China Reaches A New Lunar Frontier

7:51 minutes

The first image of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe. Credit: China National Space Administration.

China’s space probe Chang’e-4, named after a mythological moon goddess, successfully touched down on the far side of the moon in the Von Kármán crater. After landing, the lander unleashed a 300-pound rover. Together, the rover and probe will conduct an array of geological and biological experiments, including a test to germinate seeds in lunar gravity.

In this round-up of the week’s science news, FiveThirtyEight senior science reporter Maggie Koerth-Baker discusses the landing, the appointment of President Trump’s science and technology advisor, the new destination for the world’s plastic trash, and other headlines.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, keto, paleo, Mediterranean, how do these diets affect your metabolism? But first a moon goddess and a jade rabbit are now actively exploring the far side of the moon.

China’s latest moon lander and rover, both named after previous Chinese moon missions. They made history touching down this week in the Von Karman crater, part of the moon’s oldest deepest basin. And it’s a technical feat that marks a new frontier in space exploration and Chinese exploration.

Here to talk about it and more selective choice subjects in science is my guest Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight.com. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to that first story, the China’s moon landing on the far side of the moon.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so this is the first human spacecraft to land on the part of the moon that we can’t see from Earth. It’s not technically the first human spacecraft to hit that part of the moon. That would be Ranger 4.

But that doesn’t really count because it crashed there unintentionally after a system failure in 1962. And we didn’t get any data from it. So this is the first intentional landing on the far side of the moon.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve heard of course Pink Floyd call it the dark side of the moon. But it’s not really dark.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: No, it’s not. In fact, you could argue that the side we see is sort of the dark side. Because one of the things that makes these two sides different is that the side of the moon that we see most of the time has these really big, smooth dark patches. The face of the man in the moon, right?

The other side is a lot more pockmarked, a lot more lumpy, and a lot paler all over. And that seems to be because when these ancient asteroid impacts were sort of shaping what we see on the moon today they unleashed these lava flows on the side of the moon that faces us. So those lava flows smoothed over the land around and darkened these patches.

But it’s not totally clear why the same thing didn’t happen on the far side. And that’s one of the things that Chang’e is hopefully going to tell us more about.

IRA FLATOW: If it’s on the other side of the moon– and I’ve had people ask me this question. How do we get signals back through the moon to the earth?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: That’s going to be an interesting thing. I know one of the things that they’re doing research on over there is radio astronomy research. Because it’s actually a good place to do that.

Because the mass of the moon sort of blocks a lot of the chatter that we produce just living around here on Earth. So getting things back is a bit of a challenge. But it is possible. And we’ll be able to hopefully do some radio astronomy work we can’t do from here or from the other.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t the Chinese have a satellite going around the moon? It’s sort of a relay station for these landers?


IRA FLATOW: The relay the stuff back there. Second story, President Trump finally has a science adviser, two years in.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yup! Yeah, so for the first time since President Trump took office in January of 2017, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has a director. It’s going to be meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier. Yes, Kelvin just like the temperature scale.

He’s got one of those really nice names that line up with his job. He is a former vice president of research at the University of Oklahoma. And he’s been active in research policy at the national level for years. He used to serve on an oversight body for the National Science Foundation.

His research is kind of coming from storm prediction. Which is this big specialty down in Oklahoma for obvious reasons. He’s one of the first people to show how Doppler radar could be used to predict storm formation, for instance.

So all the times that you see meteorologists on TV using Doppler radar to tell you when a storm is likely to become a big deal in your area, that’s kind of coming out of research from people like Kelvin Droegemeier.

IRA FLATOW: So he’s not a climate denier, then.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, so we don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know about his positions on climate change. The scientists that have been big climate activists in the past have been pretty positive about him.

But it’s not really clear exactly what his position on this is. Science Magazine found a speech that he gave in 2014 where he kind of gave this confusing space in the middle, essentially saying that observations shows us the planet is warming. Evidence says it’s human caused. But also we don’t know everything and the planet could probably get kicked really hard and recover. So it kind of seems like he sort of plays a middle line there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well we’ll find out. Hopefully he’ll come on the show, talk to us about it. We can talk him into it. Your third story today is about where all our used plastic is going.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so about this time last year you probably remember that China announced it would stop taking in so much of our discarded plastic. And this was the country that had been taking about half of the world’s recycled plastic and paper.

But in the last year they have cut those imports by 94%. So the UK released a report this week that was showing what was happening to their plastic waste. And what’s happening to their plastic waste is a lot of what’s happening to the waste from the US as well, it seems. And a lot of it’s going to Malaysia.

So both the BBC and LA Times are reporting that that country’s taking in some of what China is rejecting. And also that it’s taking in so much more than it was prepared to handle. So there’s a lot of the plastic waste that we send for recycling that’s now getting burned or landfilled in Malaysia.

IRA FLATOW: Any solution to that?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, that’s kind of a complex thing. So you would think that plastic is worth something, that we’d want to recycle it. And there’d be like a cash benefit to that. But that sort of hearkens back to this other problem.

So American recycling used to require that you clear these big personal hurdles. You know, we used to have to wash everything. We used to have to sort everything. And now a lot of us are encouraged to just dump it all in a single bin like trash.

So our paper and our plastic, they’re more contaminated than is allowable under US recycling standards. And those standards now exist in China too. And there’s this extra cost with sorting and cleaning.

So this plastic that China is rejecting and Malaysia is accepting, and in many cases burning, is contaminated stuff that we couldn’t process here. So it’s too dirty, it’s the wrong kind of plastic. And what experts say would help solve the problem is to get Americans back to a less convenient way of recycling. You know, spending more time washing those recyclables and sorting them instead of having just one big bin.

IRA FLATOW: And on a local level there are a number of cities that have started banning plastic straws, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, that’s definitely a thing. Cities in at least five states have laws that have passed or that are on the table. DC passed a law, the entire state of California.

What’s interesting about this is that it’s all really based around those plastic straws. And it’s not really clear how big of a difference that’s going to make in terms of our volume of plastic use. Because this is going to come as a shock, we use a lot of plastic. And straws are–

IRA FLATOW: I’m shocked, shocked.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Kind of a tiny, tiny subset of that. And also–

IRA FLATOW: But it’s a beginning, right? It’s awareness.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It’s a beginning. And I think one of things it does is also sort of show the complications, though. Because one thing that’s been pointed out is that we use plastic for a reason. And part of that is things like disabled people need those plastic straws for basic quality of life and survival. And across the board bands end up affecting them in ways we don’t expect.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll keep following that. And we’ll keep following you, Maggie. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Happy New Year.


IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight.com

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