Cassini Acrobatics, Phishing, And The Evolution Of A Skunk

7:14 minutes

The Cassini spacecraft. Credit: JPL/NASA

This week, the Cassini spacecraft completed the first two of 22 planned dives through Saturn’s rings in advance of its scheduled grand-finale demise in mid-September. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins guest host Flora Lichtman to describe the view out at Saturn. They’ll also discuss other topics from the week in science, including a story about how climate change influenced the evolutionary path of one species of skunk, and a cautionary tale of phishing and Google Docs.

[Explore some of the stunning photos Cassini took during its mission.]

Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman sitting in for Ira Flatow. In the past couple of weeks, the Cassini spacecraft made the first two of 22 planned dives through Saturn’s rings.

This is part of a dance that will end in the probe’s fiery demise in September. And here to tell us about what Cassini is seeing and other science news from the week is Rachel Feltman, Science Editor at Popular Science. Welcome back.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So what’s the news with Cassini this week?

RACHEL FELTMAN: So Cassini made the first two of its 22 dives, which is really exciting because we’ve never had a spacecraft between Saturn and its rings before. And this mission has been going on for years and gotten so much important science about Saturn and its moons that might host microbial life. So it’s just really bittersweet and awesome to see the spacecraft going through these maneuvers.

FLORA LICHTMAN: This final ballet?

RACHEL FELTMAN: And scientists are already picking up some really interesting data. For example, the spacecraft encountered a lot less dust between the rings and the planet.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Was that a surprise?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So they knew that there wouldn’t be big particles of dust. But they expected there to be a lot of smoke-sized particles. And they actually used the spacecraft’s antenna dish to shield it. But once they looked at the data from that first dive, they saw that there was almost no dust. So that’s an interesting thing for them to think about when they are trying to figure out the origin of the rings, which is something that is still not really settled.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And the dust can be dangerous for Cassini?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh, yeah. It’s traveling at, I want to say it’s 77,000 miles per hour. It’s a lot. So even tiny particles of dust, if they collide while Cassini is moving at that speed and hit just the right electronic part, it could completely ruin the spacecraft.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, wow. So what should we be looking for in the coming months from Cassini, before September?

RACHEL FELTMAN: There are definitely going to continue to be some really cool images. We’re getting closer to the atmosphere of Saturn than we ever have before. So we’re going to see all of its weird storms, know that hexagonal storm.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yes! I saw that!

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, there’s a lot of weird weather activity on Saturn that we don’t totally understand.

FLORA LICHTMAN: That blew my mind, the hexagonal storm.

RACHEL FELTMAN: I know. It’s wild, and scientists don’t really know how it forms that regular of a shape. So yeah, we’re going to see some more close-up images like that.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Do you know when the next dive is?

RACHEL FELTMAN: I want to say it’s May 9th. It’s definitely within the next couple days.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I will be marking my calendar. OK, so what else do we have this week? We have a fun animal story.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes , so the western spotted skunk, which is a really fun animal, it’s this little skunk lives across North America, and it does this really funny thing when it encounters an adversary.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Wait, this is not the skunk like Pepe Le Pew skunk.

RACHEL FELTMAN: No Slightly different skunk. Very similar in a lot of ways. It still shoots stinky stuff at its predators. But this one, it will get on its hands and do a running handstand to intimidate its adversaries.

It’s supposed to make it look bigger. I think it makes it look like a black and white pineapple. But I guess it works. But a reason scientists are interested in the skunk is that it’s divided into several subspecies, which happens a lot. Species get divided by geography and breed only within their own groups, and they form the subspecies.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Is this called “clades?”


FLORA LICHTMAN: Do I have the term right?



RACHEL FELTMAN: But those clades that exist today don’t correspond to the things that divide them today. It’s not like, oh, on this side of the mountain range you have one, and on this side, you have the other. So scientists wanted to go back and figure out at what point in their evolution they split up and why. They found that it was actually due to an ice age, that probably they were separated by these glaciers. And that that’s where the subspecies that we see today originate, which is an interesting thing to think about as the climate is changing again.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Well, I was going to ask, does that mean that we would expect to see more clades in the future?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, we already see different animals that are definitely being driven to new places and eating new prey and exhibiting new behaviors because of climate change. So it’s very likely that we’re going to see different subspecies branching off because of the influence we’re having on the planet.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Everyone should really check out the skunk. And the handstand is very cute. Do you have it on your website


FLORA LICHTMAN: Can people see it at PopSci?

RACHEL FELTMAN: It is at popsci.com.

FLORA LICHTMAN: It’s worth it for the headstands, really. OK, so what about this hacking, this Google news.

RACHEL FELTMAN: So yesterday, I believe, or maybe the day before, there was this very widespread phishing attack. Basically, hackers were trying to trick people into giving up their login information, which happens all the time. But this one seemed really designed to target people who think of themselves as too smart.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Like super-super users?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. Yeah, it was basically, it tricked you into thinking that someone was sending you a Google Doc. And once you clicked through, you gave permission to this third-party app and put your login in. But it was relying on the fact that people are so used to receiving Google Docs and clicking through that they–


RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. But they didn’t stop and think about it. So it’s just a really good reminder that, first of all, Google is not infallible. The spam filter is really good.

But apparently, there was nothing to stop a hacker from naming their third party app “Google Docs,” which just seems like an oversight. So that’s one thing to remember. And the other thing is that anytime you open an email, even if the initial thing doesn’t seem suspicious at all, it’s important to think twice before entering your login info.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Good to keep in mind. And what about our, you have one more story for us before we go.

RACHEL FELTMAN: I do. It’s real good.


RACHEL FELTMAN: So a body farm, which basically is a research facility set up to study human decomposition to help forensic scientists make better assessments of crime scenes, etc. one of them captured a deer eating human remains, which has not been caught before.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What? This is so morbid.

RACHEL FELTMAN: It really is.

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is as dark as we could end, really.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. And in some ways, it’s not surprising. We already know that deer are opportunistic omnivores, and humans are made of meat. But it’s so weird to think about, and also gives forensic scientists something new to look for when they’re studying crime scenes.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What do you mean? What do you mean, like look for deer with bones in their mouths, or what?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, so the marks they left on the bone were very different from the marks you’d see from a carnivorous scavenger. So now when they see these marks, they’ll be able to say this was because a deer ate the body. Not because of the way they were killed. But just more of it than important.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thank you for being with us today, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Rachel Feltman is the Science Editor at Popular Science.

Copyright © 2017 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

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.