaplan: Andrew, I am so grateful that we have you to look to for all of this, because there is so much going on in China, the Middle Kingdom. I look forward to checking in with you again. I suspect we will once again have much more to talk about, but thank you for all of this.

Andrew Jones: Thanks for having me. It's quite startling to actually look back over what's happened over the last year, and hard to take in all these different spheres of activity and looks at the events it's made. So yeah, it's really helpful and it's great to talk about this.

Mat Kaplan: It sure it. Andrew Jones is a contributing editor to The Planetary Society. He also writes for and SpaceNews, a couple of other great sources. And as we mentioned, he's a Finland-based freelance journalist who covers the China space program. You can read his tweets at @aj_fi.

Bill Nye: Seasons greetings, Bill Nye here. The holidays are racing toward us. We've got the perfect present for the space enthusiast in your life: A gift membership to The Planetary Society will make her or him part of everything we do, like flying our own LightSail spacecraft, two of them, advocating for space exploration, keeping our planet from getting hit by an asteroid, and this show.

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Mat Kaplan: Time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. Here is the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society. It's Bruce Betts, who is ready to tell us about lots of stuff up in the night sky. And I will tell you, because I don't think I have yet, we have not one but two great prizes for your new contest this week.

Bruce Betts: That's great.

Mat Kaplan: Can't wait to tell people about them.

Bruce Betts: Well, you're going to have to, because I have a lot of things to say.

Mat Kaplan: Go for it.

Bruce Betts: There's just all that good stuff I mentioned last week, but here it comes: You got the Geminid meteor shower, best meteor shower of the year typically, with over 100 meteors per hour from a dark site. But it's an almost new moon, so that's peaking on December 13th and 14th, that night, will be good for a couple days before or after, and is a really great opportunity to check out some meteors. But wait, don't order yet. Total solar eclipse visible from Chile and Argentina, portions of them, on December 14th. Partial eclipse visible from much of South America, but not Southern California, just to be clear, Mat.

Bruce Betts: Jupiter and Saturn coming together, the closest they'll be in the sky in the last 400 years-ish on December 21st. That's low in the west on 21st December, but you can watch them getting closer together now and farther apart after 21st, Jupiter being the really bright one, and Saturn being kind of yellowish and still looking like a bright star. And you still got Mars in the evening sky, looking rather sober in the south, and Venus in the pre-dawn east. It's a party out there.

Mat Kaplan: Two items: I, as it happens, will be in the Southern California mountains on the night of the 13th. What part of the sky ... I know you can really look anywhere, right, but what part of the sky is going to be the best direction to look in?

Bruce Betts: Well, the great news is you can look just about anywhere. Technically, once Gemini, which is the radiant of the meteor shower, comes up in the middle of the evening, you can look 45 degrees away from it and maximize your opportunity. But fundamentally, look for the darkest part of the sky you can find and that's probably your best bet, although you'll be in the mountains, so look between the trees.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, that'll be the trick. So here's another trick: I've noticed Jupiter and Saturn getting lower and lower in the west at dusk, and you're telling me, I want your reassurance, that in, what did you say, the 21st, 12 days from now, they're still going to be high enough to enjoy?

Bruce Betts: Yes, but you've nailed the challenge: They will be low in the west, but they'll still be up and visible. But you want to look, as soon as it's getting dark, and pick them out when they're as high up as possible.

Mat Kaplan: A challenge. Okay, thank you, I accept.

Bruce Betts: Then, we can go on to this week in space history: 1962, the first ever planet flyby was made by Mariner 2 at Venus. 10 years later, 1972, Apollo 17 was on the Moon, and then became the spacecraft carrying the last humans to walk on the Moon off the Moon, this week, 1972. We move on to Random Space Fact: So the names of lunar maria, the dark areas, mostly refer to sea and weather-related features, and some of them refer to states of mind, like Mare Serenitatis or Mare Tranquillitatis, tranquility.

Bruce Betts: But then you had Luna 3, when it was the first spacecraft to see the far side of the Moon, they found a mare, and the Soviets wanted to name it Mare Moscoviense, and I'm sure that's poor Latin pronunciation, but basically Moscow Mare. And there was pushback that it wasn't following the conventions, but then it was accepted by the IAU, with the justification that Moscow is a state of mind.

Mat Kaplan: So this suggests that Neil Armstrong should've said, "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle is mellow."

Bruce Betts: That was actually his first draft, and-

Mat Kaplan: That's good.

Bruce Betts: And NASA said, "Hmm, no."

Mat Kaplan: "Hmm, no."

Bruce Betts: All right, we move on to the trivia contest. We'll come back to mare, don't worry, maria, maria.

Mat Kaplan: And Latin.

Bruce Betts: And Latin, but first let's do some other Latin: I asked you how many of the IAU defined 88 constellations have domestic dog, so dog in Latin, in their name? How'd we do, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: A very big response this time, bigger than we've had for quite a while, perhaps because people wanted this book by Alice George, The Last American Hero: The Remarkable Life of John Glenn. It was remarkable. I have the answer in front of me, but maybe I'll read Dave Fairchild's response first, our poet laureate in Kansas, "Like keys on a piano are the constellations where we have a set of 88, a stellar bill of fare. Now, three of them are doggos: We have hunting, big, and little, pronouncing them in Latin, on that part I'm noncommittal." You want to take this on? Do you want to give them a shot in the original Latin?

Bruce Betts: Oh, sure, I'll give ... I can probably do a great job because my high school taught Latin. I did not take it, but they taught it. I was Latin adjacent. So we have Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Canes Venatici: The Greater Dog or Big Dog, the Lesser Dog, and the Hunting Dogs that hang out in the sky with [inaudible 00:54:52] constellation, who's doing some hunting.

Mat Kaplan: Those are, in fact, exactly the responses that we got from our winner this week, first-time winner, Dimitri Bonan in Virginia. He's going to get that copy of The Last American Hero: The Remarkable Life of John Glenn. Congratulations, Dimitri. We're happy to have you on board and you give hope to other people out there who have been waiting patiently for a big win. Andrew Miller in Ohio, "Ironically, as I was researching constellation names so that I could make my entry into this contest, my own dog was barking at me like crazy. Wonder if he knew what I was looking at?" Dog guy that you are, I knew you'd like this stuff.

Bruce Betts: I do. Well, that's why I asked a dog question.

Mat Kaplan: Burton Caldwell in New York, "My two dogs enjoy a good barking session while I'm outside sky watching. I watch, they bark."

Bruce Betts: They're probably barking at the other dogs in the sky.

Mat Kaplan: Okay, attention Harry Potter fans, John Guyton in Australia, "Three, one for each head of Fluffy. Hagrid would be proud." And finally, because we got this from a couple of people, well, Torsten Zimmer in Germany and Mark Little, Northern Ireland among them, this is how Torsten responded, "Gee, there's even a constellation named after a poop deck." Then he added, "But not a single one is named after the most beautiful animal on Earth, the one who purrs. Humanity really sucks."

Mat Kaplan: What he's talking about there is Puppis, Puppis, or Poop-us, I suppose, and that inspired this poem from [Gene Lewan 00:56:30] in Washington, "A Scottish deerhound by the name of [Claire 00:56:34] won best in show this year. Of all the breeds both large and small, she was found to have no peers. The constellation kennel club, also known as the IAU, recognizes three dogs of 88. Dog lovers think far too few. A major one, a lesser breed, a hunting group makes three. We could've had another one if we simply mispronounced Puppies."

Bruce Betts: "Here, Puppis."

Mat Kaplan: That's it. We can move right on, and we'll announce those two new prizes.

Bruce Betts: We're returning to the maria on the Moon. What are the only two maria on the Moon named after people? Go to

Mat Kaplan: You've got until Wednesday, that's Wednesday, December 16th at 8:00 AM Pacific Time to get us the answer, and if you're among those who has the correct answer, you will have a shot at selecting you to receive, well, this is not new because we made the announcement last week, about the new Planetary Society baseball cap. So we're going to give away another one of those. You can see it at or, because that's where our store lives.

Mat Kaplan: Also, I know a lot of you, maybe most or all of you, heard the Space Policy edition a few days ago, the December Space Policy edition, and Casey talked to Teasel Muir-Harmony, the Curator, one of the curators at the National Air and Space Museum. She's written this terrific book, Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo. And in particular, they talk about the international ramifications for the United States of the Apollo program, which were largely very positive. Anyway, it's Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo from Basic Books, and the publisher will be happy to send you a copy along with your cap if you win.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there, look up in the night sky, and think about your favorite body of water. Thank you and good night.

Mat Kaplan: There's a lake in the high country above Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, which is just Heaven, and if I could remember the name I would tell it to you. I remember his name. He's Bruce Betts, the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society, who joins us every week here for What's Up. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and it's made possible by its proud members. Join us for the start of the Ehlmann Era at Mark Hilverda is our associate producer, Josh Doyle composed our theme which is arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. Ad astra.