A Busy Week In Space

6:49 minutes

It’s been a busy week in spaceflight, with seven different launches planned—including a successful Soyuz mission to deliver three astronauts to the International Space Station, two different SpaceX launches, and a launch planned for Friday for China’s Chang’e 4 mission, which is expected to land on the far side of the moon in early 2019.   

Elsewhere in the solar system, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at  the asteroid Bennu after a two-year journey. It will begin surveying the near-Earth asteroid to map out its planned sample return mission. Scientists hope that the craft will deliver about two ounces of asteroid material back to Earth in 2023.

Science Friday producer Charles Bergquist joins Ira to talk about the week in space and other science news from the past week, including a report on global carbon emissions and a newly-described giant salamander found in Florida.

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Segment Guests

Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about the research behind farming hemp, soon to be legal in the US if the current farm bill goes through. But first, you know how the winter holidays can get– so busy, so much traffic, circling, circling, circling. 

Oh, I’m talking about circling the earth, of course. It’s been a busy week for spaceflight around the planet. And if all goes according to plan, seven different rockets are scheduled to launch over a period of just five days. Joining me now to talk about that and other science news from the week is Charles Bergquist, Science Friday director and contributing producer. He’s here in our New York studios, Charles. 


IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of these rockets. Tell me about this Chinese rocket. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so this is pretty exciting. It launched just minutes ago, a Chinese rocket carrying the Chang’e 4 mission. And what’s really cool about this is it’s going to try to make the first ever successful landing on the far side of the moon. It’s probably end of this month, the first couple days of January. We’re not quite sure of the timeline here. But if all goes well, this is going to be super cool. We’ve never been there before. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the other launching. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, well, it’s been, as you said, a busy week. It started off on Monday. There was a Soyuz rocket, carried three people to space to the International Space Station. And that was good news because that was the first successful Soyuz launch after that flight in October when they had to make the emergency landing. So they made it safely, and we’re very happy about that. 

Then after that there were two SpaceX launches this week. One on Monday brought 64 small satellites to orbit. And that was cool because– so SpaceX is the one that does the reusable rocket that sort of lands itself backwards, right? 

IRA FLATOW: Right, right, yeah. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: This one, the rocket had actually flown twice before. So this was its third flight, so sort of proving like, yes, our reusable stuff is actually is a working idea. Wednesday, they had a second launch. 

That one, they did not stick the landing. There was a problem with one of the fins that controls the descent of the first stage, and so it ended up splashing down into the water. But the flight itself worked well and is going to be bringing about 2 and 1/2 tons of material to the International Space Station, a whole bunch of material for their scientific experiments, and also Christmas dinner. So, yeah– 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, you gotta have that flight working. 


IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. All right, other stuff though was going on. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, well, so don’t– I can trust you, right? 

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Absolutely. No one’s listening. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Since no one’s listening, (WHISPERING) there’s a spy satellite that had launched tonight maybe. Don’t tell anyone. 

IRA FLATOW: (WHISPERING) A spy satellite? 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, don’t tell anyone. And so that should bring us to the full total of seven. There were a few commercial launches as well. 

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. And further afield, there’s more space news out there. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so to add to all of this, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at the asteroid Bennu earlier this week after a two-year journey. And over the next coming weeks, it’s going to start the circling in closer and closer, mapping out the surface of this asteroid, planning for a sample return mission. Hopefully, it’s eventually going to scoop up about 2 ounces of material and bring it back to Earth in 2023. 

IRA FLATOW: Why do we care so much about it? What is so special about this asteroid? 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this asteroid, they chose it for a couple reasons. One, it’s a near-Earth asteroid. It zips by here about every six years or so. But it’s a type called a carbonaceous asteroid. It’s very carbon rich. 

And they think that this is a sort of primitive form of asteroid that hasn’t had a lot happen to it in the last 4 billion years or so. It’s pretty much a snapshot of what the early solar system looked like back when planets and stuff were just starting to form. So they’re interested in getting a look at what this early, early material looked like. 

IRA FLATOW: And it also has a really slight chance of hitting the earth. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, I mean, it’s like a 1 in 2,700 chance. But that’s not for another 150 years or so. 



IRA FLATOW: OK. Closer to home, there’s news about carbon emissions. We’ve heard a little bit about the story. Tell us. Fill us in a little more. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, as we know, research has shown that humans really need to cut back our carbon emissions by a lot if we want to stave off the most serious parts of climate change. Some estimates put that number at around a 50% reduction by 2030. 

But this new report out this week from a group called the Global Carbon Project found that we’re not on track for that. In fact, our emissions are increasing. They grew by about 2.7% this year, which is definitely not the kind of decrease that we would be wanting to have. 

IRA FLATOW: Do we know where that increase is coming from? 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So there’s a whole bunch of reasons for this. One is India has been increasing their electricity generation. A lot of that is coal fired. China, they’ve been on a bit of a building boom lately, increasing construction. That hasn’t been helping. 

And in the US, a lot of it has to do with transportation. Gas prices are still cheap. We’ve been driving bigger cars, driving them more, driving them further. And that adds to the carbon emissions here. 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Finally, on a more hopeful note, there’s a new salamander in town. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so this is neat because scientists are saying this is one of the largest species discovered in North America in probably the last 100 years or so. It’s called the reticulated siren. And it’s this massive, 2 and 1/2 foot-long salamander. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s big. 

CHARLES BERGQUIST: It its. I mean, it’s a goofy-looking thing. It’s a bit different from your regular salamander because it lives its whole life under water. It doesn’t have the hind legs. It has these big frills behind its leg that– or behind its head, excuse me, that almost look like it’s got its head stuck in a fern or something. Those are its gills. 


CHARLES BERGQUIST: And this one has sort of dark skin with a kind of mottled, net-like pattern of all over it. A fun story with this is where it’s been rumored to exist for years. They called it the leopard eel. And it’s sort of this Southern Alabama and Florida panhandle area. 

There have been reports of it. A couple of researchers have been on their private treasure hunt trying to find it. And in 2009, they finally caught one. It took since then to find a few more samples and do all the characterisation that you would need to finally say, yes, this is definitely a new species. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s terrific. So sort of like looking for orchids in Florida. 


IRA FLATOW: That’s another subject. Charles Bergquist, Science Friday director and contributing producer. Thank you– 


IRA FLATOW: –for being with us today.

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Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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