In this week’s episode, Director of Canadensys West Peter Visscher fills us in on the upcoming Canadian lunar rover. Visscher has been working on the rover for years. Bruce Betts also returns to the show for another installment of What's Up.
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Sarah Al-Ahmed: Canada's building its first lunar rover. This week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. The Canadian Space Agency is upping their moon game with their upcoming lunar rover. After years of testing and deliberation, a company named Canadensys Aerospace Corporation has won the contract to build it. Peter Visscher, the director of Canadensys West, joins us to discuss the rover's mission and design, and we'll let you know what to look for in the night sky in this week's What's Up with Bruce Betts. I'd like to apologize upfront for being a bit croaky during the show. Unfortunately, I contracted Covid and recorded most of this before my first positive test. I promise I'll rest up so I can be back to share the wonders of space exploration with you in future weeks. Now for some space mission briefings. China's Zhurong Mars Rover appears to be facing challenges. Images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show that the rover has not moved since at least September 2022. Zhurong was expected to autonomously resume activities around December after a planned hibernation during the Martian winter. The Chinese government has not provided any public updates on the state of the mission. The European Space Agency is planning an in-space asteroid hunting mission. The proposed mission, called NEOMIR, would send a spacecraft to a stable orbit between the Earth and the sun, allowing it to spot asteroids coming from the direction of the sun. Details of the mission are currently being fleshed out with a 2030 target launch date. A NASA safety panel has raised concerns about Artemis. The annual report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel stated a concern that NASA's concerted attention to a healthy safety culture may have diminished, leaving NASA vulnerable to some flaws that contributed to previous failures. The panel also pointed out that the irregular cadence of Artemis missions and the changing nature of each mission could lead to challenges, essentially making every new mission a test mission. You can learn more about these and other stories in the February 24th edition of our weekly newsletter, The Downlink. Read it or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox for free every Friday at planetary.org/downlink. For the first time in history, Canada is sending a rover to the moon. In November 2022, the Canadian government announced it awarded a 43 million dollar contract to Canadensys Aerospace Corporation to build the first Canadian lunar rover. It's part of an ongoing collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. It will fly as part of NASA's commercial lunar payload services initiative and could land in the south polar region of the moon as early as 2026. The rover's mission is to search for water ice in the lunar soil. Past observations have shown evidence that there may be water ice in this region, primarily in the permanently shadowed craters at the south pole. The upcoming Canadian rover, along with other future missions, aims to learn more. Peter Visscher, our guest this week is the director of Canadensys West and has been working on the lunar rover for years. He's here to give us the details. Hi Peter. Welcome to Planetary Radio.
Peter Visscher: Hi Sarah, nice to meet you.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I want to say congratulations to you and all of your colleagues at Canadensys for winning this contract with the Canadian Space Agency to build the first Canadian lunar rover. That's got to be so exciting.
Peter Visscher: Oh, yeah. It's very exciting. We worked pretty hard to get here and we were rewarded the contract and now reality is setting in and we actually have to build something.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, and Canada has aspired to be more involved in lunar exploration for quite a while, and in order to accomplish that, they created this LEAP program, the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. Can you tell us a little bit about what that program is and how your company got involved?
Peter Visscher: Sure. So the Canadian Space Agency, they started that program after Canada got involved with the lunar gateway. It was a fund designed to help small to medium-sized companies participate in the exploration of space, particularly as we try to explore the moon. So the fund was about 150 million dollars. Under that there was multiple projects that they were pursuing, and one of the main projects in that LEAP portfolio of projects was this small lunar rover project that we've been looking at for a few years.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Did you have aspirations to build a rover before you heard about this program, or was it something where you heard that this was the goal and you wanted to be part of it?
Peter Visscher: I have ate, slept and breathed rovers for 15 years now and have done multiple prototypes for the Canadian Space Agency. Canadensys has been involved with lunar rovers since the very beginning of the company and looking at doing more commercial type rovers, so something that's smaller, maybe faster to market, something that's more in line with the commercial exploration of space. However, we recognize that participating with space agencies is critical to get some of these projects off the ground.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And how did you personally first become excited about building lunar rovers?
Peter Visscher: Well, that's a bit of a long story. I mean, I grew up as a farmer. I lived on the farm till I was about 26, 27. Then after I got married I was told that I should go back to school and become an engineer. So at the time I was a potato farmer and looking back, I realize now I was just as close to being a real life Mark Watney as you could find. So I ended up going through for mechanical engineering, and I really enjoyed that. And then in my first year on the job, out of nowhere, we were designing off-road vehicles and somebody asked if we'd like to help out with a lunar rover project. At the time my boss wasn't that interested in it, but I was, so I ended up taking that project on and I've been doing that ever since.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That sounds like so much fun. I mean, to go from dreaming of this thing to participating in the program to actually get it done for the first time, that's an amazing journey. And over 40 different companies and universities have participated in this program to try to build this rover, and in the end, your company was awarded the contract. So what was the competitive process like for this?
Peter Visscher: The space agency wanted this to be a competitive process, so they put out a RFP, so request for proposal, and they awarded two companies a chance to do a Phase A. Now Phase A is a concept study. It's the early part of the program, so our company was awarded one of them and then Canada's biggest space company, called MDA, they were awarded the other one. For the next year, we competed, I guess, and put together our best effort, finished up that project and at the end of it the space agency went and looked at what we had both done and then made a decision.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: How did your team celebrate when you found out that you got the contract?
Peter Visscher: Well, there was some colorful language in a positive way, and we said things like "woo-hoo", and admittedly we didn't work too hard for the rest of that day, had a few beers and came back to work the next day and started working.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What's fascinating to me about this rover is that it's not just any lunar rover. We've sent vehicles to the moon before, but this rover is going to be adventuring to a part of the moon that no mission has actually gone to before. It's going to touch down the surface at the Moon south pole, and study a region that's just fascinating to me personally for a lot of reasons. But can you tell us why is studying this particular region of the moon so crucial to future space exploration?
Peter Visscher: Previous landings on the moon, whether it was with a robotic vehicle or whether it was actually with humans back in the Apollo era, they were focused on more of the equatorial regions, kind of the middle part of the moon, and they didn't find a whole lot. They found rocks, that was cool. They found dirt like the regolith, but there wasn't really anything super exciting there. But over the next 30, 40 years, especially in the last 15, 20 years, there's been enough satellites that have been sent up around the moon. One thing they found was that in the polar regions of the moon, especially the south pole, there's a pretty strong hydrogen signature. If you're seeing hydrogen on the moon, it can only be at a couple different forms and one of those forms is water ice. We can see this from orbit, but we don't really know what form it's in and we don't really know how deep it is or how we can get it out. So we're going to go in for a closer look, and we're not the only mission targeted at the south pole. NASA's sending a much larger rover called VIPER. This is a program that we've worked with over the last 15 years as well. We're not involved with it at this point, but we're happy to see it finally flying and it's going to actually drill down into the ground. With our mission, we won't be drilling into the ground, we'll be using a bunch of different sensors to try to detect different temperature gradients and then also figure out, based on what we find there, we'll go in for a closer look and see if we can actually detect hydrogen.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I hope so. I hope that signal is actually from water ice because that could be so useful for future space exploration. I mean, not just to keep our astronauts alive when we send them there, but potentially for fuel to get to Mars and beyond. I mean, whatever this rover discovers could be very pivotal to the future of space exploration. Can you tell us a little bit about the rover's design and what it could tell us about water on the moon?
Peter Visscher: The rover, it's not a huge rover, it's about 30 kilograms and that includes about six kilograms of the sensors of the payloads that we're supposed to carry. One of them comes from NASA. It'll be looking for these temperature gradients. We call it 50 shades of cold as a nickname, but it looks into these permanently shadowed regions and it tries to figure out where the coldest areas are, and it can see pretty far out, so it helps us decide where we're going to drive. The other instruments, they're called multispectral. They send a certain light down to the surface and then they read what's coming back, and using that we can tell what the composition of the ground is. The rover itself, it's not a very big rover as I mentioned, but one of the interesting things about it, we're going to attempt to survive lunar night. The sun sets and rises every 14 days, so it's a 28-day cycle on the moon. So the sun comes up, and then 14 days later the sun goes down and it stays down for 14 days. It varies a bit depending on where you are, but the short and long of it is that it gets very cold at night. There's no sunlight to help charge your batteries, and it's so cold that we have to provide a little bit of heat to some of the instruments and some of the batteries just to keep them alive. This rover's designed to do that. It'll be one of the smallest rovers ever to try to do this, but we're quite confident we're going to be able to pull that off.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What's the rover's power source?
Peter Visscher: So it's all solar-powered. Rover looks kind of like a pyramid with a top chopped off. So it's got four sides and then a flat top on the top there. And each of the sides we put as many solar cells on as we can, try to collect as much power as we can, and then we have a battery on board that's as big as we can make it, and that's the only power source. Some of the larger rovers would use an RTG, like a radio isotope heat source, and from that they can produce both heat and they can produce power. But those are generally for larger rovers. Something as small as ours, we're going to have to rely strictly on solar power.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Which is extra challenging when you're not only dealing with the night and day cycle on the moon, but also a lot of the ice that has been previously found in this location is buried down in these permanently shadowed craters on the moon that never get any light at all. So is the rover going to delve into some of these craters or is it going to stay at the edges so it doesn't necessarily get trapped down there?
Peter Visscher: Well, I guess it depends who's driving. So these permanently shadowed regions at the south pole, because the sun angle's so low, they might not require a particularly deep crater to be termed a permanently shadowed region. So we are intending to drive into one of those, so it'll be daylight and we're going to find a permanently shadowed region using sensors and then we're going to attempt to drive into it and take more readings. Once we're into it, we have to take those readings reasonably quickly and then we have to get out. It's going to be as cold as about -200, maybe -220 Celsius. So this is only about 40, 50 degrees above absolute zero, so we're not going to stay in there very long, and it's going to be a challenge to get all the components to be able to survive that kind of temperature.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. That's a wild temperature swing. A lot of the imagery I've seen of this rover online includes this lighting system that's rigged onto the top. Is that still a part of the rover plan? Are we going to have a giant spotlight on top of it?
Peter Visscher: If we're going to drive in a permanently shadowed region, it's going to be dark, so we do have to have headlights. So we have a lot of cameras and those cameras often will put LEDs on them and help illuminate the ground ahead of us. We have to do a lot of design work around to figure out how many lights to use and where to put them all.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's still really cool to think about the fact that we might be shining light into regions that no light has touched for who knows how long, and then maybe getting back some really cool images of ice in places on the moon. I can't wait to see these pictures. It's going to be amazing.
Peter Visscher: Yeah, we're hoping, it's not likely we're going to be able to see ice on the surface where it'd be great if we could, but it's such a hard vacuum on the moon that it's unlikely that the ice would survive right on the surface, but we're going to see what we see. No one's ever looked there before, so, it'll be exciting. That's the whole point of taking on a big project like this is to explore and try to learn something that hasn't been learned before.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And most of the ice is most likely kind of mixed up in small components within the lunar regolith, is that right?
Peter Visscher: It's likely going to be buried a bit. We're not going to see ice cubes, we know that. Whether regolith is a bit lighter, maybe it's got ice mixed in, but in all likelihood it's going to be buried down maybe tens of centimeters, maybe more. And once we figure that out, then we can start to put together a plan on how to get it out.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you said the VIPER rover has plans to beneath the surface, will this rover have any capacity for actually kind of brushing away the topsoil or getting underneath?
Peter Visscher: We won't have a drill or any other instruments like that. Because we have to survive lunar night, most of our mass or a lot of our mass is dedicated just to keeping us alive. However, there's lots of tricks you can do with just using your wheels. So if you want to dig down 3, 4, 5 centimeters, we have a skid steer design, so actually the wheels don't pivot on a car. We just spin one side faster than the other side, so we can actually turn on the spot and do a couple loops like that and that would dig us down about five centimeters. So if we want to see what's just below the surface, we can actually do that.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And that's really clever, that's a good way to repurpose those wheels. Of course, this leads me to another question, which is that the moon is covered in this very abrasive, clingy dust. How is the rover going to deal with this and are the rover wheels designed in some way to help get this gunk out of the wheels if they get clogged?
Peter Visscher: Yeah, it's been a challenge for lunar exploration since the Apollo era. It's one of the things the astronauts mention right off the bat. They said, "This dust is really sticky. It's getting everywhere, and starting to jam up the mechanisms." So every mechanism designed for the lunar surface, a great deal of attention has to be paid to make sure it does not get destroyed by this dust. So we've been practicing for about 10 years with a lunar regolith simulant. It's a type of dust that we make here on Earth, but it's designed to act a lot like the dust that's on the moon. And so we've taken these wheels and we've taken drivetrains and we've put them inside of a vacuum chamber with dust and we've just run them for a week, or two weeks even, in a vacuum chamber just to see what happens, and can we make the seals good enough? Do the wheels wear out? We've also taken this dust and put it in a much larger facility, and we've driven on it for about 600 kilometers with a pair of wheels, and then we did it again at 2000 kilometers. So we've been practicing a lot with this dust, and so we're pretty confident that both our wheel design and our mechanisms will be able to survive.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's good to know and also fun to think about the fact that there are just companies that make fake lunar soil. I wonder how we can get some of that to play with.
Peter Visscher: Yeah, generally the space agencies put out a contract and then someone starts investigating and figures how to do it. There's about, well, I can think of about 10 simulants that are produced in North America and they all have some feature about them that makes them special. Some of them are a good mechanical simulant, other ones, they have different characteristics that help scientists and engineers learn how to operate on the moon.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have you tested with all of these different kinds of fake regolith or just some of them?
Peter Visscher: I've worked with about five or six of them.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my interview with Peter Visscher after this short break.
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Sarah Al-Ahmed: How long do you expect that this rover's going to be an operation?
Peter Visscher: So because we can survive the lunar night, that means not only do we get the first 14 days, then we sleep for roughly 14 days, it might only be about 10 days that we sleep, but if we can survive the first lunar night, our likelihood of surviving the second and third one are also very good. So I think the baseline goal is to hit about six months, and if we get that far, we'll all be pretty happy.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you mentioned this, does that mean that the rover is going to be just going into sleep mode when it's nighttime?
Peter Visscher: Yes. Yeah, everything non-critical shuts down and it's just the bare minimum of electronics stay awake and provide a little bit of heat to some of the key components, and it's a lot like a turtle. In Canada, we have lots of turtles and you say, well, where do they go in the winter? Well, they actually go to the bottom of a river or pond and everything shuts down except their heartbeats once every 10 minutes, and that's basically what our rover's going to do.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That makes sense. Are there going to be any times when the rover will be out of communication range given its position while it is in operation?
Peter Visscher: Yes. We're choosing to go at a time when the sun is at the right position, but also the Earth. So ideally the rover can see the sun and the Earth at the same time, so it can communicate and it can also see the sun, so it can collect power. There will be times, especially past that six month window, where the Earth is going to dip below the horizon. So one thing we can do, it's possible that we could talk to an orbiting satellite and relay it back to Earth, but it's also possible that we just have to suspend operations until we can get back into it. If the rover happens to drive behind a rock or into a dip or something where suddenly can't see the Earth, we'll likely have protocols in place for it to reverse and come back to where we can see it again.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: So it doesn't just autonomously drive itself except for potentially this option for backing out into a safer place?
Peter Visscher: There's some autonomy. In general, it will be operated, so the operator says, "I want to drive forward one or two meters." But even when it's doing that, because it's such a small rover, the communications are quite limited because we just don't have the ability to have a big dish on it. So we don't actually have video feedback. We take pictures, we tell it what to do, and it does it. While it's driving though, if there's a obstacle that we didn't see, it will have the ability to detect that obstacle and stop just to be safe. So hopefully that's not a problem, but just be safe, we're going to give it that capacity.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, you never know. I know with previous Mars rovers and things like that, these systems that detect obstacles before the humans can actually see them because of the communications range has saved rovers in the past, so that totally makes sense. In order to test these things, I'm sure you've built many different prototypes, not just of different parts of it, but have you built the entire rover altogether and started playing around with it yet?
Peter Visscher: Yes. We've got, how many prototypes? I'm trying to think. I suppose over the years we've built about 15 prototypes. Most recently, we've built prototypes that are about the same size and roughly the same shape. They look quite a lot like the one that's going to fly, and they have most of the same components. Of course, we're not using flight grade components yet, because that would make the prototypes very expensive and take a long time to put together, but it is still good to get something that's about the same size so we can start driving it around and learning how to do navigation and learning about the drivetrains and the wheels and about the solar system, the solar array. We have a small indoor test area that we use for demonstrations and we can set the lighting just right. It's a big sandbox, basically, with a light that's really low in the sky, so it simulates the sun on south pole, and it's quite different than driving outside because the shadows are so strange, but it's something we need to practice with so the operators can learn how to drive using just the cameras.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: How many people are operating this?
Peter Visscher: Well, when it actually goes on the surface of the moon, I suspect there'll be a team of probably about five to 10 people. There's obviously the person doing the driving, there's someone helping figure out where it needs to go, but of course, there'll be a science team that's helping out trying to identify points of interest, and then there'll be an engineering team that's needed to provide advice on what it can do and what it can't do. So, you see all the space movies and you see all the people sitting in a control room, all 50, 60 of them. Well, it won't be quite that many, but there'll still be a team of people sitting around at consoles helping guide this thing.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is the moment that it all gets real. You have to start thinking about staffing, actually building this thing. And I've heard that it's supposed to be launching in 2026, which seems like it's coming up really fast. Is everything still on target for that launch date?
Peter Visscher: Well, if it seems like it's coming up fast for you, can you imagine how we feel?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I know.
Peter Visscher: Yeah, everything's on target. I mean, we started this project, the phase B, so we were awarded the big contract in November, so it's really not that long ago. We've got certain gates we have to pass, and so far everything's on track, but a lot of things have to come together. NASA is providing the lander and it's a cliffs lander, so that's a commercial lander, so NASA doesn't build it. They put out contracts and allow other companies to build these landers. So that lander has to be selected and a few details cleaned up on it. We have to figure out how to put the rover on it, how to get the rover off of it, that's another issue. And we have a US instrument provided by NASA that has to be on schedule, as well as all the other instruments. So it's a lot of project management going on in the background to keep everything on track, but so far, so good.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you mentioned this is part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Is this lander going to be used for many other parts of this program? Does it just need to be big enough to fit whatever they're going to be sending to the moon in that moment?
Peter Visscher: We're not sure how many payloads are going to be on it. It's possible that we're one of three or four different payloads, and I assume that if the lander is successful, NASA will plan on using a rebuild of it several times, and like all products it'll evolve into whatever makes sense. So yeah, we're not exactly sure what that's going to look like quite yet, but we're working on it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's all coming together. The question I have in my brain is we can't keep just calling this the Canadian lunar rover. At some point, it's going to need an official name. Do you know what that process is going to be like? How is it going to get its first name?
Peter Visscher: We're not exactly sure yet. Generally in the past, either the space agency has just given it a name, or we've taken the initiative, and of course we like acronyms, so we pick something clever. With this one, because this is a kind of nationwide effort. We work with companies across Canada and especially universities from across Canada, and it's important that the public sees what we're doing and gets on board with it. So I suspect the process might look a little bit like what NASA often does, and allows school children to give it a name, and maybe they can select one for more of those. We currently do some outreach where students from across Canada can learn a little bit about lunar exploration and then they can submit a mission plan. The winning classrooms get to actually drive our rover in our indoor sandbox. So we're hoping that program can be expanded and maybe we can start to get some suggestions from children on what we should call this thing.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that idea. That's got to be so much fun for those kids too, to play around in that sandbox with the rover. I would've lost my mind over that as a kid.
Peter Visscher: They were all very excited about it, and we've got about another year of that program to go yet before we take a look at what the next step's going to be.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: The Planetary Society has been involved in helping name different spacecraft for ages and ages, and ultimately NASA took over that program and has been doing these naming contests ever since. So if there's anything we can do to help name this rover, you just let us know, but I'm sure you guys have it.
Peter Visscher: Thanks. We'll definitely let you know if we need some help on that.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: This rover is an exciting next step in Canada's exploration of the moon, but this isn't the last step. Canada also, as you said, has involvement with the Lunar Gateway and also with the upcoming Artemis missions. So can you tell us a little bit about what Canada's next steps on the moon are after this rover?
Peter Visscher: Well, I hope it's more rovers. We're currently involved with some projects where we are producing concepts for both larger rovers, rovers similar to the one we're currently building, but larger with common features, stuff where we can do development very quickly and try to grow Canada's presence on the lunar surface. We expect if there's ever going to be a human settlement there, something like what they do in the Antarctica, we suspect that there'll be the need for rovers that can drive around and maybe move some of the regolith around to build berms, to build landing pads, build some of the infrastructure needed to sustain human life. The other thing is, it's not just the water that we need to find and extract it. We need to turn that water into, obviously, air, oxygen. We can turn to rocket fuel, but we also need water if we're ever going to grow plants on the lunar surface. So we also have a project on the go where we're learning how to build a greenhouse and produce crops. That's all going to require rovers to help out with that, for mobility, can you imagine a construction site without a telehandler or a forklift or something like that? You wouldn't even try to do it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: No, but maybe with enough missions there, we can get enough stuff there to build these things, but we're probably going to have to go one of those routes where we 3D print buildings or dig underneath the ground, something like that, because I can't even imagine how many centuries it'll be until we have a forklift on the moon.
Peter Visscher: Yeah, well, some of the rover designs are designed to move equipment around, so using the basic architecture of our rover, we can design larger ones that can do different things. So that's going to be pretty interesting. You made a comment there about we have to do some 3D printing and use what's there. So that's the main drive behind a lot of the work we do. It's called in situ resource utilization. Of course, that's NASA speak for use what you find there. So, trying to figure out how to turn the lunar dust into things that we can use, whether we extract the titanium out, and then we can build tools or hardware, even just using the regolith to build a habitat. It takes about, I think between one and two meters of regolith to properly shield the astronauts from the radiation. So if you're going to put someone there for long period of time, they need to be either in a building that has very thick walls, or maybe even underground. So, a lot to learn there yet.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. One of the places I think have the most potential for habitability are probably those lunar lava tubes that are just kind of empty caves on the moon, but we'd have to find them and then find a way to run water to them. It's a whole complicated process. But once we can nail it down on the moon, maybe we can then go on to Mars. I know people are very excited about getting humans to Mars, but it really has to happen on the moon first if we're going to make sure that we do it safely.
Peter Visscher: That's very, very true. There's no sense planning a human settlement or even a trip to Mars unless we learn what we have to learn from doing it on the moon. And the same way we've learned how to do a lot of the stuff in Antarctica, we'll take a lot what we learned there and use it to explore the moon, and hopefully learn enough there so eventually we can head off to the red planet.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, this is just the first step in a much bigger thing. It's really exciting and every different nation that gets involved in space exploration just makes me so happy, and there's so many different potentials for collaboration, so I'm really happy to talk about this with you. Thanks for joining me, Peter.
Peter Visscher: Yeah, it's been my pleasure. Thank you.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And good luck to you and your team. You've got a lot coming up for you in the future.
Peter Visscher: Yeah, I appreciate that. It's going to be a busy few years.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And now it's time for What's Up With Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society. Hey, Bruce.
Bruce Betts: Hey, Sarah. How are you feeling?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I went to a Doctor Who convention and came home with the con crud, but I am getting better. Thanks.
Bruce Betts: Ugh, alien con crud. Anyway, I'm sorry you're not feeling well. I will try to carry this segment, but feel free to be entertaining if you wish.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'll do my best.
Bruce Betts: All right. I will go ahead and start with what's up in the night sky, which is, I'm just going to keep saying it. Venus, super bright. Jupiter really bright. Both over in the west after sunset. Can't miss them. Certainly can't miss Venus. Jupiter and Venus will be right next to each other within a full moon's width as this show comes out on March 1st. Then Jupiter will start dropping lower and lower towards the horizon, but they'll still make a magnificent sight. And then you can follow a line between them and head up high in the sky and check out Mars, looking reddish. Mars is hanging out near a bunch of great constellations and bright stars, including Orion, brightest star in the sky Sirius, the Winter Hexagon, sorry, southern hemisphere people, but that's what they've nicknamed it, which is an asterism of, not surprisingly, six very bright stars that's cover a big portion of the sky. Anyway, lots of good stuff to look at in the area of Mars, and that's what I got in the sky. Let me tell you about this week in space history, or at least a couple tiny things. Well, okay, they weren't tiny. 1969, Apollo 9 launched the test of the free flying lunar module in Earth orbit. It just is amazing to me that that occurred in March and Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July, and they fit Apollo 10 in between those two.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's bonkers. I feel like if we can accomplish that, we can definitely get to Artemis 2 at least in the next couple years.
Bruce Betts: Here's hoping. 10 years later, Voyager 1 passed by Jupiter and gave us our first really good views, although Pioneers had gone through before. First really good views of the Jupiter system, including its intriguing moons. Off I go to random space facts. So, I thought this was fun. I just discovered that there are a set of craters on Mercury that look like Mickey Mouse, which you can probably find a lot of hidden Mickeys in the solar system with craters. This one really looks like the canonical Mickey Mouse, and what's really interesting is it is officially named, the largest of the craters, is named Disney, after Walt Disney. The IAU officially approved it. This was discovered by the MESSENGER mission, and so there's 113 kilometer diameter crater with crater friends that look like Mickey Mouse named Disney on Mercury.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I didn't know that.
Bruce Betts: By the way, it fit nicely because craters on Mercury are named after artists, musicians, painters, and authors.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's awesome. I'll have to look up a picture of that.
Bruce Betts: I mean, it doesn't look exactly like Mickey Mouse. They're craters, just to temper your expectations, but still, it's pretty cool. Anyone who's played the Hidden Mickey game at Disneyland or Disney World or elsewhere will immediately recognize the pattern. Onto the trivia contest. And I asked you as of February 15th, 2023, of the people on board the International Space Station, who has had the most space flights? What you got?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Almost everyone got this one correct, because this person definitely set a record. The answer is JAXA Astronaut Koichi Wakata, and our winner this week is Torsten Zimmer from Gescher, Germany, who wrote us to say that this was true about Koichi, but also that he's currently on his fifth space flight, and during his nearly two decades in space flight, he's logged more than 11 months in space. That is impressive.
Bruce Betts: He is impressive. I'll just clarify it, technically not a record on the five space flight, since there're a couple people with, I believe seven, but much more than the other crew who were all on their first or second flight.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And of course, our winner this week won themselves a Planetary Society beanie. I don't know if it's super cold in Germany, I'm guessing it is, because it is freezing over here in California right now. Freezing. All right, so what's our trivia question for next week, Bruce?
Bruce Betts: All right. From a robotic sample return mission to the moon, so not a crewed sample return mission, what was the largest mass of samples returned by a single mission? So I'm looking for the largest mass, a number of samples returned from the moon by a robotic only sample return mission. Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you have until Wednesday, March 8th at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get us your answer, and please forgive me, but we're going to be giving out even more Planetary Society beanies because I feel like everyone should be warm and snugly right now. Maybe it's just that I need a warm cup of tea, but whoever wins this one will also be receiving a Planetary Society beanie.
Bruce Betts: Cool. All right, you go get some rest as much as you can, as quickly as you can, have that cup of tea. In the meantime, everybody go out there, look on the night sky and think about health. Be healthy, and warm and snugly. Thank you and goodnight.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio. I may be out sick this next week as I recover from my illness, but I promise that Planetary Radio will continue to bring you more space adventures. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by our moon gazing members. You can join us as we continue to advocate for more missions to the moon at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, Ad Astra.