Planetary Radio • May 18, 2022

Life, the Universe and Britney Schmidt

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Britney Schmidt

Board of Directors of The Planetary Society; Associate Professor, Astronomy, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Our in-depth, fascinating conversation with Cornell University professor Britney Schmidt touches on how we’ll recognize life when we find it elsewhere, her sub-ice exploring robotic submarine, why we need an even bigger space telescope and the best place for ice cream at Cornell. Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts goes Hollywood with this week’s space trivia contest.

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Headshot of Britney Schmidt Britney Schmidt portrait
Icefin robotic oceanographer
Icefin robotic oceanographer Icefin is a hybrid remote or autonomous underwater vehicle (ROV/AUV) that is both modular and field-portable. It is essentially a small, long-range, deep-water, under-ice, robotic oceanographer.Image: Planetary Habitability and Technology Lab

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Trivia Contest

This Week’s Question:

What Messier catalog object could have been named after a Natalie Portman movie?

This Week’s Prize:

It’s a surprise prize!

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, May 25 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

Why is there a depiction of a snake on the Perseverance rover?

Winner:

The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the May 4, 2022 space trivia contest:

Name all asteroids that are bigger than Psyche and that have already been visited by a spacecraft. Exclude Ceres as it is now classified as a dwarf planet.

Answer:

Vesta is the only asteroid that has been visited by a spacecraft and is bigger than Psyche. The spacecraft was Dawn, of course, back in 2011. Dawn’s second destination, Ceres, is classified as a dwarf planet.

Transcript

Mat Kaplan: Life, the universe and Britney Schmidt this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Get ready for a bonus length, wide ranging fascinating conversation with astronomer, planetary scientist, explorer and science enthusiast, Britney.

Mat Kaplan: We'll talk about progress toward the detection of life elsewhere and how we'll know we found it. Also, her very cool robotic submarine, her many trips to the Antarctic, the outlook for planetary exploration laid out by the decadal survey, why an even bigger space telescope is needed and the joys of eating ice cream at Cornell University. That's where she teaches Carl Sagan's old class.

Mat Kaplan: Of course, we've also got Bruce Betts who doesn't usually get to name drop movie stars in the space trivia contest, but he does this time. The chief scientist also has a cool random space fact and more. Are you in or near London? So am I, or I will be soon after this episode is published. I hope you'll join us for Planetary Radio Live on the evening of Monday, May 23rd at Imperial College London. It's a free event, but you need to RSVP.

Mat Kaplan: Go to eventbrite.com and search for Planetary Radio live. That's also where you can learn more about this special show. Be sure to say hi. The James Webb Space Telescope is now ever so close to beginning its groundbreaking work. Want a sneak preview? Head to planetary.org/downlink where the May 13 edition of our free weekly newsletter is topped by a real stunner.

Mat Kaplan: It pairs an image from the older Spitzer infrared space telescope with one from the JWST of the same region of space. Wow. I bet you'll be as blown away by the improvement as I was. The InSight Mars lander has scored a big one, maybe the big one. The probe's exquisitely sensitive seismometer recorded a magnitude five Marsquake. It will use that shaker to learn even more about the red planet's interior.

Mat Kaplan: And by the way, who says Mars is dead? Much more waits for you in the downlink. You can have it sent to you each week when you subscribe. Hey, why not also subscribe to my own free monthly Planetary Radio newsletter? You'll find the link on this week's show page at planetary.org/radio. Britney Schmidt recently joined the faculty of the astronomy and earth and atmospheric sciences departments at Cornell University. That's after spending nearly eight years as a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Mat Kaplan: She and her team develop robotic tools and instruments and use spacecraft to study the worlds of our solar system and beyond. Ice and ocean worlds like Europa hold a special fascination for her, which is one reason she has spent a substantial portion of her life in science in Antarctica. As you'll hear, she is deeply involved in not just the search for life, but figuring out how we'll know it when we see it.

Mat Kaplan: Here's our online conversation from a few days ago. Britney, welcome back to Planetary Radio. It's great to see you and I look forward to talking about all kinds of stuff, including how we're going to detect life elsewhere in the universe. Welcome.

Britney Schmidt: Thanks. Nice to be back.

Mat Kaplan: I have to start with the recent release of the planetary science and astrobiology decadal survey which we've talked about on the show already. Casey Dreyer has been on the show to talk about it. It's going to come up I'm sure over and over. As you know, the top recommendations, at least for big new flagship missions were a Uranus orbiter, and if there's any money left somewhere decades away, that Orbilander, that ship that's going to maybe someday orbit and then land on Enceladus. There was a separate recommendation of a cheaper Enceladus mission as well. Were you pleased by all of this, at least at that level, if not the entire report?

Britney Schmidt: I'll say I wasn't particularly surprised by anything that was in the decadal, which could be good and bad. It looked a lot like what we thought was going to happen on the way in. Of course, there's always some priorities that were nobody's particular choice, but it happens. Personally, if we were going to go to one of the ice giants, I was really hoping for Neptune, but the committee has decided to go the direction of Uranus.

Mat Kaplan: As you know, we were talking to folks behind that Neptune Odyssey case study just a few weeks ago so I did feel kind of bad for them. But at least we're going to an ice giant finally, right?

Britney Schmidt: Yeah. I think it'll all depend on whether there's enough money left after the Mars sample-return mission, which is the elephant in the room, which is when I mentioned I wasn't all that surprised by the findings in the decadal, that's really what I meant, is that that's a bit of a challenge to imagine doing additional missions. But I'm hopeful that that will continue to happen, certainly a strong case for it.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, at least the right words are there. And of course that's why I said recommendations of new missions because the true highest priority according to the decadal was getting those samples from Mars back to earth. I want to look back a few months to the release of the astrophysics decadal because I saw that you were part of the case study that was submitted as part of that decadal survey, for that big space telescope that was called LUVOIR. I forget what the acronym stood for, but how did you feel about its recommendation?

Britney Schmidt: So LUVOIR is large UV optical and infrared. It's primarily optical. And that's actually what makes it the most interesting to me. So it is actually, if you want to think about it, it's super Hubble. So Hubble has just completely revolutionized our understanding of the universe and of the solar system. So it is a uniformly important mission to anyone in planetary science or astronomy.

Britney Schmidt: All fields can use it, all investigators can use it. Anyone can propose to use these giant observatories. And that's something that actually distinguishes them from the missions that we have in the planetary science realm, is that those tend to be very specific and smaller groups of people are benefiting or at least directly funded through those mission lines. So it kind of makes the great observatories, as they call them, majorly important parts of any part of NASA's science, is that anyone can use them.

Britney Schmidt: And so if we think about what Hubble's done, right? The Hubble Deep Field, the images of the solar system, the detection of the moons of Pluto, any of these amazing discoveries that Hubble has done, Hubble did all of that with a 2.4 meter primary mirror. If you think about that, the resolving power or the resolution that a space telescope has goes up as basically the square of its radius.

Britney Schmidt: And I would contend that the science value goes up by maybe the fourth or fifth power of that. Because what you can see really determines how you understand something. And so what they've chosen in choosing this large optical telescope, which is the recommendation, it's very similar to the LUVOIR-B concept or supersized version of what was called HabEx is basically an eight meter primary mirror. Think about that. So from about two meters for Hubble to an eight meter primary is an incredible change in power.

Britney Schmidt: And in fact, it represents the opportunity to maybe directly image exoplanets for the first time in higher resolution. And not just exoplanets, sorry, we've actually directly imaged exoplanets before, but they are very far away from their star. This type of a telescope has the ability to image earth-like planets around other stars. And so it's an incredibly powerful technique and technology that'll be great for studying the origins of the universe.

Britney Schmidt: So going out into the UV allows you to look at cosmic origins. So some of the farthest reaches of our universe. And going into the infrared allows you to characterize everything from dust in the interstellar media to planetary surfaces and atmospheric signatures of exoplanet. So it's a really, really exciting concept.

Mat Kaplan: And you do see the heritage of LUVOIR in this. You mentioned HabEx, which was that habitable exoplanet explorer, I think was also optical near infrared, near ultraviolet telescope.

Britney Schmidt: Yeah, mostly optical. And so they were kind of two different purposes. So much like in the planetary science decadal survey, in the astrophysics decadal survey a number of different concepts were being looked at. It works a little bit differently in that community like I said, because everyone has access to those telescopes once they're flown. And so there were other concepts that folks had looked at.

Britney Schmidt: They were looking at gravity, they were looking at mid infrared. They've looked at x-ray telescopes, things like that. So a large number of technologies are possible in the astrophysics decadal as large missions. And there were two that were focused on optical technologies. The primary difference between them being the size of the detector and basically how broad the wavelength spectrum we could actually make observations.

Britney Schmidt: The HabEx concept was looking also at a star shade versus another technology where you just block out the central star called a coronagraph. And the HabEx mission was much smaller primary mirror than was the LUVOIR concept. So neither it was directly advocated for, but the eventual recommendation of like an eight meter primary mirror is very close to what we called LUVOIR-B.

Mat Kaplan: So it sounds like you would like to see that move forward as quickly as possible.

Britney Schmidt: Oh, absolutely. Those types of capabilities are generation defining. I mean, everyone's been touched by Hubble, by something that it did. And as we're moving into a new kind of perspective on the universe, one in which planets become real places, planets around other stars potentially become real places that we think about in real ways, that's really amazing. It represents a lot of change. And even within the solar system.

Britney Schmidt: So for folks who are interested in planetary science and exploration, the things that an eight meter space telescope could do for the solar system is amazing. You could image any asteroid and do that at levels that you could put shape models together and understand these worlds tens of kilometers scale, a few tens of kilometer scale resolution on any of the Jovian moons.

Britney Schmidt: We'd be able to look at the solar system at really, really high resolution. So it allows us to do things like track storms, look for changes in the atmospheres of Pluto and Triton and Titan and trying to look at surface change in other planets. So it's really a different class of observatory even compared to things on the ground.

Mat Kaplan: As we speak, I think it was this morning NASA announced that the James Webb Space Telescope, the JWST is almost ready to start doing astronomy. And I've had a lot of people on this show talk about yeah, okay, we want to look back toward the beginning of the universe, but we're also going to look around the solar system. Are you excited about what the JWST may be able to do for us in our own neighborhood?

Britney Schmidt: Absolutely. It's already looking fantastic. I don't know if you've had a chance to see the calibration images there. They're tremendous.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, beautiful.

Britney Schmidt: They've really done a great job with that telescope. It's really, really important and what it's going to be able to do. I think back to exoplanets starting to really get great detection of atmospheric composition, but also looking in the outer edges of our solar system. The infrared is very important. You can detect water, you can look at volatiles and things like that.

Britney Schmidt: And we talk a lot about the big planets, the big flashy things, but one of the ways that the infrared is so important is for imaging small bodies, the asteroids and comets, members of the Oort cloud looking for planetary bodies in the outer solar system and characterizing them with this larger 6.4 meter primary mirror in this wavelength range that we haven't been able to explore in space as well is very exciting.

Mat Kaplan: Back to the home planet, how many trips have you made to the top and bottom of our world?

Britney Schmidt: Well, the closest I've been, well, I guess I've flown over in a plane over the Arctic circle, but one Arctic field program. Few times I've visited friends, I've been to Iceland, spent a lot of time in Northern Norway. As far as for science, we've done one Arctic season looking at Pingos which are an ice-cored mountain that we find on the earth and we think on Mars, as well as the asteroid Ceres, may have some relevance to the ocean world as well. But I've now been eight times to Antarctica, couple different projects, different funding agencies, different international organizations, but it's been a lot of fun. So I'm officially a bipolar scientist.

Mat Kaplan: I love that. One of my few regrets of things that got away is one of those more recent trips that you made to Antarctica. When we were hoping, we thought maybe we'd be able to get a satellite connection and actually talk to you while you were out there on the ice. Just it wasn't going to work out, it just technically wasn't possible. But my goodness, the interest that so much of humanity still has in the south pole, that's sort of the popular version of it. But in Antarctica, that continent that still has such special status for so many of us, why is it so special for you as you investigate ice and the stuff that's underneath it?

Britney Schmidt: It's one of these places that just captures your imagination. And for me, it only gets more so every time I'm there. It's definitely not a continent for everyone. Not everyone wants to go be super cold and have everything just be a hundred times harder, but I really enjoy that kind of an experience. There's something about the scale of it.

Britney Schmidt: The way I would explain it to people is if you remember the first time that you stood by the ocean or the first time that you were in the middle of Arizona, and it was a dark night with no clouds, right? The feeling that you get of being small and insignificant and just filled with awe at the size of this planet and what it does, that's the kind of feeling you have every day, at least I have every day that I'm in Antarctica.

Britney Schmidt: It's the kind of thing that at least for me has never lost its luster. And so getting to go down there is my greatest honor and kind of motivates almost everything that I think about. And it really changed my perspective on how we view our planet and how we view ourselves as part of that process and then also how we see the rest of the solar system and how we explore it and think about it.

Britney Schmidt: In particular, it is the kind of place that takes your assumptions and sets them on their head. As scientists, this is a really important thing to do because we're often kind of following a compass or following an idea and having this new perspective is really, really important to make sure it's actually pointing in the right direction. So I've really enjoyed that part of it.

Britney Schmidt: And for me, I know anything I can do to try to help figure out how to make this place a better place as we try to understand other planets, that really resonates with me. And so the chance to go down to Antarctica, we're always trying to serve kind of many purposes. We're doing earth science for the sake of earth science. We're doing planetary analog research. So we're comparing environments on the earth to those that we want to understand on other planets.

Britney Schmidt: And there's fundamental physical laws that we are exploring in this way that are very different from the experiences you'd have in other environments. And so those things are really important, but the preservation of our environment and our ecosystems and responding to the very real change that's happening as a consequence of our own actions is another very important part of it. So it's nice because I like to think of it as there's a cost to it.

Britney Schmidt: There's a personal and carbon and a financial cost, all of this exploration. And so if you're just going down there for one thing, any more things that you can bring back, any more lessons you can bring back or more work you can do at the same time just increases the value of that investment.

Mat Kaplan: Let me ask you a question that has only just occurred to me. You've been down there enough times now, and over enough years, have you seen a change in Antarctica? Have you seen it evolve or devolve due to climate change or any other factors?

Britney Schmidt: Yeah, absolutely I have. So now I've got about a 12 year direct observation, me boots on the ground. But I've worked with people who have been working there since the '70s in some cases and then they worked with people that were there in the original initial characterization of the continent. For example, the snow style that we see is rapidly changing.

Mat Kaplan: Really.

Britney Schmidt: The amount of snow, and when you see it, is changing. The extent of the sea ice changes, but that one's actually in the Southern hemisphere and in particular near McMurdo that's not a linear relationship the way it is in the Arctic. The Arctic now is a much simpler relationship, the warmer it is, the less ice there is. It's a little bit more non-linear in the Southern hemisphere, but we do see these changes for sure.

Britney Schmidt: One of the things that has happened is we're having to really change the way that we do flights. And that has changed dramatically since I started going down. Just in 12 years, the continued melting of the runways is getting earlier and more intense and so the types of planes that we can land at different parts of the season has changed in 12 years.

Britney Schmidt: We have, and when I see we, I mean the Antarctic programs, have tried to move where the primary air fields are located, because we use the ice as a runway, right? So it has to be groomed so that the military planes can come in and so that the other planes, the smaller planes that are contracted can come in. And so these larger planes are not able to get down there for a lot of the time that they used to be able to come down.

Britney Schmidt: And so those types of changes are really visible. Not the last time that I was out there, but the time before I was in a place called Thwaites Glacier. And we were in a place that in the last 20 years has lost tens of kilometers of ice off of this glacier system, this tongue that sticks out into the ocean. As we're there, you can actually see kind of the crevices working.

Britney Schmidt: We could only be in a very specific area, and one of the most beautiful, but disturbing sounds that I've ever heard in my life is on the warm days, we could actually hear the snow melting and dripping into the crevices underneath us. And so these crevices are bridged by ice. So the crevice is a giant crack that goes from the surface, or it comes sometimes from the bottom down into the glacier.

Britney Schmidt: And normally you can't walk across those, you're usually up on snow. And if its snow bridge is deep enough, then you're safe. Or if there's ice lenses that actually can reconnect across those crevices and they do that and they do that from melting snow. So the crevices happen, then the snow melts or the snow falls, and then it melts during part of the season and becomes an ice layer.

Britney Schmidt: But it doesn't mean you can't hear it. And so that was wild, was actually hearing water dripping through the snow, dripping through the firn into glaciers below us was a crazy experience. And that's an unnerving experience, right? You know you're standing on top of one of these things. So anyway, so that was a climate and an interesting experience. In fact, when we were headed out to Thwaites as kind of as a joke and in medium taste, we'd say one of my students who was going to a different part of the continent, much more stable part sent us with floaties. So I thought that was really funny. We had a gift open when we got out to Thwaites and it was like these tiny penguin, not penguin flamingo floaties. It was really funny.

Mat Kaplan: And you put around your waist [inaudible 00:22:12].

Britney Schmidt: No, and through your arms like little arm floaties.

Mat Kaplan: Right, right, right.

Britney Schmidt: But anyway, it was just really funny. So yeah. So there's a few experiences like that. It's real, it's happening and man is it unfortunate. We're trying to figure out how much, how fast and what to do about it.

Mat Kaplan: Good Lord. That's disturbing. Are you headed back soon? And I hope you'll be very careful where you step.

Britney Schmidt: I hope so. So we officially just got done with our last currently funded project. So we just got back. So we spent from October to January through the end of January working with the New Zealand program, partially funded by the US program, but partially funded by the New Zealand programs.

Britney Schmidt: We're starting a collaboration so we're hoping that not this coming year, but the year following, we might get a chance to go out with the British and the Norwegian. So that's our newest fingers crossed that that'll happen. And so there's a few things that we're... We've always got one in the hopper so we're trying to work on that now.

Mat Kaplan: I don't need to remind the people who are listening to us in the Southern hemisphere, but October to January, so basically spring and into summer, you're in Antarctica. Are you still working with that very cool looking submarine that looks like a yellow rocket for use underneath ice? What's happening with Icefin that you started to develop before you got to Cornell?

Britney Schmidt: Yep. Icefin is still going. We're working on version four now. As any technologist will tell you, you're never done. You always have something that you want to do next. And if you're a scientist, there's always one more instrument you wish you could fit on it. So we've been refining it as we go. And so I've just moved from Georgia Tech to Cornell University.

Britney Schmidt: My research group and the engineers and the robots and everybody are in the process of moving. So yeah, so Icefin will be based out of Cornell now, and we'll be looking for its next new projects. So we've got a few ideas for Greenland, few ideas for Antarctica and then some new collaborations we're working on as well, so that should be really fun.

Britney Schmidt: And then we're also working on a, we call it Saltfin. It's not really what it'll be called, but we're working on a robot, an instrument package for a cruise next summer to the Gulf of Mexico, hypersaline environment at the base of the Gulf of Mexico. So we're pretty excited about that. We thought we'd give this whole field work in a warm place thing a try, but we're not very trusting of these warm temperatures and sun and short sleeves and things like that.

Mat Kaplan: I don't know, you might get spoiled. When we look at Icefin, are we possibly looking at the ancestor of a robot that may someday go down through the ice on Europa or Enceladus and poke around in those salty oceans?

Britney Schmidt: I certainly hope so. That is its long-term goal. Back to this idea of trying to do as much as you can with the resources you have, Icefin is a platform that we're using to test lots of instrumentation and also just ways of thinking about exploration under the ice that just aren't developed yet and that would need to be in order to facilitate exploring one of these worlds beyond the earth. When we're working on that, we're also trying to do this really great earth science. And so there's this kind of meet in the middle mentality. So Icefin itself will probably never go but I like to tell people that its great grandrobots will hopefully be in space.

Mat Kaplan: Exactly.

Britney Schmidt: And it's funny too to think of it that way, but some of the instruments that we've already tested on it and that are in development are the kinds of things that may go to other planets even Mars. Just because it's being used under the ice doesn't mean that it couldn't be valuable somewhere else. And then the thoughts about autonomy and how you think about experiment design and things like that, all of that migrates really well to other parts of planetary and earth science.

Mat Kaplan: Among the links that we will provide on this week's show page, planetary.org/radio will be a link to the Icefin site. And I hope people will go there if only to see this terrific video made by the Wall Street Journal about Icefin and your work there. You are prominently featured in that video. And it's wonderful to look at. I love looking at the little, what do you call them? Thrust units or propellers that are built into this submarine which has five degrees of orientation that it can control, but also the controller. Can you tell people what somebody sits with to run this submarine way below your feet?

Britney Schmidt: Yeah, we use a PlayStation controller most of the time. So we can pre-program roots, we can tell it where to go, but we also live drive it. And it's actually one of the things I tried really hard not to do, was to have to drive it. I liked what we called either the captain position or the mission commander kind of role where you sit behind the pilot and the pilot's driving.

Britney Schmidt: But as we've tried to become more efficient and as we've gotten better now, we have the scientists driving the robot so that we can actually make our team smaller and do more science. So that's been interesting. So now I've been piloting the robot while doing the science. And that's a wild ride. So it's been a lot of fun. That Wall Street Journal one is so much fun.

Britney Schmidt: They came out with us on a really exciting day. We went out and explored a couple of places. One of them was, it's an area called Byron Glacier. And then we also went out and toured an iceberg with the robot, mapped it and things like that. Some of the footage may be in some upcoming films, which would be kind of neat. We've heard it through the grapevine that we might be in a couple of the BBC documentaries that are coming out, which would be really cool. So stay tuned for that.

Britney Schmidt: We've had a really fun time. We get to go to some pretty cool places and it's been nice to have some of the film crew that PBS was down one season. They had some fun with us too. So it's always a great time because it's also really important that people get to see the work that we're doing and the results from that.

Mat Kaplan: Sure. One of the things that is the most fascinating and charming about that video is the life that Icefin, the pictures of it, the images that it relays back up to you on the surface, except that I know it's earth life, because there you were in Antarctica, that stuff, some of it looks pretty darn alien.

Britney Schmidt: Yeah. It's pretty crazy. There's some crinoidss in that particular video, which is they look like a fur or a bunch of feathers swimming through the ocean. They're really beautiful.

Mat Kaplan: Amazing.

Britney Schmidt: Really cool things. If you haven't seen the newer one, it's on our website, it actually shows the anemones. So that one's really cool because one of the things that we saw when we were out at Thwaites and we were there for climate change and understanding the ocean in the ice, but we ran into this community of anemones that burrow into the ice which is a very alien kind of thing to think about.

Britney Schmidt: So most anemones, well actually until these Antarctic ones were discovered fairly recently, most anemones that we knew of borrowed into the sand or borrowed into rocks. But these actually make their homes inside the ice and hang out of the ice and they'll come out of the ice and swim around and grab food, go back in the ice. And it was really crazy because we came upon them in this area where the ice was very, very clear.

Britney Schmidt: We think it's ice that was accreted from a lake before the ice actually ends up in the ocean. It's upstream and Antarctica. So we think it basically froze on a piece of a lake or a river that was underneath the ice stream, took that with us. And then so as a result of those anemones burrowing into the clear ice, we could see them in their burrows, which had never been seen before. So you can actually see their little eyes, even though they're up inside of their burrows.

Britney Schmidt: It's amazing. That was fun. I really thought that sleep deprivation had gotten us that day because we were doing a mission and we were going down to the sea floor and then coming back up at it and I had run to the restroom. My colleague Dan had taken over the controllers and I got back and Dan's like, "Britney, something is weird. You're going to want to take a look at this. I don't know what's happening."

Britney Schmidt: And we're looking at this going, "What? What is that? I have no idea what's happening here." And it was so, so funny. Even though we knew that these existed, people had talked about them and a few pictures had been out, never really explored them this way before. And it was amazing experience. But I really thought like, "Okay, we really got to get more sleep." Like, "What is happening here?" So they're wild.

Mat Kaplan: It's that old cliche of course, life finds a way which brings me back to good reasons to study the diversity and characteristics of life on earth because we do hope, we may even finally be within reach of finding it elsewhere, at least we can hope. The National Academies, same people who did the decadals of course, they also released a report, I know you're familiar with, in 2018 entitled An Astrobiology Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe. Was that an important document?

Britney Schmidt: Well, I hope so. We spent a lot of time on it. So I was actually a part of the study team that put that together. For those who are less familiar with the National Academies, it's basically, and I believe it started in the time of Lincoln.

Mat Kaplan: That's right.

Britney Schmidt: So the idea is that science and engineering and medicine, which all originally were considered the sciences and they've just made the name longer, so the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine were envisioned as a way to keep progress in the United States rapid and informed by advancements in science and technology. So what it really does is it asks members of the scientific community that are separate from policy to basically use their expertise to help gauge the direction that the United States should go in.

Britney Schmidt: And so in this particular study that you've mentioned, it really was the first time that we did a directed... And it was the first time in a while that we'd done a directed astrobiology focused study by the National Academy. So the astrobiology community has always had the astrobiology roadmaps, which were every five to 10 years, the community would kind of get together and say, "Oh, okay, we need to make progress in this area or this area." But it wasn't through the National Academies.

Britney Schmidt: And so the National Academies was asked to kind of help put this study on. And so what we were looking at there was how do you make a plan that gets you to this really high goal of detecting life somewhere else? That's a really hard thing to do because it asks you to be honest about what you don't know and about what you need to know. And that's one of the things that I would say the astrobiology community is very good at that is not always a strength in other fields, is understanding the interdisciplinary that's required to make an assessment like that and have the humility to understand how far you have to come.

Britney Schmidt: And that's really what that report is about, is about what are the strategies, what are the opportunities, what are the challenges to this? And how can we make that not just a field where we're discussing it, but a roadmap for success or a map to actually make that happen? And so that study was really a lot of work and represented some strategic directions.

Britney Schmidt: And then fast forward to what just happened with the decadal, with the planetary sciences decadal is that it took many of the findings from that and codified it as part of the planetary sciences portfolio. Because astrobiology is different from planetary science. They are related and they are connected. Doing one isn't necessarily doing the other.

Britney Schmidt: And so there's a lot of nuance and it requires a lot of different perspectives, perspectives from biologists and ecologists, from chemists, from planetary scientists, astronomers, a growing sector of actually like philosophy and social science even involved in how astrobiology proceeds. Because it is such a human question, like, are we alone? And how would we figure that out?

Britney Schmidt: It is a very different style of question. That's what that study was looking at, the 2018, 2019 study. And it's nice to see that some of those findings were picked up. It's a central motivating principle behind NASA and a lot of the missions that we do, but the relationship between the field of astrobiology and exactly how it's implemented in specific ways in exploration is different.

Mat Kaplan: I'll be back in no time with much more from Britney, including the best place to get ice cream at Cornell. Here's actor and space enthusiast, John de Lancie.

John de Lancie: Star Trek has always represented the hope for a better future. I don't think you can have that without pushing boundaries. And in the case of space, that is all that we're doing, is pushing those boundaries and finding out more, always finding out more. And I think it's really important as a human being, as a society to be able to do something like that. And this is where we do it.

John de Lancie: 200, 300 years ago, we did it on sailing ships across the ocean. Space is important to me because it's kind of a metaphor for risk taking, tremendous rewards, possible rewards, being more expansive in one's thinking and opening one's self up to the infinite possibilities. Probably the biggest thing that differentiates Star Trek from almost everything else is the community in which you enter.

John de Lancie: Well, The Planetary Society is that type of a community. If you share like me the need to expand into infinite possibilities as my character does in Star Trek, and as I have said to Picard on more than one occasion, then certainly joining The Planetary Society is a good way to go. Join The Planetary Society.

Mat Kaplan: The interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology must be particularly appealing because after all you are an astronomer, but you're also a planetary scientist. I mean, that's represented by the fact that you're in two departments at Cornell, astronomy and earth and atmospheric sciences. Can you imagine a field that would be more interdisciplinary by necessity than astrobiology?

Britney Schmidt: No, not really. I mean, it's a fascinating field to work in. I remember the first time that I went to an astrobiology event was in 2000 and I guess 2009 would be the first really intense one. I went to one in 2008 as well, but I would say that I went to the summer school program. It was not a summer school, it was like a summer kind of conference school education program, everything all wrapped in together.

Britney Schmidt: And it was 17 days in Iceland and it was biologists and planetary scientists and geologists and chemists. And they threw 40 of us in the mix, we were all grad students. And then we did all kinds of different interdisciplinary work. So it was the first time that I ever helped take samples, extract DNA from those samples, sequence things. It was amazing.

Britney Schmidt: For somebody who was mostly working on telescope observations at the time, and then eventually doing field work that wasn't directly involved, it was amazing. And I learned how much I had to learn from that experience. And I remember the first astrobiology science conference which is actually happening next week. So I guess when this comes out, it will have just happened or it will just be in process, right? This comes out on the [inaudible 00:38:52].

Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:38:52] underway. Yeah, right?

Britney Schmidt: Okay, yeah. So one week from today. That meeting is happening in Atlanta. The first one that I went to was in 2010 and my brain hurt. I just had never heard so many new things and so many different things that were critical to what we were thinking about. One of my favorite things to tell people about one of the experiences that I had or something that I learned that blew my mind was actually about protein structures, which doesn't sound like a thing that I would care about or that you would learn about in planetary science.

Britney Schmidt: But one of the really cool things that I learned about it is that the structure, the basic building block of tissues, so these proteins that were the really ancient forms were actually something very similar to minerals, that they had a structure that was based on their chemistry. Now we have these very complex, highly evolved proteins that fold and curl and do all kinds of crazy things, some of these really, really ancient ones.

Britney Schmidt: There's one that I'm obsessed with because I think they're fascinating are called TIM barrels. They're just very similar to minerals in a lot of ways. And so just thinking about how the planet kind of gave rise to life and vice versa, like how interconnected those were. That perspective is really fundamental and very, very... I don't know, it's just eye opening. Because it's just what I study, it's not what I learned about.

Britney Schmidt: And so what I thought when I finally made that connection and that was my favorite aha moment from one of these early career astrobiology experiences. And I think that really just shifted my perspective on how to be a scientist and what it means to be an astrobiologist. And that's why I'm obsessed with the field. It's just incredibly exciting. And you're never a hundred percent certain that you know what's going on. It's great. And that's really great and humbling. So I love it.

Mat Kaplan: I'm going to come back to that. But first, I'm wondering if maybe it was this excitement about the interdisciplinary nature of all of this that attracted you to Cornell, making this big switch from Georgia Tech?

Britney Schmidt: Actually Georgia Tech was an amazing place for astrobiology. That was the reason that I went there in the first place, was that actually its strengths in astrobiology were huge and it was across chemistry and across planetary science, which is in the earth and atmospheric science department.

Britney Schmidt: But yeah, Cornell has this long standing history with the field of astrobiology especially as it applies to planetary exploration, right? Carl Sagan, the founder of The Planetary Society was a faculty member. That's a pretty cool connection. In fact, I teach the class that he once taught now, which is very humbling. I don't know if you knew, but Bill Nye actually came and taught class for me for-

Mat Kaplan: I was going to ask you about that because I heard the boss visited your class.

Britney Schmidt: It was so much fun. So yeah, I mean I think one of the things I was really excited about the move was really just the way that the institution operates. It's very interdisciplinary and it's very collaborative and there's not a whole lot of stove piping in a lot of ways that there are in a lot of other places. And so it just seemed like a neat direction to go in.

Britney Schmidt: And what a beautiful place. It was the right time to think about making a change. But I learned I loved the experience of being in a really interdisciplinary field astrobiology that was so strong at Georgia Tech. That's one of the things that I'm hoping to help increase the emphasis on here at Cornell.

Mat Kaplan: Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants teaching the class taught by maybe the ultimate statement of an interdisciplinary scientist, Carl Sagan. Back to life detection though. Last December, I had on the show, he was still chief scientist at the time, since retired, Jim Green, chief scientist of NASA and Mary Voytek of the NASA's astrobiology program.

Mat Kaplan: They came on, we talked a lot about generally life detection, but also specifically about this paper that they were co-authors of with some other folks that talked about the need for a scale to support astrobiology, which they called CoLD, Confidence of Life Detection, the seven step scale that they were at least suggesting is a starting point for the discussion.

Mat Kaplan: With level one is yeah, oh, that's something we do see when there's biological activity to level seven, which is, hey, there are critters here and it's been backed up by other people. Is that an important step? I mean, how do you feel about this, this call for ways to sort of classify the work that we're doing?

Britney Schmidt: Yeah. I think it is important to think about those types of metrics, right? Because that's how we know how successful we're being. And your definition might not be my definition. And so how do we all agree when something has actually been found or something has been achieved? Do I think that there's a single paper that's likely to get it right? I do not. Do I think that this is exactly the direction for discussions? I do.

Britney Schmidt: Because one of the things that often happens is that there's kind of a frenzy around one or two very important results that can kind of spin out of control sometimes or maybe missing part of the perspective. And I think sometimes what'll happen is everyone gets kind of picked up and carried away. And there's this really important question, are we alone and when would we know that we detected life on another planet?

Britney Schmidt: This kind of gets back to the whole humility part of science and what it is to be doing this, is we don't know exactly what whiz-bang detection is. It's always been one of those I'll know it when I see it. But if you ask a biologist or you ask a chemist or you ask a planetary scientist, you might get a different answer. That matters because if we're going to say something is a hundred percent life on another planet or different life here on earth, then it's really important we don't get that wrong because it can also really damage the field and the science that's being done.

Britney Schmidt: So it's an interesting question. It's an ethical question and it's also a really important food for thought. What they're getting at is that it has often been very easy to say you are doing astrobiology without ever having to actually do it. That is hard. It's like saying you're doing analog research. It doesn't necessarily mean you're actually researching a real analog or something.

Britney Schmidt: The frame of mind really does matter and how you apply those lessons really matters. There is no place on the earth that is identical to Mars. There's no place on earth that's identical to Europa. So we're not really doing that unless we're really very clear about what we mean about those comparisons. And the same thing, and to a greater extent is true of life detection.

Britney Schmidt: That's where this appreciation for the interdisciplinarity of the astrobiology community and for the amount of information that's actually known that a lot of sub parts of different fields are not aware of is really important. And I think that's really what they were trying to get at. And it's not just that paper. So there was also a workshop that was looking at this kind of concept of can we put together a formula for how to detect life or when it's okay to say that you've detected life.

Britney Schmidt: So there's all of these different questions around it. And I think most of what's important is putting forward a way of thinking about it, right? So scientific discourse is, that's what it's about. It's about asking questions and saying, "Ah, but did you think about this? Ah, but did you think about that?" And it's very important. And if we think back to the historical life detection perspective, right?

Britney Schmidt: The very first thing that we did with Viking was incredibly successful in turning over new information about Mars and framing our discussion of it, but it was also too early and too simplistic to actually detect life. And it was because of things we didn't know we were ignorant about. So we learned about that. That's value. There's a lot of value there.

Britney Schmidt: But I think people are very concerned. And so I think it's also this mixture of risk aversion versus wanting to be honest about everything. And so I think it's a very important part of the discussion. And I think there are parts of exploration that could benefit from paying attention to those kinds of lessons.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. I can think of another example of the excitement. And I was one of those who was very excited when we learned about ALH84001 that Mars rock with those little structures inside it, which some people still think might represent critters that once lived on Mars. There's much more that I want to ask you about, including another tool, organization really that has come together to support astrobiology and life detection, and it's this Network for Life Detection, NfoLD, which I know you are involved with. I mean, how is it supporting the development of this search for life?

Britney Schmidt: So the astrobiology program is a set of different programs.

Mat Kaplan: Within NASA.

Britney Schmidt: Yeah. That are funded by NASA headquarters, right? So the NASA Astrobiology Institute was part of that. That is now this new way of doing grants called interdisciplinary collaborations for astrobiology research. That funding that was the NAI, that structure that was the NASA Astrobiology Institute has now basically been modernized into what are called research coordination networks.

Britney Schmidt: And those consist of ICAR grants, so these interdisciplinary grants, which were the same things that used to be the individual awards that were part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, there's basically the same kind of thing. So the ICARs are the grants that used to get to be a part of the NAI. But the point of the research coordination networks is that anyone who has a NASA grant that is relevant to astrobiology research in one of these areas can then participate in further collaboration between NASA funded projects to disseminate their results, to kind of increase the value of all of those research dollars.

Britney Schmidt: And so that's actually what these are. So NfoLD is the Network for Life Detection which is one of the research coordination networks. Basically they're like clusters, they're nodes that are people that are working in very similar topics that are now coordinating some of their research. So NASA's giving each of these individual teams grants, could be something that came from solar system workings or exobiology or some NASA award, and then they're invited to participate or can ask to participate in those research coordination networks.

Britney Schmidt: And so then that is also kind of creating a broader community. The larger interdisciplinary collaborations each have a PI, and those PIs kind of become the leads for that node. And so I'm one of the leads for the Network for Life Detection since 2018 when it got started. Tori Hoehler who is the lead for an activity that's led by NASA Ames and Heather Graham, who is the lead person, but is also with Sarah Stewart Johnson who is at Georgetown.

Britney Schmidt: So Heather Graham's at NASA Goddard, those two are the leads for that. And so Heather and Tori and I have been heading up NfoLD and then Jeff Bowman, who's my kind of co-PI, he's at Scripps in San Diego and then Sanjoy Som who's another of the investigators with the Ames one. So we've all kind of been collaborating to kind of lead the coordination of those activities.

Britney Schmidt: And so we do things like we put on that workshop I mentioned about, when do we say we've detected life? When do we agree? What are the rules that we should be kind of internally following as a community? And then as a white paper that is just like, hey, here's a suggestion that a group of people at this workshop came up with, there are other ideas for how to do that, but that's the kind of idea that's...

Britney Schmidt: There was just so a workshop on the future of life detection technologies that just happened in the last couple of months. So we have kind of coordinated workshops and get the community together and thinking about some of these questions. The Network for Ocean Worlds is also a part of that. So they're doing other activities focused on ocean world exploration, that kind of stuff. And the makeup of these coordination networks changes over time. It's trying to get people that are going to do the work already and that are funded by NASA all together and talking about it.

Mat Kaplan: One might think listening to this, that the level of support within NASA and perhaps elsewhere is comfortable, but I'm not sure you agree with that.

Britney Schmidt: I wouldn't. It's always... It's hard. There's a lot of priorities everywhere. One of the things that maybe people don't realize is that most of the research that's done on astrobiology is funded through the NASA research and analysis programs through planetary science in particular. And the scale of those programs has gone down significantly by about, depends on exactly what you're counting for, but somewhere between 20 and 30% over the last three years.

Britney Schmidt: So despite the growing profile of astrobiology research and then interest in life detection from the public, from science, from missions, all of that, the actual investment in some of those key programs like the ICARs that I was just describing that are part of the research coordination networks and like the planetary science and technology for analog research, that program, that's the one that's funded all of our development for the robotic vehicles, has funded a lot of work by people who have developed instrumentation to look at organic material, all those kinds of things, and some other instrument programs, and that's gone down significantly in the last couple of years.

Britney Schmidt: Back to the decadal survey, one of the key findings was that we should be growing the research and analysis program, which is actually the last decadal said the same thing, that it shouldn't be cut, but it has actually shrunk. NASA's kind of got to fix this direction that we've headed. There's a lot of big flashy priorities, but if you don't have the scientists funded to keep doing the work, then it's really hard to do. And in this really important area where we're trying to make new technologies and make new discoveries that might inform how we actually do this life detection, it's hard to see that continually being cut.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, that's something, that R&A, research and analysis emphasis within the planetary science decadal survey, something that Casey and I talked about quite a bit. I'm really glad before we leave this topic that you brought up Sarah Stewart Johnson, past guest of Planetary Radio at Georgetown. Her lab is the laboratory for agnostic biosignatures. And I kept coming across that term agnostic biosignatures. What does that mean?

Britney Schmidt: Lab is this interdisciplinary collaboration for astrobiology research grant. So ours was called ocean's across space and time, so that's the one that I lead. And lab is the one that Sarah and Heather lead. Agnostic biosignatures, this is one of the things that I think, especially planetary scientists are not as aware of.

Britney Schmidt: Life has fundamental rules, but the exact structure of those things is potentially planetary dependent. But it doesn't mean that there aren't ways to go looking for evidence of life. And so if you understand the fundamental laws, and when we were talking about that, we actually mean things like those protein structures I mentioned, like DNA and RNA, nucleic acids.

Britney Schmidt: DNA and RNA are potentially [inaudible 00:55:20] life, if you want to call it specific, but a replicator, a protein, something that is codifying life. That's one of the defining characteristics of life, is that there is a way that it can replicate and that replicator like DNA, or I guess that's probably not the right exact term to use it, but if you want to think about it, that's the code.

Mat Kaplan: Sounds good to me, yeah.

Britney Schmidt: Right? And so those types of structures are very not random. They are very systematic. They include markers that you might be able to look for. So even though you don't know whether it's exactly DNA or exactly RNA, there are chemical compounds and the complexity of those chemical compounds that might be indicators that they have information.

Britney Schmidt: And the example that I always like to give people, but if you think about dolphins, we know that they are talking to each other and we can tell if you look at the sounds that they're making, we can look at those and tell that they have names for each other, that they are conveying information to each other, and that it is different from a random set of noise. The same way that we can tell dolphins are talking to each other and we have no idea what they're saying.

Britney Schmidt: We know they're talking, we know information is being transferred, right? Like you can tell you go to a country that you've never been to and you can tell that information is being exchanged even though that's a new language that you're hearing. That is similar to what we're talking about when we mean agnostic biosignatures. It's not looking for a specific cell, not looking for a specific chemistry.

Britney Schmidt: It's looking instead for these types of patterns in the environment that are consistent with the types of processes that life can affect. Back to your comment about Allan Hills, the Allan Hills meteorite, there are many Allan Hills meteorites, by the way, those are found in Antarctica, Allan Hills is one area in Antarctica. So ALH84001, is that right? Is the one that-

Mat Kaplan: Yes.

Britney Schmidt: That was very exciting. That's a structure. Structures are not diagnostic. Even chemistry is not necessarily diagnostic either. Back to this appreciation for how important and how far the astrobiology field has come along, the idea that you just take a microscope and look for it in three samples of water is pretty basic and very much not informed by these other techniques.

Britney Schmidt: And it doesn't mean that's not something you would also do, but it's not the only thing. And in fact, it's maybe one of the least likely to succeed. Another thing to think about, what's the most common state of life on a planet? Unfortunately, it's death. Most things that were alive are now dead, right? So you're looking for evidence of things that once were alive in most cases.

Britney Schmidt: There may be evidence for existent life, but that's also really hard to find. These questions about the fundamental units of life, DNA and RNA as the examples from life on this planet, we may be able to actually search for those things. There are some concepts, some mission concepts. In fact, I've been involved with one and there's a few concepts like this. But to look at chemical patterning in vapors coming out of Enceladus or looking at chemical patterning in water samples from Mars you could potentially look at.

Britney Schmidt: Those are the types of in situ analyses that you might be able to do that would help you along the lines of detecting life. And it's thinking about how complex signals are conveying information even if it's not information that you can necessarily use right away. It's also coming away from this bias that we have as humans that it has to be eyes and it has to look like us, or we have to be able to see it.

Britney Schmidt: And so this question back to all of your questions about when is it life detection, when is it not? An astrobiologist might say, "Oh yeah, that's definitely a replicator protein or a genetic information on another planet." Whereas someone who went to a science center assumes that you have to take a microscope to do it. So those are those important fundamental questions about that.

Britney Schmidt: So that's an agnostic bio-signature, is like, we call it XNA, whatever the planet's version of that is. Because maybe it's carbon, probably carbon and water based. Those are going to be the easiest things to look at. But exactly how it's structured, it doesn't have to be DNA, it doesn't have to be that exact structure for it to contain information and potentially be available to help life replicate.

Mat Kaplan: That's what I was going to say. Let's say Europa Clipper 20 years from now or whenever flies through a geyser above geyser, sniffs that material coming out, doesn't find a shred of DNA or RNA, but there's some other long complex molecule that looks like it has some kind of weird repeating pattern, but the pattern has tiny variations. That's going to make a lot of people sit up and notice, right?

Britney Schmidt: Yeah. I mean, so Clipper, Europa Clipper wouldn't be able to do that, so that's the first thing, is there are no instruments on Europa Clipper that would be able to make that detection. The mass spectrometer would get us to some of this information. There are two sensors on there that are really critical for this. There's a mass spectrometer and that basically looks at the chemical patterning. But it would need much higher resolution. You'd have to actually look at the molecules themselves to be able to do that.

Mat Kaplan: Like the base pairs in DNA would have to go to that level of-

Britney Schmidt: Yeah, it doesn't necessarily have to be that level, but there are things that you could do. There are experiments you can do at that level that suggest, okay, is this biogenic, is this not? But then you always have to ask yourself the question, did you ask it of the right environment and did you know enough about that environment to do that?

Britney Schmidt: One of the hard things is you have to know the instruments really well as well. But like this concept, what you just described has been proposed for Enceladus. It's a mission called the Enceladus Life Finder. And that was the idea, was to look at in a very real, very robust way, particles that are coming out of the south pole of Enceladus and look for evidence of patterning in the chemistry that might suggest metabolism had gone on or life had gone on.

Britney Schmidt: For this DNA or RNA, XNA, that kind of a test would actually have to be done on a sample with an actual, a chemical process. Each of those would be an example of an agnostic biosignature. So the samples that you're going to get from a plume from Enceladus or Europa would be different than if you landed on the surface of Europa and brought some of that material in and did that analysis in a much more controlled way, which back to the [inaudible 01:02:06] Europa Lander was going to try to do some of that stuff and wasn't prioritized, or it was third priority in the flagship list.

Britney Schmidt: So those are the kinds of things that have been proposed. And it's the kinds of things that you might be able to do in situ without returning samples. You can miniaturize this, you could take this to a planet yourself and potentially try to do it in sit situ. But that whole agnostic biosignature bent is trying to... It's also just a way of thinking, like what are the processes that make life possible that we might be able to recognize even if they're not the exact copies of those processes that are happening on the earth?

Mat Kaplan: So much that we still have to learn. This is so fascinating, exactly what I was hoping we would be talking about. And you have been very generous with your time. There's just one more major question that I have for you. It's not even a major question because of full disclosure. You are, as we said upfront, a member of The Planetary Society board of directors. And it was in fact in that capacity that you joined our recent space policy and advocacy webinar for our members because that's one of the areas in which you work, do some work for us. You're a very busy person. Why is finding time to help lead the society something that you do?

Britney Schmidt: I like to help people that have the same interests as I do. I like to meet people that have the same interests. And I think that this question of who we are and our place in the cosmos as we always say is really fundamental and is much more broadly important to people than I think is often appreciated. And so I love that part of the work with the society. I really feel fortunate to participate in that kind of an activity.

Britney Schmidt: And for me, it's very humbling because it's something that's very important to me and I've chosen to kind of do my life this way, right? Is to follow science and to make it every minute that I'm awake kind of a thing. I really like that part of interfacing with the public and with folks who have different walks of life, but who are still really interested in these things that we do.

Britney Schmidt: In particular, back to the policy telecon, that's actually how one of the things I really enjoy doing, is trying to affect positive change, affect how our, especially the United States, how it funds science and how it thinks about itself. So I've never felt more hopeful about the future of humanity and the future of the country than I have when I'm working with either the public or with policy makers.

Britney Schmidt: I think we hear a lot about how Congress or the president is the enemy and politicians are evil and the political processes don't care about people. I don't think that's actually true. And I think there are certainly examples of that, but I actually think that when you roll up your sleeves and get involved in the process, it gives you hope, it gives you perspective and it gives you direction.

Britney Schmidt: And if nothing else, it is an attempt to make things better. And so any excuse I have to help with that process to me is really important. It's one of the reasons I am at a university and not a research institution, it's one of the reasons I'm involved in the board at all, one of the reasons that I spend a lot of my free time on trying to answer some of these questions rather than I don't know, knitting or whatever hobby.

Britney Schmidt: These are things that to me are really important and what I like to spend my time on. And I'm just really honored to get a chance to do it. Also, my colleagues on this board and the society and the staff are amazing. What an incredible group of passionate people. If you get to spend your life with awesome passionate people, that's the best, that's the reward. Anything we do, it's about the people we do it with. And so I like that part of it. Thanks for asking that kind of a question because we don't get to talk about that enough. Like how all of these are a human personal process and that's what makes them special.

Mat Kaplan: And it's nice to hear that you are as proud to be part of the organization as I am. I got just one more for you. What's the Dairy Bar?

Britney Schmidt: The Dairy Bar is potentially my favorite part of Cornell. There is an ice cream shop on Cornell's campus. One of the cool things about it is it's both a private school and a public school. So parts of it are private, parts of it are public. And it's the New York state land grants university, which basically means it is the state agricultural institution teaching people about all kinds of things, animal husbandry, farming, human health.

Britney Schmidt: But as a result, it has a stellar dairy. And the dairy science program makes its own ice cream and it is there and it is available and it is delicious. So that is like... It is Cornell ice cream made by Cornell people using Cornell cows. That is amazing. So it's kind of a cool experience. As someone who grew up in rural Arizona and is now in rural New York, central New York, I kind of love those similarities. And so I do love the Dairy Bar. And the cheese curds are amazing. Sorry Wisconsin. But dang, New York has a serious dairy game let's just say that.

Mat Kaplan: Well, I already had a Cornell bucket list, now that's maybe gone to the top of the list. Britney, thank you for this terrific conversation. I can't wait to share it with our audience. And thank you for all of this other work that you are doing to advance our knowledge and of course, for your service on The Planetary Society board of directors. I look forward to talking again.

Britney Schmidt: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mat Kaplan: It's time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. The chief scientist of The Planetary Society has joined us once again to tell us all about the night sky and resolve a contest for us which we won't be doing next week because I'll be away. So you'll have to wait a couple of weeks from now to find out who has won the last couple of contests by that time. But today, today is just a regular day. Maybe I shouldn't say that. How is it up in the sky?

Bruce Betts: It's spiffy, man. Did you enjoy the total linear eclipse?

Mat Kaplan: Good trick because it hasn't happened yet as the two of us speak. So I'm looking forward to it. I did see because I will be in Washington DC when it happens, apparently that's more centrally located for this eclipse. So I hope it's not a cloudy day and-

Bruce Betts: It is indeed. And anyone listening to this, if you didn't see the eclipse, it's over, sorry. But hey, fun fact. There's another one November... Early in November this year, visible from the Americas and elsewhere. We'll tell you about it when we get closer. But there's another total solar clips and then nothing for at least for the Americas until 2025. But you get another chance if you missed it or another chance if you saw it and you just loved it.

Mat Kaplan: I was starting to say, before you go on to the rest of the sky, and this is still the sky, didn't you just finish a conference about a big rock that's headed our way?

Bruce Betts: I did indeed. I attended along with a lot of other people, a virtual workshop about Apophis, Apophis T-7 Years. The 400 meterish asteroid Apophis will fly by in 2029, closer than geostationary satellites to earth. So it's a bunch of scientists and engineer types trying to figure out how to make the best use of this wonderful opportunity we've been given of a nearby fly by of an asteroid that's not going to hit... Well, no, no, it's not.

Mat Kaplan: Wait a minute. If you learned something new, you'd tell me about this, wouldn't you?

Bruce Betts: Maybe. No, I shouldn't mess around with this, I'm sorry. Definitely, definitely, definitely, definitely not. Apophis is not going to hit earth, it's not going to... In fact, that was what was suggested, that we say Apophis is not going to hit earth, Apophis is not going to hit earth, Apophis is not going to hit earth. The three most important messages to get out to the public for 2029.

Mat Kaplan: Considering all the talk about other stuff like that comet that is not going to come within a billion miles of it. But if you'd looked at some news sources, you'd have thought that we were all goners, it was going to be don't look up.

Bruce Betts: Right. We're all good, but it'll be a great opportunity for science and OSIRIS-REx, now becoming OSIRIS-APEX. We'll check it out after the flyby, shortly after the flyby, and hopefully there'll be more good stuff.

Mat Kaplan: Very cool. So what else is happening?

Bruce Betts: Check this out, this hasn't happened yet. Oh, people in a different time reality than we are. Venus in the pre-dawn east looking super bright and will be near the moon on the 26th and 27th of May, in this 2022 and a couple days later on the 29th.

Bruce Betts: If you're up in the pre-dawn or you want to get up in the pre-dawn, don't miss Jupiter and Mars hanging out super close together, bright Jupiter, brightish Mars looking reddish will be very close together, closer than a moon diameter equivalent on the 29th in the pre-dawn east. We'll leave that as our summary for the sky because we have much more to get to. We move on to random space fact or random random space fact.

Mat Kaplan: I'm not in England yet, not as people hear this, but very soon after. Next couple of days.

Bruce Betts: Random space fact.

Mat Kaplan: I suppose I could still mention even if the Humans to Mars Summit is well underway in Washington DC by the time people hear this. I am still headed to London and I'm going to assume that we still have some tickets left for that show at Imperial College London Planetary Radio Live celebrating the Moons Symphony with the composer, Amanda Lee Flakenberg and a bunch of other cool people. Some great scientists including Linda Spilker and astronaut Nicole Stott. Anyway, we'll put the reservation link up on this week's show page, planetary.org/radio. But you can also just go to Eventbrite and look for Planetary Radio Live.

Bruce Betts: Road trip.

Mat Kaplan: My plug's done, please go right ahead.

Bruce Betts: The surface area of Saturn's moon Enceladus with the geysers. Surface area of Enceladus is about equal to the area of the country of Turkey.

Mat Kaplan: Huh? That's a small moon.

Bruce Betts: That's no moon. Sorry. It's a small... Yes, it is. It's amazingly small considering it's got all this groovy geyser activity going on. All right, we move on to the trivia contest. And I asked you to name all the asteroids that are bigger than the asteroids psyche that have been visited by spacecraft. And don't include the dwarf planet series. How'd we do that?

Mat Kaplan: This made some people crazy. Entries were down some because this was tough.

Bruce Betts: People think I do this on purpose, well maybe. No I don't. I really don't.

Mat Kaplan: We heard from many people like Jason Hensley in Texas who did exhaustive research. He said he spent hours after he found the right answer thinking there has to be something else. But no, there's only a single object that fills the bill. And here is the answer in our latest submission from the poet laureate, Dave Fairchild in Kansas. An asteroid made of metallica rock will go in the not common column. It's part of planetoid busted to bits when you get to the core of the problem. Now psyche is one of this singular bunch. If you asked me if I could suggest a asteroid bigger our spacecraft has reached, the only one out there is Vesta.

Bruce Betts: Suggesta, it's a word, maybe.

Mat Kaplan: I kind of like that. Vesta, right? Everybody should give it up after they found that.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, it was tricky. I didn't mean to be tricky, but I didn't want to give away that there was only one. I think it's interesting psyches that it will be the second largest that we've ever visited, significantly smaller than Vesta psyche at 222 kilometers, average diameter Vesta at 529.

Mat Kaplan: Here's our winner. And it has been just over two years since he last won. And you know what he won over two years ago? A phone message from you and me. Apparently we recorded a phone message for him. I do not remember that, but it's Neil Ashleman. Neil Ashleman in Iowa. We could sing the music man song, but we won't. He said, "Is it really just Vesta? Psyche is a bruiser, but we sure seem to be slacking here." Yeah, Neil, that's it according to the chief scientist here. So congratulations. He's won himself so appropriate, a delightful Planetary Society kick asteroid rubber asteroid.

Mat Kaplan: Robert Johanson in Norway, "Vesta is also the brightest asteroid in the night sky and can sometimes be seen with the naked eye." He says, "I'll have to try to observe it through my telescope sometime." Hey, Ben Owens in Australia beat you to that Robert. He says, "A Vesta, the target of my first foray into asteroid observations in the dying days of wet film astrophotography." Good riddance. The five blurry star fields, each with a paper arrow tracking the interloper are amongst my most cherished astro related possessions.

Bruce Betts: Nice.

Mat Kaplan: Laura Dodd in California, faithful listener for about a year, 2011 to about 2012, in 2012 Dawn, that wonderful spacecraft revealed a remarkably complex geologic landscape of impact basins before it moved on to series excluded from this week's contest answers of course. Finally, from Pavel Kumatia in Belarus, even though psyche is a metallic asteroid. If it collided with earth, it would become a mega death asteroid. Metal.

Bruce Betts: Well, that was a motley crew of entries.

Mat Kaplan: Well done. The dog liked that.

Bruce Betts: She used to be in a heavy metal band. You ready for the new one?

Mat Kaplan: I am.

Bruce Betts: I'm really blank today. I tried coming up with trivia questions. I was finding ones that I had used years ago and I try not to repeat. So I guarantee I have not repeated with this one. This really falls out of the category of random trivia contest. What Messier object, speaking of looking up in the night sky with telescopes, what Messier object could have been named after a movie with Natalie Portman?

Mat Kaplan: Oh no. Seriously? Okay.

Bruce Betts: Yes. What Messier object could have been named after a movie with Natalie Portman? I mean, you've probably encountered that trivia question before from someone else.

Mat Kaplan: No.

Bruce Betts: Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.

Mat Kaplan: All right, you have until the 25th, that'd be May 25 at 8:00 AM Pacific Time for this one. You know what I'm going to do? Something I've never done before. I'm not going to tell you the prize. It's a surprise prize. It's a black [inaudible 01:18:10].

Bruce Betts: This is just a weird question all around.

Mat Kaplan: I just thought that because of how you put the question to us, I thought I'm going to do that for this one. You will not learn your prize until you are named the winner. Could be a car.

Bruce Betts: Random question with a random prize.

Mat Kaplan: Okay, it won't be a car, but it'll be something fun, right? It always is. We're done.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody, go out there, look him the night sky and think about what Mat's going to pull out of his bag of tricks as the next prize. Thank you and goodnight.

Mat Kaplan: I have this great paperclip, no, we'll come up with something better. 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 is made possible by its life loving members. Dive in with them at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.