A Trip To The Moon, Hurricane Antimatter, And A Wrong-Way Asteroid

6:45 minutes

half shadow moon
Credit: Diogo Rodrigues Gonçalves/CC BY 2.0/via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been 46 years since humans have been on the surface of the moon. Earlier this month, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the U.S. was going back—and despite the nation abandoning past proposals to return, this time it’s for real. “This will not be Lucy and the football again,” Bridenstine told a space policy conference.

[This 3 mm-wide section of a cat tongue that’s more than a *century* old.]

But the U.S. isn’t the only player in the game. China has plans for its own human moon mission by 2025. And this week it launched a satellite as part of that larger moon exploration program.  That satellite will orbit on the far side of the moon to serve as a communications relay for future missions. It also carried some radio astronomy instruments.

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo in New York, joins Ira to talk about the launch and other stories from the week in science, including an update on the Ebola outbreak in Africa, a study that found indications of antimatter in a hurricane’s clouds, and a puzzling asteroid that seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be taking your questions about sleep. Oh, so many questions about sleep.

And if you have questions for a sleep doctor, we have one on call– but only if you make the call. Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us @scifri.

But first, it’s been 46 years since humans have been on the surface of the moon– hard to believe. Earlier this month, new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the US was going back. Yes, we’ve heard that before. And despite past proposals to return, this time it’s for real, he says. This will not be Lucy and the football again, he told a conference. Well, we’ll see.

But the US isn’t the only player in the game China has plans for its own human moon mission by 2025. And this week, it launched a satellite as part of that larger moon exploration program. Sounds exciting, right? Mandelbaum is here to tell us about that and other selected short subjects in science. He is science writer at Gizmodo. Wow, good to see you.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Nice seeing you, Ira. What’s going on?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s start with that very basic question about what’s going on in the news electronic– what’s the deal with the satellite?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: All right. So basically, China needs to put a– if you want to land something on the back side of the moon, because they’re going to the first ones to land on the dark side of the moon– well, the back side of the moon, sorry– they need to put a satellite there to talk to it. So that satellite was launched on Monday as part of their Tiangong-4 mission. And on this satellite, there’s also going to be a radio antenna to map the radio skies– the distant universe.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, that’s a good spot. But scientists have always said the back side– the far side– of the moon is good because it always faces away from Earth. So you don’t get electronic interference from cell phones and stuff like that.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Exactly, so that’s why they’re going to do it.

IRA FLATOW: So when we talk about telescopes, people always say, why can’t we put a telescope on the far side of the moon? And they’re going to try to do that. Is somebody actually have a plan? Do they?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: For now, the plan is to have the satellite is going to have the telescope on there. But this is sort of the first step.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That would be great. OK. Let’s talk about troubling news coming out of the Congo about an Ebola outbreak. We have another Ebola outbreak.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we’ve got at least 58 cases and at least 27 deaths, which was reported on May 21. But this is important. For the first time in an Ebola outbreak, there’s a vaccine.

It’s an experimental vaccine, but experimental doesn’t mean quite what you think it means. It means that it’s been tested but it hasn’t been released to the market yet. And the results looked really successful of this vaccine. So people are worried but cautiously optimistic.

IRA FLATOW: So how big is the outbreak? How many people have been–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So 58 cases and 27 deaths was reported on May 21.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And as we say, hopefully this new vaccine might work. It’s worked in the laboratory, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. It’s worked in clinical trials, but now we just need people to actually get it. I mean, there’s similar mistrust all over the world for vaccines, so hopefully people will agree to take this one.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s get to this spook– I know that you love physics.


IRA FLATOW: Me too. There’s a spooky story about antimatter in a hurricane? Come on.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, it was so cool. When I saw this– so terrestrial gamma ray flashes are a known phenomenon that– sometimes with lightning, there will be a gamma radiation burst associated with the storm. So during hurricane Patricia back in 2015, a NOAA plane flew through the eye wall and not only caught one of these terrestrial gamma ray flashes but caught what appeared to be a beam of antimatter going towards the ground. I know!

IRA FLATOW: But in the movies, you get matter and antimatter, it explodes, and we’re all annihilated. It doesn’t happen like that here.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, they do annihilate. But the thing is that positrons, which are anti-electrons, are not– they’re actually a pretty typical decay product of beta radiation. So this isn’t something like the Large– I mean, it is kind of like the Large Hadron Collider. But it’s not something that you should be worried about unless you’re in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time. And also, you’re probably already getting hit by lightning, so there’s other things to worry about.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s something new for the weekend– at least interesting to talk about. This goes on all the time.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: These terrestrial gamma ray flashes– thunderstorms can turn into particle accelerators. This was cool because it showed that hurricanes can do this as well.

IRA FLATOW: I love it. Speaking of something really cool, there’s a wayward asteroid. It’s a little bit odd.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Everybody’s been talking about this 2015 BZ509 asteroid that was discovered in 2014. It’s near Jupiter, and it’s going the wrong way around the sun.

IRA FLATOW: Wait, you mean backwards of all the other planets?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. And so the thing is that scientists then created a million clones of this asteroid and then ran it through their simulations and thought that maybe perhaps this asteroid was an interstellar capture. If that’s true, it’s from a different star.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. And so are there any other explorations that could be?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: There’s plenty. I think that a lot of the folks who reported on this did see it with some skepticism– that maybe it was from the Oort cloud beyond the stars. The Planet X folks think that it was not by Planet X. There’s a lot of different things that it could have been, but it could have been from another star.

IRA FLATOW: It could have.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It could have.

IRA FLATOW: It could have. Maybe. Extraordinary claim, extraordinary evidence.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They think that they’ve got the evidence to prove it, and I think that now we’ve got to go visit the asteroid and see what’s on there.

IRA FLATOW: I’m with you on that. Not really going, but I’m with you on that. Finally, hippo poo? Hippo poo? We have to end the–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: We’ve got to end hippo poo. So the scientists were noticing these mass fish die-offs. And hippos wallow in pools. And in those pools, they poop and they pee. Several tons of hippo waste ends up in these pools.

And then they flush. And they go down the river and create these oxygenless scenarios down the river and kill lots of fish. I would read Ed Yong and the Atlantic’s report on this, because really captured just how brutal nature could be.

IRA FLATOW: So you have these rains that sort of periodically flush the stuff down the river?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s like a toilet flushing, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I hate to end it that way.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Nature is brutal, Ira. I’m sorry.

IRA FLATOW: I know, I know. Actually, it’s one of my favorite subjects– is waste disposal. But that’s for another time.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Another time.

IRA FLATOW: Another time. I almost went to graduate school in that. Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer at Gizmodo here in New York. Have a great holiday weekend.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You too. Thanks for having me.

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