Planetary Radio • Mar 16, 2022
Meet the first STEP Grant awardees
On This Episode
Professor at UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences and UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy
Professor at University of Belgrade’s Department of Astronomy
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
Citizen scientists will soon have another opportunity to become part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and an innovative project will use a subtle effect of sunlight to learn about near-Earth objects. These are the projects funded in the first round of The Planetary Society’s Science and Technology Empowered by the Public (STEP) grant program. We’ll meet the awardees after Society chief scientist Bruce Betts provides an overview. Bruce returns for this week’s What’s Up and the space trivia contest.
- STEP Grants: Science and Technology Empowered by the Public
- Announcing the First-Ever STEP Grant Winners: Citizen Science SETI and Determining Asteroid Properties
- UCLA SETI Group
- University of Belgrade Department of Astronomy
- The Downlink
- Subscribe to the monthly Planetary Radio newsletter
This Week’s Question:
What were the first words spoken from the Moon? Who said them? These were the words spoken when any portion of the Lunar Module made contact with the surface.
This Week’s Prize:
A Chop Shop 20” x 36” screen poster of Juno above Jupiter from the Robotic Spacecraft Series.
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, March 23 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
What is the approximate ratio of the Mars surface escape velocity to Earth’s surface escape velocity?
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the Mar. 2, 2022 space trivia contest:
What was the name of our solar system’s biggest mountain — Olympus Mons on Mars — before it was given that name? This was back when astronomers only knew it as an albedo or brightness feature on the surface of the Red Planet.
Olympus Mons was originally given the name Nix Olympica by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1879.
Mat Kaplan: Stepping up to SETI and near-Earth asteroids 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. The Planetary Society has just announced the award of its first Science and Technology Empowered by the Public grants. We'll hear about this new program from society chief scientist, Bruce Betts, and then meet the leaders of the two lucky teams that have been selected. Jean-Luc Margot of UCLA plans a new citizen science supported search for extra terrestrial intelligence, while Bojan Novakovic of the University of Belgrade will use the subtle force of sunlight to learn more about those big rocks that cross the path of Earth. We'll welcome Bruce back for What's Up, including what may be a deceptively simple space trivia contest.
Mat Kaplan: Here's a quick look at the March 11 edition of the Downlink. NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab says, "All nine science instruments aboard the Europa Clipper spacecraft will be ready to go by the end of this year. The lab will have to keep them nice and clean till the scheduled 2024 launch of this probe that will give us our best look yet at Jupiter's ice and ocean moon. And don't forget that our quarterly magazine, The Planetary Report is waiting for you at planetary.org. We've devoted it to all the ocean moons of our solar system. NASA also says you still have time to send your name to our moon, or at least to travel around it. You can create a boarding pass for the Artemis-1 on crewed mission. Names will be on a flash drive carried by the Orion spacecraft. I've got mine. You'll always find more of our weekly newsletter at planetary.org/downlink. Bruce, thanks for joining us up front once again to tell us about the STEP grant. Why don't you start with what that stands for?
Bruce Betts: Science and Technology Empowered by the Public.
Mat Kaplan: I love it.
Bruce Betts: We're very excited about it. So, as you know Mat, as our regular listeners know, we've been funding science and technology projects for a very long time, actually going all the way back to the beginning of The Planetary Society almost as soon as it started in 1980. So, what we're doing with these STEP grants is now doing this as an open competed process to cast the net wider to find exciting projects that we can make a difference by funding them with the help of our donors and members. And so, we've created this international open process that we ran for the first time this year, and we're very excited about it.
Mat Kaplan: So, it's something like at least in structure, the Shoemaker NEO grant program, except obviously a much broader scope?
Bruce Betts: Exactly. So, Shoemaker NEO grants we've been running since '97 with a narrow scope of helping amateur astronomers upgrade their systems to look at asteroids that may be a threat to Earth. Well, this program is with larger grants and open to any of The Planetary Society's core enterprises. So, exploring worlds, finding life, defending Earth, anywhere in that area and any type of science and/or technology grants that work in where we can make a difference.
Mat Kaplan: What kind of response did you get? How many proposals?
Bruce Betts: We did it as a two step process. We got 38 pre-proposals. So basically short proposals. We then reviewed those and invited full proposals from the ones that we thought had a good chance of getting funded. And we had five of those submitted, five full proposals. And from that we selected two.
Mat Kaplan: I know you've headed all of this, but who else was involved in the selection process?
Bruce Betts: Scientists and engineers from The Planetary Society's board of directors as well as leadership staff internally at The Planetary Society, as well as me, myself and I.
Mat Kaplan: So, we have these two great conversations with the two winners, the two really teams that came out on top and I'll let you identify them.
Bruce Betts: One of the projects is headed by Professor Jean-Luc Margot out of UCLA here in California. And it's a SETI project, search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Margot's group and the UCLA group that does radio SETI using the world's largest steerable telescope, Green Bank, in West Virginia, and they proposed and we're funding the creation of a citizen science project to allow citizen scientists to actually help them out in classifying radio signals to help solve one of the big challenges in radio city besides is anyone actually out there, which is to remove Earth interference radio signals, and this process will help identify those and narrow it down to if there are real signals making it more likely to find them.
Bruce Betts: The second project is out of the University of Belgrade in Serbia and is led by Bojan Novakovic and his team at the University of Belgrade are coming up with a new novel way to determine the physical properties of near-Earth asteroids. So, right now we can learn whether things are solid rock or boulders or fluffy fluff balls, all of which are valid permutations of near-Earth asteroids. We learn it mostly through spacecraft data, which is very limited, space telescopes. So they've got a new way to use different ground based and other observations of these objects to extract physical properties, how they differ from one another. They're using complex mathematical modeling and lots of computer time combined with newly released data on some of these asteroids.
Mat Kaplan: I had a great time talking to both of these team leaders or principal investigators. They both want to involve the public. They both have plans for doing that. And as I said to some of them, both of them, I think that's a big deal for us as well at The Planetary Society.
Bruce Betts: Exactly. And so, at one of our criteria for judging, although we clearly have ones on the science and the technology and the likelihood of success and the value of the goals and the budget and schedule and all the stuff you usually have on science for proposals. But we actually also give credit and get excited about proposals for projects that involve the public in some way and engage them and excite them or something that they're interested in supporting, including our members.
Mat Kaplan: I know that this first round, it got a kickstart from a donor, a very good friend of The Planetary Society who you can maybe acknowledge, but also is the plan that there will be future rounds?
Bruce Betts: There is indeed. Let me first thank our gracious donor, [inaudible 00:07:11] who has started this program and provided the funding for the development and initial the implementation and grants. And it will continue into the future both with his support and with support of our membership and donors who have supported our science and technology projects all through time. What we plan to do is within the next couple months, we will actually continue to kickstart this program. We will have another call for proposals, request for proposals. So that process will run during the course of this year and maybe a little into next year. Then we will start an every two year process. So we'll we did '21. This is the end of the '21 process. We'll do '22, and then we'll have another in '24 and '26.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you, Bruce, for that great introduction to the two first STEP grant awardees that we're going to be meeting in moments here. First up will be Jean-Luc Margot from UCLA, and then we'll meet Bojan Novakovic. Looking forward to that and looking forward to getting back together with you again for What's Up at the end of today's show.
Bruce Betts: I look forward to it also, Mat, and we'll talk more about steps, but not STEP grants.
Mat Kaplan: I love foreshadowing. That's Bruce Betts, the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society who has just successfully concluded the first round of STEP grants. Jean-Luc Margot, welcome to Planetary Radio. Your name has been heard here on the show before, but I am delighted to finally have you on the show, especially because I can congratulate you on being one of the two recipients of the very first STEP grants from The Planetary Society. So, congratulations.
Jean-Luc Margot: Thank you, Mat. It's a pleasure to be here.
Mat Kaplan: So, you were awarded $49,980 for this project. I'll throw in an extra 20, if you want to make it a nice round 50 grand.
Jean-Luc Margot: That sounds great. I went by the program guidelines.
Mat Kaplan: Very well done. I mean, my goodness. What if this project does what SETI has been after now for over 60 years and discovers that we are not alone. I love that in your proposal right up at the top, you call this a search for cosmic companionship, which is just a lovely way to phrase this. Why did you put it that way?
Jean-Luc Margot: Well, I viewed the search for life in the universe as one of the most important questions that we can answer. And so, I'm really excited about the question. It's a question that I think many of us have asked. And in fact, Carl Sagan, who was one of the founder of The Planetary Society was really enthusiastic about this question and supported the search for extraterritorial intelligence. As you know, all life on Earth is connected, is derived from a single common ancestor. That sort of blinds us to the possibilities of life elsewhere. And it's really critical, really important that find other evidence for life elsewhere so that we can broaden our understanding of what life is, and maybe come up with a general theory of living systems. So, this search is really important. As a result, federal agencies are investing tens of billions of dollars to enable the search. Primarily, a search for biosignatures, which is evidence of biological activity, but there's another way to search for life elsewhere. And that's the search for technosignatures, which is evidence of technological activity. And so, that's the approach that we're taking.
Mat Kaplan: This is just my personal bias, but I would rather find evidence for the Vulcans than for bacteria.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. Imagine the possibilities if we detected a signal from another civilization? One thing to realize is that any other civilization out there is almost certainly more advanced than we are. And the reason for that is because we've been technological for only 140 years or so, that's the sort timescale over which we've had radio technology. That's a tiny slice in the 14 billion year history of the universe. And therefore if you contemplate that another civilization exists, they're almost certainly guaranteed to be at another stage of a development and far more advanced than we are. So, again, imagine what we could learn if we establish contact with such a civilization.
Mat Kaplan: I should have that I will be thrilled if we find evidence of any kind of life, even if it's slowly bacteria, but my goodness. Something else that I love about your proposal is that it salutes the SETI work that has been funded by The Planetary Society since its earliest days until very recently, and now we're picking it up again, of course, with this grant. You mentioned the work by the great Paul Horowitz who is a past guest on the show. I am thrilled to see us returning to this field. As you know, it was so important to our founders, including Carl Sagan, who I think you got to hear speak once or actually was at a celebration, a birthday celebration?
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. I actually was a graduate student at Cornell University where Carl was a professor, and at his 60th birthday celebration, there were lots of talks including one by Paul Horowitz. And that really was an inspiration to me hearing Carl and Paul talk about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. What had a big impact on my career and scientific outlook?
Mat Kaplan: Well, let's start talking about this new project and also how you're going to involve citizen scientists in it. Tell us about this project that you call, Are We Alone: A Citizen Science Enabled Search For Technosignatures?
Jean-Luc Margot: Sure. I'll give you a little bit of background. For the past six years, the UCLA SETI group has been using the largest, fully steerable telescope in the world to search for technosignatures, evidence of other civilizations. We have searched so far about 36,000 stars and planetary systems. And over the next few years, we're going to search another 40,000 stars and planetary systems. And as part of this search, we detect millions of candidate technosignatures. Most of these are obvious human generated radio frequency interference. And so, we can eliminate those fairly easily, but a small fraction of the signals are not immediately classifiable by a computer and they require additional scrutiny. And so, we are launching the citizen science platform in partnership with The Planetary Society with two objectives. One, we want to identify the most promising signals among the candidates that we detect. And two, we want to build what's called a label training set to build a machine learning application that will allow us to classify signals more efficiently in the future. So those are the goals of the citizen science platform. I'm really excited about it. And I hope your listeners will consider partnering with us and joining in the search.
Mat Kaplan: We certainly will facilitate that when the time comes, although I'm sure it's a little ways off so stay tuned, everybody. That big radio telescope you're talking about, of course, the Green Bank Telescope, the world's largest steerable radio telescope. It's been on my bucket list for many years. I have talked to people from there. What makes it such a good choice for doing SETI, which it's been used for many years.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. It's a highly sensitive telescope with 100 meter aperture. So we can detect the equivalent of the Arecibo planetary radar all the way to 400 light years.
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Jean-Luc Margot: Again, if you assume an advance civilization, it's not hard to imagine that they could have a transmitter that's maybe 1,000 times more powerful than Arecibo. That's not a stretch of the imagination and that transmitter would be detectable throughout the entire galaxy, so that's what made Green Bank and the search for technosignatures really appealing because we can detect a signal from an enormous volume throughout the entire galaxy. In contrast, I should point out to the search for biosignatures, which are really focused onto a tiny, tiny little bubble around the sun and a volume that's millions of times smaller than what we are searching with the Green Bank Telescope.
Mat Kaplan: I am very glad that you mentioned at Arecibo, the Arecibo Observatory, the late great. It's not terribly relevant to your STEP grant, but I have to ask for your thoughts about that tragic loss of that instrument, and I know you did a lot of work there.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. I was a post-doc at Arecibo. It was a wonderful unique instrument and we've lost great capabilities with the collapse of the telescope. So, that's really unfortunate.
Mat Kaplan: Well, we'll go back to the project at hand for the moment. So, a lot of this data, it already exists. It's just waiting for a project like this to help you analyze it?
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. We have existing data, but we are continuing to acquire new data. So, we've secured one of the very rare NASA grants to actually do SETI. I think it might be the only grant that NASA has funded for a dedicated SETI search in the past 30 years or so. There's been small amount of funding from NASA towards SETI, maybe $5 million or so over the past 30 years. And a couple of years ago, we proposed to NASA to do an actual search and it was funded. The grant funds, essentially a graduate student and it does not fund citizen science, a citizen science component, and therefore our proposal to The Planetary Society to help us launch the citizen science component.
Mat Kaplan: So these are very complimentary it sounds like.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's correct. Yes. So the search is ongoing and I think that's one of the exciting aspects of this project is that your listener can engage their brain power to actively contribute to an ongoing search and help answer one of the most important scientific questions of our time. So, over the next few years we'll continue to use Green Bank to scan the skies and observe these thousands of stars and planetary systems as I mentioned, and some of these data will be automatically classified as radio frequency interference, 99.5% of all the candidate signals that we detect will be automatically ruled out as terrestrial in nature, but about half a percent of those will be interesting and require additional scrutiny. And those are the signals that we will put on the platform. There will be thousands of signals to examine. And essentially the platform will ask citizen scientists to classify the signals according to a decision tree. And if the signal does not resemble any of the classes that are provided then the user can select the option, other, the other category. Those other signals are the most interesting among the most interesting signals, and we will pass those on to the science team for further verification.
Mat Kaplan: It's a visual process as you envision it, right? I mean, it's not that they're not going to have headphones on like we have right now. They're going to see on their screen a display that represents this signal.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. We display the time and frequency structure of the signal, of each candidate's signal with an image. And that image be classified in one of a dozen classes or so. So, it's a task that does not require PhD, right? You're looking at images and you're classifying it. Even elementary school or middle school students should be able to do this.
Mat Kaplan: That's great. I have to follow up on that half percent. I mean, if you already have that half percent and it amounts to thousands of signals that make people scratch their heads a little bit, are they already being looked at? I mean, have any of those reached the point where they would deserve to have the word wow written next to them?
Jean-Luc Margot: No. We've looked at every single one of them, right? So half a percent of five million signals is thousands of signals and in our searches to date we've looked at every single one of them. However, the ability of the citizen science platform will allow us to expand the search and accelerate the search and engage the public in this amazing quest for cosmic companionship.
Mat Kaplan: And you're going to use the Zooniverse platform, which is absolutely terrific. I'm a huge fan of Zooniverse. Was it particularly well suited for this?
Jean-Luc Margot: Yes, it's very well designed. We have a prototype on Zooniverse. We will continue to refine that prototype. The first part of our program is really a design phase and a beta testing phase. So we're going to continue to improve that prototype and then launch perhaps in January or so. As soon as we're ready, we'll have a launch event and invite people to join and partner with us.
Mat Kaplan: You can bet that we'll be part of that. We'll certainly want to cover that on Planetary Radio and I'm sure across all The Planetary Society's other channels. Tell me about your co-investigator on this project, Lisa Garibay, she brings a different set of skills to the project, doesn't she?
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. She is a public relations expert working here in the UCLA division of Physical Sciences. And her role is really critical because the launch period that I mentioned for Zooniverse really requires training of all the students that will be part of our team so that we can communicate effectively with the citizen scientists, so that we can engage them, keep them engaged. And so, Lisa will help train our team to do that effectively. I should mention I've been teaching SETI course at UCLA since 2016, every year we teach it. And so, we've taught SETI to something like over 100 undergraduate students and maybe 10 graduate students. Among the alumni from the course, many people have volunteered already to help launch the citizen science platform. So we have a number of volunteers that are eager to get training and help launch the platform.
Mat Kaplan: I like the group shot of your students in the SETI group at UCLA that you already mentioned. Just a shame that the last two of those have been shots of Zoom screens, but hopefully we'll be getting away from that. This is more proof that you are not new to SETI. I did see that listing in the class, but I also saw that you have worked with one of my and people, the great Jill Tarter. What did you work on with Jill?
Jean-Luc Margot: You may remember there was a decatal survey to delineate the priorities for astronomy and astrophysics a few years back. I volunteered to write a white paper about the future of radio technosignature searches. And Jill was kind enough to join the writing of the paper and advise us on the future directions.
Mat Kaplan: That's great. I love talking to her and she is a gift to humanity. You say that if all goes well, we may get started in January of next year, 2023. How long do you hope to maintain this effort, including the citizen science part of it?
Jean-Luc Margot: It depends a little bit on the funding. We are applying for NASA funding as well. NASA has a small program for citizen science efforts, and we've put in a proposal very similar to the one we submitted to The Planetary Society. We've disclosed to both agencies that we're submitting similar proposals. Hopefully, both organizations decide to fund it, and that will allow us to keep the platform going and have larger data sets, a larger number of signals to examine. So, at the minimum, it will be six months. Hopefully it will be a year and a half. And if we can continue to get funding, we may pursue it longer than that. We'll see how it goes.
Mat Kaplan: I'll close with this. I saw that you've been a science advisor to a long list of movies and television shows, many of which have considered alien intelligence, finding ET out there and interacting with him, her or it. You've addressed this somewhat, but I just wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what it will mean if this project finds real life evidence that we are not alone, and what will it mean to you?
Jean-Luc Margot: Well, I'm a planetary astronomer and most of my research isn't SETI. I study the physical and dynamical properties of planets and satellites and asteroids, their interiors, the processes that govern them, and all of that is really exciting, and I'm really passionate about it. But a few years back after the Kepler Revolution happened, the Kepler Space Telescope Revolution happened I asked myself, "What is the most important scientific question that I could answer?" There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the search for technosignatures was the most important question that I could answer by orders of magnitude. Again, I'm excited about my Venus work and my Mercury work, but if we were able to detect a signal from another civilization, that would be by far the most impactful discovery of my career. I think it would be a celebration maybe worldwide to know that we're not alone in the universe, that there are other civilizations out there. One might even hope that it would help us get closer to one another, and maybe reduce some of the conflicts that we're observing on Earth today.
Mat Kaplan: Devoutly to be wished. Jean-Luc, I have said this to other SETI researchers. I will say it to you. If that day comes and I'm still around and Planetary Radio is still around, I expect you to hold a place in line where we can stand with the New York Times and CNN and everybody else who's going to be trying to pound down your door so that we can talk to you about this discovery when, and if it is made. And as our boss Bill Nye says, "It changes everything. Thank you so much. Congratulations, once again, and good hunting.
Jean-Luc Margot: Thank you for having me. I hope that one of your listeners makes that discovery.
Mat Kaplan: It turned out we weren't quite finished. Jean-Luc wanted to share more of his thoughts about why the search for technosignatures is at least as important as the hunt for biosignatures emanating from other worlds. Here's that brief addition to his comments/
Jean-Luc Margot: In my opinion, the search for technosignatures has four compelling advantages compared to the search for biosignatures. The first one is cost. The searches for biosignatures are really important, and we are investing tens of billions of dollars, and I fully support that, but it's a big paycheck. In contrast, you can have a very substantial search for technosignatures for a small fraction of the cost. We're talking a few million dollars a year, not billions. So, cost is number one. Number two is search volume. We can search the volume of the entire galaxy with technosignatures. Whereas, with biosignatures, we're looking at a handful of places in the so system and the really nearby planetary systems, maybe 100 light years or so, a small bubble compared to the volume that we can search with technosignatures. The difference is millions in terms of the volume that can be searched.
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Jean-Luc Margot: The third advantage that I see has to do with the certainty of interpretation. Biosignatures can be confounded with natural processes that are not related to life. And we've seen this play out with methane on Mars and the claim of phosphene on Venus. It's difficult to be certain that these gases are due to life. And if it's difficult with the planets nextdoor, it's going to be far more difficult with planets that are a million times further away. So, that's going to remain a challenge for biosignatures and the entire community is preparing itself writing white papers about standards of evidence and maybe a probabilistic assessment of what the data will show. So we may have statements like, oh, we have an 80 or 90% probability of having detected life on such and such exo planet.
Jean-Luc Margot: In contrast, the search for technosignatures, at least the signals that we are looking for have no natural analogs. We're looking for narrow band signals. There's no process in nature that can produce these signals. So the only way to produce such a signal is to really have an engineer designing a system that can do it. If we can detect a narrow band signal from a unique direction on the sky, and that signal is repeatable and everything is confirmed, we will have a very high degree of certainty that we've in fact detected another civilization. And then the fourth advantage has to do with the information content. If there is information encoded in the signal, there's the potential for tremendous advance in human knowledge if we are able to decode that signal. So that's why I'm really excited about searching for technosignatures. It's a high risk, high reward kind of activity, but I'm thrilled to devote a fraction of my research time to the search.
Mat Kaplan: High risk, high reward, low cost.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right.
Mat Kaplan: Professor Jean-Luc Margot of UCLA, principal investigator for the just funded STEP grant project titled, Are We Alone? A Citizen Science Enabled Search for Technosignatures. I'll return in seconds with Bojan Novakovic, leader of the other STEP grant project that has just been announced by The Planetary Society.
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Mat Kaplan: Welcome back. As Bruce mentioned, the other successful STEP grant proposal effort was led by professor of astronomy, Bojan Novakovic of the University of Belgrade in Serbia. Here's my conversation with Bojan. Not long after, he and his team heard from Bruce. Bojan, congratulations on this reception of the other STEP grant. One of the first two provided by The Planetary Society. It is an honor to speak with you, and I look forward to talking to you about this great project. Welcome.
Bojan Novakovic: Thank you, Mat. We are really grateful to this grant from Planetary Society. It means a lot to us, and we are looking forward to this excitement project that we are going to do.
Mat Kaplan: I love your project logo. You guys actually... And we'll put it on the show page where people can see it at planetary.org/radio, but that really is terrific. It's this fingerprint in what appears to be the elliptical orbit of a near-Earth asteroid. That fingerprint seems to be very descriptive of how you hope to characterize these objects.
Bojan Novakovic: Yes, exactly. That was actually idea of the colleague working on the project. And yeah, the idea is basically that this fingerprint should represent the physical properties of the asteroids that we want to basically investigate and to reveal. So, it's like to track the asteroids and to get information on them, which could be useful in different aspects, starting from science, through planetary defense, and even possibly for exploitation as well.
Mat Kaplan: Very much in line, as with the mission of The Planetary Society and our various initiatives. When and how did you learn that you had received the grant and how did you share this with your team?
Bojan Novakovic: We received information from Planetary Society. It was about 10 days ago. That was big excitement. Everyone was basically very happy about this news. So, it'll help in particular to extend the contract of one colleague and to basically complete this project because part of the idea that we are going to do was develop... A little bit more than a year ago, we had some similar, but simply we got funding for something else. We just did some very preliminary work and we stopped that. Thanks to this grant we'll now have opportunity to basically continue along these lines.
Mat Kaplan: Can you tell me just a word or two about your colleagues in the project, colleagues that you have there at the University of Belgrade?
Bojan Novakovic: Yes, exactly. One colleague is also colleague from the Department of Astronomy of the University of Belgrade. His name is Dušan Marčeta. He's basically more oriented to data analysis. He will help with that side, programming skills. Then another colleague is Marco Fenucci. He's basically [inaudible 00:33:42] our department through another to one European project. He's a very good mathematician, first of all, but it is also very good in programming. So, we are going to combine this because this project on one side, of course, that is planetary science or astronomy part, but we also have important aspect on computing skills, which will be important to properly implement our models because they are computationally very expensive. So we need to optimize these as much as possible to achieve our goals. And also one PhD student will be part of our team. She will have opportunity basically to incorporate that in her PhD thesis, which will be very good side for her to have such experience.
Mat Kaplan: Is that Vanja?
Bojan Novakovic: Yes, exactly. Yeah, this is Vanja Petković.
Mat Kaplan: Excellent, excellent. Well, give them all our regards and congratulations. Let's talk about the project. Why first of all, is it, and this is a question I think I know the answer to. Why is it important for us to not just discover and track near-Earth objects, including near-Earth asteroids, but to learn about, to actually understand their physical properties?
Bojan Novakovic: There are many reasons for that. Let me first say that though the number of new or discovered near-objects is increasing quite fast. We have now almost around 30,000 known objects in this population. The number of objects with available physical data is quite small. It is at best, a few hundreds, depending on what data we are referring to, of course, but it is much smaller than the number of no knows. However, physical data is relevant in many aspects. If we speak about the science, for instance, we need to know the physical data. What I mean by physical data, mass of the asteroid, density, spin state, how fast it rotates around spin axis or thermal properties of the surface, thermal conductivity, thermal inertia, or composition, of course. Some of these are important to understand the origin of this object to link them with the parent asteroids because we should remind that near-Earth objects are actually arriving to this area from the main belt, which is between the Mars and Jupiter. So, typically all near-Earth objects have parent asteroids in the main belt. So, to make a link, we need to know about composition and different aspects.
Bojan Novakovic: Also, if we speak about planetary defense. Probably everyone understands that we should know the mass because this is very relevant for a potential impact, but there are other aspects. There are two points to understand. One is we need first to predict if an asteroid could potentially hit the Earth. Of course, we know the orbits of these NEOs. For many of them, these are quite precise orbits. However, one thing that is important to highlight is that orbit evolution of small objects, small like 10 meters to one kilometer, let's say, is affected not only by gravitational perturbations, gravitational pull by planets, for instance. Of course, they are patrolled by planets.
Bojan Novakovic: Another aspects are non gravitational perturbations. So, these are for asteroids. Let me give you an example. This something, what we call the Yarkovsky effect. It is basically very roughly speaking when asteroid goes around the sun, it absorbs the energy from the sun, but before it reach the maximum, the temperature, it rotate a bit and remission is in another direction. So, this produces small force pushing the asteroids along the orbit or opposite. So, meaning that the small weak force could speed up or slow down orbita velocity. And this basically move the asteroids towards the sun or from the sun. In any case, this is one non-gravitation that change the orbit of asteroids. So, if we want precisely to predict, for instance, potential impact, we need to model properly this effect, but this effect is something what I'd like to explain as a place where orbital dynamics meets a physics composition.
Mat Kaplan: Interesting.
Bojan Novakovic: Because the amount of these force that will basically change the orbit depends on many physical properties and composition. For instance, it depends on the orbit, but it also depends on thermal inertia, on the size, the rotation period, on density, and also some other parameters. So, this is why we need to know those parameters in order to model this effect because this is the only way to get a high quality prediction of potential [inaudible 00:38:56].
Mat Kaplan: In a way, you want to turn this on its head, right? Where you can use... I hope I have this right. Use the Yarkovsky drift that you observe to tell us about these characteristics of the asteroid, its composition, its density, and so on.
Bojan Novakovic: Exactly. The point is that now we start having more and more data, which is purely astometric data what means purely measurement of the position of asteroids. However, if you have good quality of such data, you can basically measure this acceleration caused by the Yarkovsky effect in the orbital motion. If someone measure those accelerations, then what we have, we have Yarkovsky drift, but Yarkovsky drift depends on those parameters that I mentioned. Of course, I mentioned many parameters. So, the problem is not simple. However, luckily, some parameters are better constrained than the others, so we can make a good assumptions about some parameters. The most serious problem is with thermal conductivity and related to that thermal inertia. Thermal conductivity is a quantity that is uncertain orders of magnitudes. So this is the problem. And our idea is at least for the first part of the project, we will try to go further generally through the project. But the preliminary first idea is to try to somehow assume the other parameters and measure Yarkovsky drift to basically invert this relation and to determine the thermal conductivity.
Mat Kaplan: This is fascinating, and I think one of the things that most impressed me and Bruce Betts, my colleague who heads the STEP grant program, and the other evaluators is that you were able to tell us in the grant proposal about an asteroid that you applied this technique to, and it's an asteroid that we actually know the characteristics of, and apparently it worked.
Bojan Novakovic: Exactly. Yeah. That was our idea to see whether what we want to do has made sense. And we basically select Asteroid Bennu, of course, which is perfect example because we now have a lot of data thanks to [inaudible 00:41:21].
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, we've been there.
Bojan Novakovic: Yeah. And we applied let's say the very preliminary version of this model, just to see what we can basically extract from the data. The results are actually perfect, but okay, we should be honest and say that the level of the precision of information for some parameters that we have for Bennu is something that we cannot expect for other asteroids. So, we cannot expect that our results will be at the same level because simply other information that we need to incorporate in our data will not be at this level because Bennu is vastly observed because of the mission, and we have great information about this body. Nevertheless, we estimate, we compared what we can get, what is available at the moment on this data on asteroids. And we found that basically, the quality of our data is on the same level, what is available for other asteroids or very similar, but we can do this for much more objects. The main results of our project will be to have a reasonably good estimation of some parameters for a larger number of asteroids than what we have now.
Mat Kaplan: How many asteroids do you hope to develop this data for over the roughly two years of the project?
Bojan Novakovic: From our point of view, we primarily want to develop the models. What I explain is just a basic model, but we have different things that we want to account for and what is relevant like orbital eccentricity, which change Yarkovsky. This is logically simple, but it's computationally extremely expensive. So, we need to find a way to incorporate this into the model. And also there are other aspects like many recent papers suggest that thermal inertia actually depends on heliocentric distance. How far are we from the sun? Meaning that it is not the constant. So, this is another aspects that need to be incorporated into the model. So, our priority is to develop the models. For how many asteroids we will be able to compute their values depends exactly on for how many asteroids we have a good Yarkovsky measurements. At the moment, this is on the level of two to three hundreds. We expect that the number of those objects will grow fast in the next years.
Mat Kaplan: Hopefully.
Bojan Novakovic: For instance, Gaia astrometry, which is very important for such kind of measurements will soon become available, hopefully, and we expect a lot of new Yarkovsky measurements just from this data
Mat Kaplan: We should say Gaia is that spacecraft, that is a European Space Agency spacecraft, which is now doing this work. So, yeah, hopefully it will be delivering the out data to you very soon. And if the real goal is to develop the model, then my assumption is that you'll be sharing this model if it's as successful as you hope so that many researchers perhaps across the world will be able to take advantage of it.
Bojan Novakovic: Sure. Idea is to we'll describe the model in journal papers, but of course the model will be followed by software, by code, which will basically implement this model, and we will make all the codes really available to anyone interested. That's basic idea behind all this that we want to allow anyone to use this.
Mat Kaplan: And as you talk about the computational challenges of picking data out of this very small effect, the Yarkovsky drift, I'm guessing that explains why, and I think it's the biggest expense that you project for the grant is that you need a powerful computer and you'll be purchasing this very powerful system.
Bojan Novakovic: Yes. The point of this model, that in most of its part, it's not extremely complex model from a logical point of view. I mean, you can describe the algorithm in quite simple steps. However, what is challenging is computational science. We are going to use the measurement of the Yarkovsky drift, but how we are going basically to extract specific values like thermal inertia from those measurement. We need on one side to have a measurement of the Yarkovsky effect. But on the other hand, we need to have either a model of the Yarkovsky, theoretical model or numerical model. In principle, to make a good computation of the drift, we need to have a numerical model, but numerical model is very expensive because you need to incorporate this model in orbit propagation around the sun. When you do orbit propagation, you typically have a step which is on the order of let's say one day or something like that, or several hours.
Bojan Novakovic: However, if you want to incorporate Yarkovsky effect because it is related typically, more related to rotation of an asteroid around spin axis and rotation could be like a few hours, just. So, you need to go down to a few minutes, and this increase the computational power that you need to have to basically complete such simulations or increasing orders of magnitude. And that's the key point. As I said, if you add on the top of that a row of eccentricity, all this is implemented in numerical model because we need to have this model, which depends on all parameters. So what we are doing, we are finding the value of unknown parameter, which is in our case, will be, let's say thermal conductivity or thermal inertia. So, we are basically trying to fit numerical model of Yarkovsky into the measured values to reproduce what is observed by the model and find which parameter of which value actually represents the best measure of value. The critical point is computational site.
Mat Kaplan: Great challenges ahead. How soon do you hope to be up and running with the project? I mean, I hope that you'll be able to install this powerful workstation and get underway soon.
Bojan Novakovic: We are going to basically start with this quite soon, but roughly speaking, let's say the 1st April is something that we are see as a starting day. We are aware that current situation with buying such equipment is little bit more complicated because of different reasons. But the good point is that we could start with developing a model without this equipment. So, equipment is not so critical let's say in the first six months, roughly speaking. We are hoping that within six months we will be able to buy this equipment. And then we will already have at least some parts of the model ready to start using this and to produce, let's say final results.
Mat Kaplan: Excellent. You can bet that we will want to check back with you and get a progress report on this effort. Before I let you go, I was also excited to see that your colleagues and you hope to create a virtual and/or augmented reality videos to share this project with the general public, which of course is something we love to do with The Planetary Society. How's that going to work? Will you be producing these yourselves?
Bojan Novakovic: Yes, mostly. Actually, one colleague, Dušan Marčeta, is exactly who has experience with such tools. He basically proposed this suspect to basically promote the project and do outreach. And he will be mainly responsible for that side. But yes, we are planning to do most of this on our own. We have some, let's say colleagues or collaborators that could help with some advices if necessary. But yes, we see this as a very cool tool basically to present and to share, maybe not just limited to what we are going to compute, but to tell the people what is an asteroid, why this meters are important, what is Yarkovsky effect and these kind of things. So, yes, this is something that I'm also very excited to see how this will work.
Mat Kaplan: Bojan, my virtual reality headset is sitting next to me here in my little home studio. So, I cannot wait to load those videos on my headset and dive right into the work that you have coming up as part of this project, Demystifying Near-Earth Asteroids or DNES. Thanks so much for explaining it to us. And once again, congratulations on a reception of one of these first two STEP grants.
Bojan Novakovic: Thank you, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: We've been talking with planetary scientist, Bojan Novakovic. He is a professor in the University of Belgrade's, Department of Astronomy, and he is the principal investigator for the DNES project. As promised it's time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. Here, once again is the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society, Dr. Bruce Betts to tell us about the night sky and all kinds of other stuff, something about steps, step in time, apparently. Welcome back.
Bruce Betts: Yes. I thought I'd have a whole Mary Poppin section.
Mat Kaplan: Just good clean sweat.
Bruce Betts: Enough, enough of that. Yes. I'm going to talk about steps, but first we're going to talk about the night sky or really the sky in the pre-dawn. And even I actually followed my dogs out to bark at coyotes in the middle of the night, and have seen it. And you know what, Mat? Venus is still really bright. So, if you look over in the east, anywhere in the east, you'll see a really bright starlike object. That's Venus in the pre-dawn, and it is hanging out with Mars and Saturn and they are getting well, frankly, kind of snugly. We've got Venus super bright. And then over to its right is reddish Mars, and below it is yellowish Saturn, and they're going to get closer, and even a surprise guest appearance by the moon on the morning of March 28th, and to get a little further ahead because I'm really excited about it. Well, March 28th, you'll have Saturn near Venus, but you'll have Saturn really snuggly close to Mars on April 4th. So, check it out.
Mat Kaplan: This is great. This is better than the Academy Awards. More stars in the sky.
Bruce Betts: You think you've got stars, we've got stars, and planets. Onto this week in space history, it was 1958 that Vanguard 1 was launched. Vanguard 1, which holds the distinction of being the oldest object still in space. Stopped working a long time ago, but it's still up there orbiting. And in 2011, MESSENGER after flybys of Mercury was able to actually go into orbit and become the first and only so far, mercury orbiter
Mat Kaplan: Check out past episodes of Planetary Radio. Our conversations with Sean Solomon, the leader of that mission.
Bruce Betts: It's amazing. We move on to a random space fact, random space fact steps. So, in the world of famous steps of the past, I'm thinking Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon, probably the most famously, one of the most famous where he of course said the whole thing that he said.
Mat Kaplan: That thing.
Bruce Betts: What was that, Mat?
Mat Kaplan: One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.
Bruce Betts: All right, nice. Now Apollo 12 astronaut, and I think we've discussed his statement. Pete Conrad said, "Whoopy. Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me." Well, it turns out apparently he said this as he jumped down onto the footpath. And then when he stepped off the foot pad he has a quote that I find very amusing, which is stepped onto the moon surface and said, "Ooh, is that soft and queasy?"
Mat Kaplan: Are you serious?
Bruce Betts: That's what I read in multiple locations.
Mat Kaplan: That is fascinating. I've only heard the funny line about where the reference to Neil. I did not know that was onto the footpad. Thank you.
Bruce Betts: That's what I'm here for. Let us move on, shall we, to the trivia contest. I asked you what was Olympus Mons? The of course, largest mountain in the solar system on Mars. What was Olympus Mon's name before being named that back when astronomers only knew it as an albedo or brightness feature. How did we do, Mat?
Mat Kaplan: Another big response. And what was also interesting in the response to this week's contest is how many first timers, how many people we have not heard from before, including Sam Boyd. Sam, no, I don't want to get your hopes up. No, I'm sorry. Keep at it. You didn't win this one. But Sam said, "I love listening to the podcast from my hikes through a forest near St. Louis where my mother hails from. It is quite serene and lively ironic to be listening to information about the farthest reaches of our universe while getting in closer to nature on our own special rock."
Bruce Betts: Oh, cool.
Mat Kaplan: Nicely done. Glad to have you with us, Sam. Here comes the answer, I suspect, from our poet Laureate, Dave Fairchild, in Kansas. Giovanni Schiaparelli saw a spot and said, "Aha, I will name this Martian feature, call it Nix Olympica for the snows of Mount Olympus and the nomenclature's mine." All this happened in the year of 1,879.
Bruce Betts: What was it he said at first?
Mat Kaplan: Aha.
Bruce Betts: Aha.
Mat Kaplan: Aha.
Bruce Betts: Aha.
Mat Kaplan: Is that your martian mountain you gave a name to, aha?
Bruce Betts: I think you have a whole different image of Schiaparelli.
Mat Kaplan: That's better than [inaudible 00:55:51]. Is that correct, Nix Olympica?
Bruce Betts: It is indeed Nix Olympica as was inferred there, Latin for Olympic Snow.
Mat Kaplan: Well, let me tell you the actual winner this week. It happens to be chosen by random.org, a first timer as far as I could tell Alexandra Hebda, congratulations. Alexandra is in Georgia. She sure enough said Nix Olympica, so she is going to be getting that really stunning 20 by 36 inch screen print of the Viking Mars lander and orbiter from Chop Shop. Chopshopstore.com where The Planetary Society merchandise is. Congratulations, Alexandra. Thank you very much for entering. We got another poster coming up in moments here. I've got other stuff from interesting people. Is there anything else you wanted to say about Nix?
Bruce Betts: Well, they couldn't tell it was a mountain, but its mountainous nature was already suspected. Maybe you were going to talk about that based upon seeing it above clouds and things like that.
Mat Kaplan: Well, I wasn't, but [inaudible 00:56:55], our friend, an astronomer, he gave us some of that same background. He said, "During his telescopic studies of Mars in 1879, Schiaparelli, of Canali fame, not Canole, Canali, discovered a light colored region, which he christened Nix Olympica, Latin for snows of Olympus. He only had an eight inch telescope, but he was able to see the feature even during those dust storms that you just referred to. And because they looked like they were above the dust, he figured, oh, must be an exceptionally tall mountain peak."
Bruce Betts: Nice job, aha.
Mat Kaplan: Let's see. Here's another poem from [Gene Lewin 00:57:36] in Washington. Atop Earth's tallest freestanding peak sit the snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway wrote a tale of this Mount, the movie script didn't quite follow. Schiaparelli spied a glow out on Mars. Nix Olympica was what he named it. Later was changed to Olympus Mons. His work too, did not escape edit. And one last comment from Ken Murley of Washington, first to keep in mind as we [blively 00:58:04] assign names to things on other worlds. Kent says the important issue on our fourth planet is that before we print too many more maps, we should just visit the Farsis natives and respectfully ask them what they call it.
Bruce Betts: It's going to be tough.
Mat Kaplan: We are ready for a new contest.
Bruce Betts: I'm just getting in the habit now of there'll be the simple version of the question then there'll be all the clarifications for those who think I do devious things. So, simple version, what were the first words spoken from the moon? This based upon words spoken after any part of the spacecraft, in this case, the Lunar Module touched the surface and also tell me who said them. Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
Mat Kaplan: You haven't until the 23rd. That's March 23 at 8:00 AM Pacific Time. And we are continuing in this giveaway of a whole series of surprises from Chop Shop store, chopshopstore.com, I should say. This time, the poster is Juno over Jupiter. It is absolutely gorgeous. I would be very happy to have this on my wall. It is the spacecraft that is still doing such good work out there over our queen of planets in this solar system looking down on that amazing surface. It's a four color screen print 20 by 36 inch, and it will go to the winner this time around.
Bruce Betts: What surface, Mat? Isn't it Juno at Jupiter. I mean, they look at the moons, but I assume the poster is Jupiter.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, it is. This is the swirling cloud tops. Yeah, no, I'm not expecting to go down to the metallic hydrogen here.
Bruce Betts: Metal. Metallic hydrogen definitely the name of one of my bands. All right, everybody. Go out there, look up in the night sky and think about walking through woods and listening to Mat's soothing voice talking about planets. Thank you, and goodnight.
Mat Kaplan: Hey, Sam, we're going to join you there on that walk sometime. It may not be quite as soothing when you have the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society, Bruce Betts and me along for the walk, but hopefully it'll be entertaining.
Bruce Betts: Ooh, look at that over there. Oh, look at that. Oh, look at that.
Mat Kaplan: Where'd Sam go?
Bruce Betts: Aha.
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its members who make all of our work possible. Want to step up and join them? Planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers this week. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.