Planetary Radio • Aug 04, 2021

Alan Stern says it's time for suborbital science

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Alan Stern

New Horizons Principal Investigator

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

An experiment rode next to Richard Branson when he rocketed to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo last month. Planetary scientist Alan Stern says we’ve begun a new era of affordable space research thanks to this vehicle and Blue Origin’s New Shepard. Alan also delivers an update on the New Horizons mission, including a new, definitive collection of everything we’ve learned about Pluto. Then it’s Olympic gold for Bruce Betts in our weekly What’s Up segment.

Science payloads aboard SpaceShipTwo
Science payloads aboard SpaceShipTwo Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo can carry small science payloads into space during suborbital flights.Image: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during its first fully crewed spaceflight on July 11, 2021.Image: Virgin Galactic
New Shepard first human flight
New Shepard first human flight Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle blasts off with four crewmembers aboard on July 20, 2021.Image: Blue Origin
True Colors of Pluto
True Colors of Pluto This is the most accurate natural color image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The diversity of geologic landforms on Pluto’s surface rivals that of Mars.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker
The Pluto system after New Horizons
The Pluto system after New Horizons Image: University of Arizona Press
Weather balloon
Weather balloon Planetary Radio listener Gene Lewan got out his telescope when he saw a mysterious disc in the sky. The identified flying object turned out to be a weather balloon.Image: Gene Lewan

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Transcript

Mat Kaplan:

Move over billionaires, we're doing science 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. I'm not here to talk about buying a ticket to ride along with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, but I would like to talk about how their new suborbital space vehicles may usher in a new era for space science.

Mat Kaplan:

Alan Stern is a big believer in this opportunity. In fact, he looks forward to his own flight that will include two experiments. The New Horizons principal investigator will also give us an update on his spacecraft that is well past Pluto and Arrokoth. New Horizons recently looked even further out toward Voyager.

Mat Kaplan:

Have your days been dominated by the Olympics? Bruce Betts is right there alongside you, which explains today's Olympics themed What's Up. A big thank you to everyone who had such nice things to say about last week's long and fascinating conversation with Andy Chaikin about Apollo and Artemis.

Mat Kaplan:

So guess what's on top of the July 30th edition of the Down Lake? That's Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott at the joystick of the first lunar roving vehicle. You'll find it at planetary.org/downlake. Along with these headlines, NASA has decided Europa Clipper will ride a SpaceX Falcon heavy to Jupiter's moon. The decision came after Congress relaxed a requirement that the spacecraft travel on the giant space launch system rocket that is still headed toward its first launch.

Mat Kaplan:

Astronomers think they found water vapor in the atmosphere of Europa's neighbor Ganymede, which makes the planned 2022 launch of the European Space Agency's JUICE mission even more exciting. JUICE will study all the Jovian Moons. And you've probably heard about the harrowing moments that followed the docking of Russia's new Nauka module with the International Space Station. Initial reports said uncontrolled firing of the module's thrusters may have knocked the entire ISS out of alignment by 45 degrees. That's bad enough, but recent reports indicated may have been much worse. We're waiting for details.

Mat Kaplan:

We'll go to Alan Stern in a minute, but I first want to pay tribute to another of the great explorers I've met while hosting this show. It was back in the late winter of 2014 that I accompanied a big group of Planetary Society members to Fairbanks, Alaska. I based two episodes on that trip. Neil Brown was featured in both. I got word from his family that Neil passed away a few days ago. The former Director of the Poker Flat Research Range was retired by the time I met him, but he had lost none of his enthusiasm for science and rockets. Understanding Aurora Borealis became his passion and it was a passion he was delighted to share with others. He lived a magnificent life. You can read about it and connect with those two shows from this week's episode page found at planetary.org/radio.

Mat Kaplan:

You probably know Alan Stern best as the principal investigator for the ongoing New Horizons mission, but that's just the beginning. It's why I call Alan the busiest person in space. Of course he's never actually been there, not yet anyway. That may change in a matter of months when Alan climbs aboard Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two Unity.

Mat Kaplan:

As you're about to hear, it will be much more than a joy ride. Alan is likely to become the first scientist who conduct hands-on research during a sub orbital flight. He is convinced he'll be followed by many, many others in what he believes is the opening of a new era.

Mat Kaplan:

Alan talked with me a few days ago from the Southwest Research Institute where he is Associate Vice President of the Space Science and Engineering division.

Mat Kaplan:

Alan, welcome back to the show. It's been a little while. You've still been on more than just about anybody who has ever been my guest on Planetary Radio, but that's because you always have great new stuff to talk about. Welcome back.

Alan Stern:

Well, thank you man. It's great to be back. It's one of my favorite things to do is to come on Planetary Radio.

Mat Kaplan:

That means a lot to me. Thank you very much Alan. Were you jumping up and down for joy over the past couple of weeks when first we saw Virgin Galactic fly that Unity 22 flight in Spaceship Two, and then Blue Origin go above the Karman Line?

Alan Stern:

It was spectacular. Both of them home run hits. And you're absolutely right, I was jumping for joy. I wasn't jumping as high as they fly, but I was jumping pretty high.

Mat Kaplan:

Well, you have more reason than most of us to be happy about this stuff because I know that you are planning to do a lot of science up there. In fact, I got a nice surprise when I was doing my research for this conversation. I went on the Virgin Galactic site after a Googling Virgin Galactic science or payload, I forget which, and what do I see first, a two minute video by Alan Stern saying, "This is where Star Trek begins." What did you mean?

Alan Stern:

Well, I think the whole era that we're living in that is where Star Trek begins. This is really the inflection point with spaceflight breaking out and the power of commercial space flight. And I don't just mean suborbital, but the things that are going on in orbit with human space tourists, with human research applications, with satellite constellations, with robotic commercial taking us to the moon and the planets, and many other things really is I think the secret sauce for the beginning of human expansion into space.

Alan Stern:

Before, we were always limited to only doing what the government could afford to do. And now, we have this proliferation of innovation and new applications coming about through commercial spaceflight of which suborbital is one and one important one, but only one. And I think in two centuries time in that Star Trek era, people will look back on our time in the early 21st century and say, "This is where star Trek began."

Mat Kaplan:

Hmm. I wanted to have this conversation with you in part because it I hope will expose all of this work that can be done on spaceships like the Virgin Galactic ship and Blue Origin's new Shepard by scientists, by others who are preparing us to go further into space, because I think that's kind of been lost partially in the backlash to all of this. And I'll only bring this up once, but I'm sure you have heard much of the media and a lot of other folks talking about, "Oh boy, here are the billionaires at play. Why aren't they spending their money on something else?"

Mat Kaplan:

I like to make the point that this is, whatever else you may think of rich people going to space, this is real evidence of how much easier it is for all of us and our work to head up there were only fewer than 600 people have ever gone.

Alan Stern:

I agree with you Matt, it's going to be very powerful for researchers. And I'm perfectly happy with Bezos and Branson flying on their own vehicles. Both these gentlemen invested enormous amounts of money to build their companies, hundreds of employees. I think in the case of Blue Origin, thousands of employees, great jobs. They're creating a new space future. I don't see any problem at all with these guys put, in both cases, 20 years into this. Both companies started the very earliest 2002, 2004 era, and here we are in 2021 and they want to fly on their vehicles now that they're ready to go. I'm all for it. Just like a hundred years ago we saw the founders of airlines flying on their own airlines as early passengers when they were very expensive.

Mat Kaplan:

That's a great point. I want to stick with science from here on out. I'm going to begin with the fact that doing science on suborbital flights is nothing new. When I was 10 years old, 10 or 11, my parents got me the Life Science Library, and my favorite book from that set, which is spectacular, is called Man in Space. One of my favorite illustrations is called Taking a Sample of Space, and it has these beautiful drawings, illustrations, of eight different sounding rockets that were designed to allow scientists and engineers to do exactly this kind of work on these tall, thin rockets. I wouldn't want anybody to think that doing this work and not quite reaching orbit is something new.

Alan Stern:

No. In fact, the the earliest research done in space was done with captured German suborbital V-2s in the 1940s, when the United States formed a science committee to look at how those vehicles could be pressed into scientific research. And I got my start in the space industry in the early 1980s, long before I got my PhD, working on suborbital sounding rockets to study the Aurora, to study comets, and other astrophysical phenomena on these suborbital flights.

Alan Stern:

And I can remember even back then thinking what if you could put people on these vehicles, how much better that would be in terms of your ability to conduct research, where the experimenter can be with the experiment? I don't think I ever imagined that it would be what we have today, but now we have this capability, and I think it's going to be transformational for space research.

Mat Kaplan:

So what you're talking about there is what I see referred to both from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin as human-tended experiments. What makes the difference? Why is it going to be useful to have a human flying along with these racks of equipment?

Alan Stern:

Well, you're asking me a question that I love to have asked. You know, space research has been a very unusual and disadvantaged kind of research compared to all of the research disciplines ever since it started because back in the 1950s and '60a and '70s, and even since, it was too expensive. We didn't have the ability to throw the weight or to spend the money to send the researcher with the experiment.

Alan Stern:

And so, all of us who do space research with the rare exception of a few astronauts have had to automate our experiments, whether they're on far away robotic missions to the planets, or whether they're just in earth orbit. And automation is A, expensive, and B, it's failure prone. It's not great. You don't see oceanographers automating all the ships, they sail on their ships do their research. You don't see astronomers automating all the observatories. It's easier to put the astronomer at the telescope. You don't see every university lab being automated. No, because it's expensive and it's failure prone.

Alan Stern:

Only in space research have we been stuck in this little cul-de-sac where the researcher couldn't fly with the experiment and do research the same way that researchers do their work in every other discipline. And now we finally have the chance to fly researchers at costs that actually make sense, that are less expensive than those sounding rockets. So it's a benefit, whether it's government or commercial research. The sounding rockets now look like the old stodgy expensive way, and we now have these commercial vehicles that let individuals like myself fly and do the experiment themselves at higher reliability and lower costs. What's wrong with that? Every part of this story is right side up.

Mat Kaplan:

So when do you get to go? I saw the announcement a few months back from that place where you're a VP, the Southwest Research Institute, that you are going to be accompanying some of this work on ... Well, in this case I think it was a Virgin Galactic, but are you also looking at flying on Blue Origin's ship?

Alan Stern:

Well Matt, we're hoping to fly at the Southwest Research Institute on all the available vehicles that are safe. We have a tremendous number of applications that we see for this kind of stuff. I was very fortunate when I proposed to NASA last year to fly with a couple of experiments that we developed at Southwest on Virgin Galactic that they accepted our proposal on the first try. Virgin hasn't given us a flight date because they're still in their test program. I believe they have two more test flights after the Branson flight, but I'm hopeful that it'll be next year for the first of our flights. And then every year after that for the foreseeable future, as we do more and more.

Mat Kaplan:

That is particularly exciting. It makes me particularly envious. So what are you going to do up there with three or four minutes of microgravity? Which we should point out that's many times what you can get at least in any one parabola on a vomit comet.

Alan Stern:

Right. On an airplane, you get 20 seconds at a time, sometimes 30. And there are lots of microgravity applications, but that's not what we propose to do. We propose to do two things. I'll tell you about both of them.

Alan Stern:

One is that I'm going to be wearing a biomedical harness, the same kind of harness that space shuttle astronauts wore. It measures respiration rate and your blood pressure and your pulse as a function of time to develop an understanding of not what a tourist or a pilot might experience, but what a researcher experiences on their first space flight. So we'll put that on before I put on the flight suit, turn it on. It runs for many hours on batteries. And I'll just wear it. I don't have to do anything. It's passive, and it will be taking those vital signs all through the preparations, through the launch, the spaceflight portion, the entry, the landing, all of that.

Alan Stern:

And we hope that it's the first of what will become hundreds of datasets on researchers flying in space. And we're interested in all kinds of questions, not just what does it look like as a profile as you go through the high Gs of launch and entry and the microgravity around Apogee, but how does an individual researcher's vital signs change as they become more familiar with spaceflight? Would it be different on my fifth flight than on my first flight, for example? And how to different researchers respond? People at different ages, different medical histories, different genders, different experience levels, so that we can help future researchers know what to expect.

Alan Stern:

And I'm reminded as an old story when the first space shuttle took off, there were two people on board, the pilot and the commander. The commander was John Young, and his heart rate was measured at about 80 beats per minute, pretty much normal. But the pilot was up at 140. He was a rookie, a guy named Bob Crippen. And in the press conference after the flight, they asked Young, "How come your heart rate was so low?" He said, "Well, I'm getting older. I just don't think it goes any faster than that anymore."

Alan Stern:

But the other thing that I'll be doing in this flight is probably even more important. We want to understand how well these vehicles can do other kinds of research, in our case astronomy. We've had astronomical sounding rockets suborbital missions for 70 years, literally 70 years since the 1950s. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin vehicles are going to fly much more often than sounding rockets ever did, so we have the chance to do astronomy much more often and at lower price points. But first we have to know how well does the vehicle do? How well can it point and how transparent are the windows? You can do some of that on the ground, looking through the windows, but in flight, there are differences. There's the big old earth out there reflecting light into the window. There's glints off the wings of the Virgin Galactic vehicle. There are probably exhaust films that get on the windows from the rocket powered flight.

Alan Stern:

And you can't simulate all that on the ground, so I'm taking a payload called SUIS, the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System, that we designed for the space shuttle and flew several times, and I was principal investigator. We're taking it on Virgin Galactic to look through their windows at the same star fields and astronomical objects that we looked at on the space shuttle years ago to compare the two to see if the Virgin windows are as good as the space shuttle windows, and therefore determined the efficacy of the Virgin Galactic vehicle for doing astronomical research in the future.

Mat Kaplan:

Alan, I'm going to remind listeners that Bob Crippen was my guest a couple of months ago and told some great stories about that first shuttle flight and and his partner up there, John Young. You also make me think of something I read about what Blue Origin will be able to do with New Shepherd, and that is expose experiments directly to space. And of course, the New Shepard flies above the Karman line, above that 60 miles basically. Is that also something that you're looking at and doing away with having to look through the window altogether?

Alan Stern:

We will, absolutely. We're going to be comparing Blue Origin's vehicle, New Shepard, someday I hope. We don't yet have flights on New Shepard, but a comparison of what Virgin can do and what Blue Origin can do is certainly in our mind, and I hope to propose that.

Mat Kaplan:

More suborbital science and a New Horizons update are just ahead with Alan Stern.

Sarah Al-Amir:

There's so much going on in the world of space science and exploration, and we're here to share it with you. Hi, I'm Sarah, Digital Community Manager for the Planetary Society. Are you looking for a place to get more space? Catch the latest space exploration news, pretty planetary pictures, and Planetary Society publications on our social media channels. You can find the Planetary Society on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Make sure you like and subscribe so you never miss the next exciting update from the world of planetary science.

Mat Kaplan:

Are you familiar with the experiment that was riding along with Richard Branson on that Unity 22 flight from Virgin Galactic? It's from these two researchers at the University of Florida Gainesville. Robert, I don't know if I'll get the name right, maybe you know it, Robert Farrell or Ferral, and Annalisa Paul. Apparently they've been sending plants up since the 1990s on shuttle missions. But they made this very interesting point that nobody has really had the opportunity to study what happens at least to plants during the transition from one G to zero G and then back again. All the other work has happened while you're already up on orbit. And apparently, they're already seen some interesting things. Seems like a really good example of what these flights may be able to tell us.

Alan Stern:

Well, I think you're right. I know Annalisa and Bob very well. They both served on a committee that I chaired for the Commercial Space Flight Federation 10 years ago called the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, or SARG, in which we had biologists, astronomers, microgravity scientists, earth scientists, others, looking at and in a sense brainstorming the range of applications that these suborbital commercial vehicles can give us.

Alan Stern:

This transition to microgravity is one of those areas where it's almost, not to make a pun about Virgin Galactic, but it's virgin territory. On space shuttle and ISS missions, the astronauts are busy getting the cockpit squared away the first few minutes. They're not doing research. And so we miss that opportunity to study the immediate transition to microgravity.

Alan Stern:

Another example of applications in microgravity is that, as you said, we can go fly on a microgravity airplane, a vomit comet, but the G disturbances, the perturbations, are much higher. You don't get as clean in microgravity, and the suborbital flights last 10 times longer. So there are a whole variety of chemical and physical processes, physiological as well, that just don't complete in 20 seconds. So you can't see them into end, but having 10 times as long on a suborbital flight is a brand new application area.

Alan Stern:

And the great thing about it is, as I said earlier, because these flights are going to be very frequent, we can go back week after week and turn the dials differently just the way you would in your laboratory if you were on the ground as a researcher say in a university lab, and improve the experiment over and over and over. You can expect to fly five or 10 suborbital commercial missions for about the cost of one NASA sounding rocket.

Mat Kaplan:

Wow.

Alan Stern:

Which is a tremendous boost. And because they fly frequently, you could have researchers flying 10 missions in a year. Think of the speed of the research, how much more quickly it progresses when you can do five or 10 things for the price of one and get them all done not mid-decade, but in a single year?

Mat Kaplan:

There was something else that I saw in the Blue Origin, their section of their website that talked about taking payloads up to space, never occurred to me. They propose partial G missions, where while the capsule is under zero G or microgravity, they can spin it and simulate as an example lunar gravity, which seems to me something that would be very useful for all of these folks, including NASA wanting to send the first woman and the next man back to the moon, that this would be pretty useful.

Alan Stern:

Absolutely it is, and it does have a little bit of a history. It's not very well known, but on the the microgravity airplanes, they can fly parabolas that are at 1.6 G or Mars gravity 0.4 Gs. And that has been done for research purposes in the past. But again, those only last 20 seconds, 30 seconds. You don't have a longer period, which the suborbital rockets allow you to do. I think it's going to be a popular niche area for research.

Mat Kaplan:

I hope you can talk a little bit about how, at least the impression that I got from both of these companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, that supporting the kind of work that you and others want to do, it's not an afterthought. This is very much a part of the design of these suborbital spacecraft.

Alan Stern:

To some extent. When they started, they only had the tourism use case in mind. I'm talking 20 years ago. You remember there was the X Prize that sponsored a prize, I think it was $5 million but I might have the number wrong, for the first commercial suborbital space flight. And Burt McCann got involved in that and won the X Prize back in 2004 for flying several missions to the Karman line in something called Spaceship One.

Alan Stern:

Branson noticed that thousands people were coming out to Mojave for the launches interested and excited, and he thought, "Well, there's a market there for tourism." And there is a market for tourism, we know that. Hundreds of people have bought tickets, and soon it will be thousands. When I was leading the science mission director at NASA, which is the organization that does all of NASA science, my boss Mike Griffin, who was a NASA administrator, asked the leadership at NASA, "What can we do with commercial space flight that will advance our field?"

Alan Stern:

And I came forward and said, "We ought to look at these tourist vehicles and see what we can do with them," this is back in 2007. "And we got to see what kind of applications there are because they're getting built on somebody else's dime, and if we can buy them by the flight and don't have to pay for the whole development it might be a really good deal for NASA. And Griffin liked that, and so we set up a meeting with Branson back there in early 2008 in New York. And I went up there and met him and talked to him about this, and he was pretty excited about it. I met and spoke to Jeff Bezos later in 2008, same year actually.

Alan Stern:

Both men saw that there were important applications beyond tourism. And therefore, as a result, they've added not just research, but also education and public outreach as additional use cases alongside tourism. And I think what we're going to see over the next 10 years is that those use cases are as robust as tourism, that they're going to be specialized vehicles that are developed the same way that airplanes like Boeing airplanes can be cargo airplanes or passenger airplanes. I think we're going to see research suborbital vehicles alongside passenger suborbital vehicles because there's so many applications and there's going to be so much demand.

Alan Stern:

And part of the reason there's so much demand is the low cost. I did a calculation once, and I'll tell you about it. When the United States buys a feat on Soyuz, it costs us the better part of $100 million. That's a lot of money to fly a single astronaut up to the ISS, but it's a very tiny fraction of this nation's Gross Domestic Product, which is measured in the many trillions. If you take the ratio of $100 million Soyuz seat to the country's GDP, it's a tiny number as I said.

Alan Stern:

At that same ratio, tiny countries can afford to have researchers and educators flying on suborbital missions because they only cost a few hundred thousand, not a few hundred million. So we could see virtually every country on earth flying astronauts and researchers and educators in space to do real work, even tiny countries like Aruba, a tiny island nation that has one third the GDP of Boulder County, Colorado, where I live can afford suborbital space flight. They can't afford orbital. It's too heavy a lift, at least until orbital prices come down. But suborbital is the democratizing vehicle in which virtually every nation on earth can fuel their stem pipeline, can do research, can excite kids with educational missions, and do more because we are going to have the volume to have access and the low prices that allow virtually any government on earth to enter into the space age.

Mat Kaplan:

This is very exciting stuff. I couldn't find much about pricing for Virgin Galactic, but I saw someplace, not on the Blue Origin site, that a high school, and there are some high schools that are working on projects like this, can send a payload up on New Shepard for as little as $8,000. That both of these companies, they've designed rack mount systems and power provision and ways to record your data. It's all there, you just have to meet their interface, I suppose, is the right way to put it.

Alan Stern:

That's exactly right, and so we can start seeing kids doing science fair projects in space. I think we'll start to see, for that matter, college students and postdocs starting to fly in space in this decade. I mean Blue Origin just flew an 18 year old individual, but that was for a tourist experience. There's no reason that if we can send college students and graduate students down to the South Pole or to the edge of a volcano or down in a submersible under the ocean, that they shouldn't also be able to fly in space. It's the 21st century. It's time.

Mat Kaplan:

I couldn't agree more. Not just STEM, but maybe even STEAM, add that A for the Arts because I noted that there have been some art projects. Some artists have sent some work up on at least New Shepard, if not Virgin Galactic.

Alan Stern:

I'm with you, and I'm kicking myself that I left the A out of STEAM when I said STEM because whether they're musicians or painters or they're making jewelry or any kind of art, it's the human experience and humans are destined to go to space the same way that we were destined to leave our cradle in Africa. I think this is the breakout era now of both suborbitally and then soon orbitally where here in the early 21st century space flight won't be limited to the few government employees that are professional astronauts, but to a much broader spectrum of people for many different purposes. And I think it's going to be transformational.

Mat Kaplan:

Alan, I definitely see now why you said this is where Star Trek begins. I can't let you go of course until we talk a little bit, catch up on New Horizons. Congratulations on the publication of this new compendium of the data that you've picked up with that magnificent mission. It's called The Pluto System After New Horizons, and the primary editor is one S. Alan Stern.

Alan Stern:

Well, I'm one of five editors who all worked very hard and about 100 authors involved in the 25 chapters and the appendices, working scientists who have put this book together as the state of the art textbook on everything we learned from the Pluto flyby, from the geology to the atmospheric science to the origin of the Pluto system and more. It just came out this month in July as we're taping this.

Alan Stern:

There's two ways to look at it. It was a four year project to design and bring this book to fruition, or you can look at it as a 30 year project from the time we started trying to make the case why we should go explore the Pluto system. But either way, this 700 pages of science goodness is putting a bow around that first exploration of Pluto, and will be a textbook on the shelves of graduate students and scientists in planetary science for decades to come.

Mat Kaplan:

I noted that it is available as an E-textbook as well as the hard cover version that is that is out, as you said, as of just a week or two ago as we speak. I mean yeah, it'll be a terrific resource for students, for grad students and others. What do you hope that it will do for the science community to bring all of this data together? And there is a lot of it, you got 688 pages, eight and a half by 11 pages, here.

Alan Stern:

Yeah. Well, this is a book in something called the University of Arizona Space Science Series that was started in the 1970s. And it is the most successful and most cherished series of really review volumes that bring a whole topic together like this in the history of planetary science. There are now dozens of these books, and every time we fly to a new place or a new type of place in the solar system, another book is generated. For researchers not just in the narrower topic of Pluto and the system of moons, but in the dwarf planets as a category in the Quaker belt, this is the definitive textbook written by experts in 25 different sub-disciplines.

Alan Stern:

If it's like the other books that I have on my shelf, it will be useful 20 years from now. It will be useful 30 years from now. It'll eventually need to be updated. I hope when we fly a Pluto orbiter mission or missions to other dwarf planets in the Clipper belt, but for now it's really the one-stop shop for virtually everything that we know and that we learned as a result of New Horizons to Pluto.

Mat Kaplan:

Great stuff Alan. Before you go, what's the health of the spacecraft? What's the outlook for the mission?

Alan Stern:

Well, thanks for asking Matt. New Horizons is just spectacular. You know, we launched it 15 and a half years ago in 2006. And you look at the telemetry, spacecraft systems and the instruments, you'd never know it. It looks exactly like it did when it came out of the box on launch day. The spacecraft is performing spectacularly. We're not using any of the backup systems because something's broke. We have fuel and power and communications capability to go on at least into the late 2030s, and maybe even some of our engineers now think into the 2040s.

Mat Kaplan:

Wow.

Alan Stern:

Studying the environment out there, studying more Clipper belts objects. We're working as hard as we can to find another flyby target. There are proposals to do some kinds of astrophysics with New Horizons that can't be done from any observatory on the earth or in earth orbit, things that you need to be far away to do. And we are very far away now, more than 5 billion miles out. So I think the future for New Horizons is really bright. The team is excited to send our next extended mission proposal to NASA at the beginning of next year and fly on and on across the '20s and the '30s, contributing to science in ways that only New Horizons can.

Mat Kaplan:

You did something very special, I think in the spring, about when you reached that milestone of 50 astronomical units, that is 50 times as far out as earth is from the sun. And that was back in April. You took a picture which struck home with me, hit me in the heart. Something very, I don't know, I'll call it romantic, but I know it meant a lot to you as well.

Alan Stern:

I think you're talking about our picture that was a an ode to Voyager.

Mat Kaplan:

Yes I am.

Alan Stern:

New Horizons is not the first spacecraft to reach this tremendous distance, 50 times as far away from the sun as the earth is. We stand on the shoulders of giants, the two NASA pioneer spacecraft, Pioneers 10 and 11, and then Voyagers 1 and 2 came this way before. The Pioneers are now gone. They've run out of power. They don't operate anymore. The two Voyagers are still operating 44 plus years, almost 45 years, after they launched. And they're much further out.

Alan Stern:

So when we crossed this 50 AU marker, Astronomical Unit marker, I had the idea that it would be a meaningful to a lot of people if we took a picture of where Voyager 1, the most distant operating spacecraft, is as seen from the [inaudible 00:35:21].

Alan Stern:

And of course we can't see Voyager, it's too tiny, but nonetheless it's symbolic. And so we took a picture late last year in December. In fact, at that time it was the farthest image ever made from the earth. And we released it as we crossed 50 AU. At the time that we took the picture, we were 50 astronomical units from the earth, but we weren't quite 50 astronomical units from the sun. We did it as a hat tip to those Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft that came before us, and also as a a bit of a memento of our team to theirs for all that they did to make it possible for us to be able to fly a much lower cost mission to these great distances.

Mat Kaplan:

It was a lovely gesture Alan. Thank you for that. Thank you for coming back on the show. Best of success with all of this that you have going on. I can't wait to greet you after your first flight. It'll be a tiny fraction of one AU, but it'll still be a giant leap I think in terms of doing inexpensive space science, that first flight that you hopefully we'll be making before long on Virgin Galactic. Alan again, thank you so much for coming back on the show.

Alan Stern:

Thanks so much Matt, and thanks for all you do for for science and exploration with Planetary Radio.

Mat Kaplan:

Time for What's Up on Planetary Radio, just like it is every week. We are joined by the Chief Scientist of the Planetary Society, Bruce bats is here. Hey, welcome.

Bruce Betts:

Hey, good to be here Matt. How you doing?

Mat Kaplan:

I'm pretty fun. I'm pretty fun?

Bruce Betts:

You are Pretty fun Matt. You're very fun. You underestimate your fun.

Mat Kaplan:

Thank you, thank you very much for that. Here's something fun, from Gene Lewin in the state of Washington. It's not a poem. He sends us poems all the time. This is a photo which we'll try and put on the show page, planetary.org/radio. Gene, and I guess some other folks, significant other maybe, notice this big disc, this big white disc hanging in the sky and it was kind of creepy. And so he did whatever a good [inaudible 00:37:38] does. He went and got his telescope, and he was actually able to see that it was a weather balloon. And he took a great picture just holding the camera up to the eyepiece. It's very instructive. I think it was good timing for this piece.

Bruce Betts:

Yeah, that's very cool. He turned a UFO into an IFO.

Mat Kaplan:

I get it, because I'm fun. What's up, other than weather balloons?

Bruce Betts:

That's pretty much it, that's all I was going to point to this week. No, we've got Venus still low in the west in the early evening, looking super bright. We've got Jupiter and Saturn rising in the east in the early evening, and shining all through the night with Jupiter being the much brighter of the two. And the Perseid meteor shower, traditionally the second best of the year in terms of number of meteors from a dark site, will be peaking the night of the 12th-13th of August. And you'll have increased activity for several days before and after. And the moon will set by midnight or so, and you generally get more meteors after midnight anyway. So if you can party after midnight, you'll probably see more.

Bruce Betts:

We go on to This Week in Space History. It's the 60th anniversary of Vostok 2, where Gherman Titov became the second human in space and the first to sleep in space and the first to vomit in space. Congratulations.

Mat Kaplan:

First, but definitely not the last to lose his lunch or lose his space food sticks or whatever the Soviets were eating at that time.

Bruce Betts:

I believe the technical term was space goo.

Mat Kaplan:

It still is too often.

Bruce Betts:

Any who, 10th anniversary of the launch of Juno that is partying at Jupiter, and the ninth anniversary of the landing of Curiosity on Mars, and it's still being curious nine years into mission.

Mat Kaplan:

Wow, just amazing.

Bruce Betts:

We move on to Random Space Fact. I'm Olympics-obsessed Matt. Every two years, I lose two weeks of my life to the Olympics so we're doing Olympic themes right now. I'm also obsessed with LightSail 2 of course, so at launch the LightSail 2 spacecraft had the width of a balance beam and the length of a rugby ball, and the deployed sail is the size of a boxing ring.

Mat Kaplan:

I love it.

Bruce Betts:

Don't worry, there'll be more. We move on to the trivia contest, and I asked you to name all who have flown longer than one year, in this case 365 days, or more in space on single missions. And I got myself confused because there's the people who flew 365 days and 22 hours or such. I was trying to exclude them, but we're including them. So I'll take whatever, as long as you got the right answers. Tell us how they, the listeners, did with this. I'm just so flustered at phrasing this poorly. Go ahead Matt.

Mat Kaplan:

You're frustrated with yourself, I understand. I understand. You're tough on yourself. You thought that you had this pinned down. Well that's okay because our winner, who we'll learn the identity of in a moment, had all four of the people who've been there at least 365 days plus a few maybe hours. I'll give you the answer first from our poet Laureate, Dave Fairchild in Kansas, there are four that went to space and spent a year or more there. Poliakoff is first in line, 438 in midair. Sergei A is next to go, 380 work days, while [inaudible 00:41:26] and Titov spent a year and almost one day.

Mat Kaplan:

And then it was Edwin King in the UK who said, "Is Bruce being tricksy? Vladimir Titov and [inaudible 00:41:36] only spent 365 days in space on Mir, 1987-'88, but the flight duration was 365 days, 22 hours, 38 minutes, so that counts surely."

Bruce Betts:

That's it. I was being tricksy. I tricked myself. Yes, that definitely counts. Those are the four we will take. Poliakoff with this 437.7 days in space, [inaudible 00:42:03] 379.6, and Vladimir Titov and [inaudible 00:42:09] at 365 days plus a little bit.

Mat Kaplan:

Well-Played sir. Well, then here is our winner, who I thought had won before, but I guess it's just because we've corresponded a little bit over the two years that I have record of that he's been entering, but this is the first time win apparently for Joseph [inaudible 00:42:26] in New Jersey. You had all four of those names, starting with those first two who were well past 365. Congratulations Joseph, we're going to send you a Planetary Radio T-shirt from chopshopstore.com, which is where you'll find all of the Planetary Society's merch, all kinds of cool stuff there. Chopshopstore.com.

Mat Kaplan:

From our pun master, Robert Claim in Arizona, "All cosmonauts, is this Mir-ly a coincidence, so you's going to give us a tough question next time or bet you will?"

Bruce Betts:

Yes, Mir-ly all of them spent their time on the Mir Space Station.

Mat Kaplan:

Mark Little in Northern Ireland. He said, "If you counted space travelers who were up there on cumulative missions, it would be 41 people. The longest being Janati Evanovich Padalka, 878 days in space over five missions." Very impressive. Finally, from Burt Caldwell in New York, "It is shocking how few people have been in space for over a year. We are not ready to go to Mars." Bert, I'm afraid I reluctantly have to agree.

Bruce Betts:

Wow.

Mat Kaplan:

We're ready to go on to a new one.

Bruce Betts:

Back to the Olympics. Name all the Olympics for which an Olympic torch was flown in space. Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.

Mat Kaplan:

You mean there was at least one? I mean I had no idea that there was an Olympic torch flown in space, with the thought that fire acts kind of weird in microgravity and probably isn't a ... Well, whatever. We'll find out in two weeks.

Bruce Betts:

Just to be clear, flame is not required. An Olympic torch is required.

Mat Kaplan:

Max. Max likes this one. You have until the 18th, that'd be August 18, at 8:00 a.m. Pacific time, to answer this one and win yourself, here's something we haven't offered in a while, how about one of those very cool kickasteroid Planetary Society rubber asteroids? It can be yours. Just enter the contest and you might get picked by random.org.

Bruce Betts:

All right, everybody go out there and look up the night sky and think about what Olympic events should Planetary Radio be part of? Thank you. Good night.

Mat Kaplan:

Oh man, what would be ... Is there an event for Rover rolling, having rovers roll over you?

Bruce Betts:

No, but there should be, I think it will be an exhibition event in Paris in three years.

Mat Kaplan:

Really longtime listeners to Planetary Radio get it. They get it because it came from Bruce Betts, the Chief Scientist of the Planetary Society, who has been with us for it'll be 19 years soon every week for What's Up.

Mat Kaplan:

Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its high flying members. Slip the surly bonds of earth with us at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Jason Davis are our Associate Producers, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Peter Schloser at Astrov.