09/24/2021

Ice-Hunting Lunar Rover Robot Gets A Landing Site

11:59 minutes

This week, NASA announced that it had selected a destination for a planned robotic lunar rover called VIPER, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover. The mission is planned for launch in 2023, and will rove about the Moon’s south pole, mapping the location and concentration of water ice deposits. The plan is for a commercial spaceflight mission to deliver the rover to a spot near the western edge of the Nobile Crater at the Moon’s south pole. 

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about the mission and other stories from the week in technology and science—including tiny airborne micro-machines, an upcoming voyage for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the discovery of ancient kids’ handprints that could be the world’s oldest-known art


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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour Congress has two big bills that might, just might tackle climate change this year. And the debate over COVID vaccine boosters, the shifting landscape over who’s ready for a booster shot. But first, this week a planned moon rover got an official destination, not to Mars, but to the moon’s south pole. Sophie Bushwick is here to fill us in on that story and other science headlines from the week. She’s technology editor for Scientific American based in New York. Welcome back.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you. So NASA has announced that their Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, is– that when it goes to the moon, it’s going to be landing near the south pole by the Nobile crater. And it is not set to launch until 2023. But when it does, it is going to be NASA’s first ever robotic moon rover. So there have been moon buggies on the moon before, which have wheels, but we’re crewed by astronauts. This is NASA’s first uncrewed moon rover.

IRA FLATOW: That is really cool. How– how’s it going to get there? What’s the time frame? Give us all that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The idea is that in 2023 VIPER is going to launch with help from two commercial space companies. It has a lander, which is built by Astrobotic. And the rocket that is going to take it to the moon is a SpaceX rocket.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So this is going to be a private venture. This is not any government doing this thing.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, NASA is the one that’s in charge of the rover itself. But the way it’s going to get to the moon is going to be a commercial venture. That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: How cool is that. And give us an itinerary. What’s it supposed to do? How long will it explore?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There is evidence that there is water ice on the moon. The question is how easy is it for us to extract it. Is there enough there to support a human presence on the moon. So VIPER’s job is to look into that.

So it’s going to be roving around an area that’s about 36 square miles and it’s going to be drilling into the ground up to a meter down to look for samples of water ice and how easy it is to extract. And it’s even going to explore these areas that are permanently shadowed, so that never are touched by the sun, which are some of the coldest areas in the entire solar system. And it’s going to do this for about 100 days.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah, but we know what the track record some of these rovers are. Look at the Mars rovers– supposed to be for what a few months and now you’re in decades.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. There’s the possibility that VIPER will complete its mission and then say, hey, give me something else to do and that NASA will find other uses for it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’m sure somebody will find the use for it. Let’s talk about elsewhere in space, a little bit closer to home– the James Webb Telescope is finally on the move?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. It is scheduled to leave earth on December 18 this year, at long last. And this is going to be a major new telescope that’s going to look even further– at greater distances than other telescopes because it can look into the infrared spectrum. And that means it’s also going to be looking further back in time than other telescopes have been.

IRA FLATOW: And this is not going to be launched from the United States is it?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: No. It’s launching from French Guiana.

IRA FLATOW: Any reason for that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, this is being launched with help from the ESA, so the site is an ESA launch site. But in order for it to get there, it has to do this treacherous journey. It’s going to get placed in a special container that is nicknamed Super STTARS, which is an acronym for the Super Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road, and Sea.

IRA FLATOW: They must pay people to come up with these names, I think.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Astronomers love their acronyms. I mean, we were just talking about the VIPER, right? I think that they put a lot of creativity into this stuff. But the idea is that this is a very delicate instrument and so its travel case is going to help protect it from humidity, and vibrations, and changes in temperature it’s going to experience as it goes by sea to its launch site.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about other flying observation news. You have a story about microchips with wings. This sounds like a Michael Crichton novel.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: These are adorable. So our writer Nikk Ogasa covered these– they are what you say they are. They are microchips with little wings attached. But the wings are designed, not like the wings of birds, but like the wings of tree seeds. So if you’ve ever seen one of those propeller-like seeds from a maple flutter to the ground, it doesn’t fall as quickly as it would if it were compact.

The wings let it drift down gently. And the idea is that these microchips, as they drift through the air, will be able to gather data about pollution or about if there’s any contaminants in an area. And the researchers designed them so that after they land– you could dump a bunch of them out of a plane, for example, and then after they land they break down, they biodegrade, and melt into goo and then wash away.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re talking about a great number of these.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right these are really tiny the smallest ones are something like half of a millimeter. And at that size the researchers designed them to be manufactured in bulk. So there actually can be manufactured as these flat objects, which lets the researchers make more in a single batch. And then they’re attached to this stretchy material that is stretched out and then placed on the flyer. And then it tightens up and relaxes and pulls the flyer into this 3D seed-like shape.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And the idea is you take a bunch of these at once and throw them into the air and that they can cover a great area.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So like you say, they’re not powered. They just sort of gyrate– gi– rotate on their way down to the ground like the maple tree. We used to call them polynoses when we put them on our noses back in the day.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly like that.

IRA FLATOW: Elsewhere in technology news, there’s been a lot of attention this week on Facebook. The Wall Street Journal had a big series based on leaked documents from Facebook.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Facebook has been conducting research internally that it hasn’t been sharing with the general public. And The Wall Street Journal reported a story based partially on information from researchers inside Facebook who shared this information with reporters about some of the things that Facebook has found about its own platform, including the fact that Instagram can increase anxiety and depression among teenage girls.

The fact that Facebook has a cohort of special users who aren’t subject to the same moderation rules as the rest of us because they– some of them have big audiences or they are just prominent political figures and so they can get away with saying things on Facebook that the average user doesn’t get to do.

And a lot of this information is revealing that Facebook is aware of many of the problems with its platform, it just isn’t necessarily sharing these problems or taking action to fix them. There are researchers who are attempting to conduct independent research on Facebook, and how misinformation spreads on the platform, and how it can be targeted at people with ads.

But just last month, some of the researchers who study this were kicked off the platform for gathering the data that they use to do their research. So Facebook is really unwilling to face outside scrutiny. And when it does study what’s going on, it’s unwilling to share that information with the public.

IRA FLATOW: More bad news for Facebook. Recently there was a big data breach from T-Mobile. I mean, a lot of users’ personal data was leaked. Is there anything that can be done here?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the T-Mobile leak– tens of millions of Americans social security numbers, home addresses, even driver’s license numbers were all exposed to hackers. And this is only the latest major data breach that we’ve seen. So some people have said we’re basically asking people to take personal responsibility for the fact that other companies have made their social security numbers vulnerable.

And other people are saying, well, we shouldn’t be putting this on individual consumers. The organizations that use social security number as a proof of identity should just be using a different method. And, specifically, they can keep using social security numbers, but they should be using multifactor authentication. So maybe require the social security number but also require another piece of information that lets the person prove they are who they say they are.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re talking about like when my email sends me a text to my phone to make sure I me. That’s what multifactor authentication is.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s correct. The idea is that you don’t want to ask for two pieces of information necessarily because if I– let’s say I’m calling a customer hotline and they say, OK, to prove you are who you are, give me your home address and your social security number, for example. If they do that, a hacker who has gotten access to my social security number often also has access to my home address.

So what that organization that’s asking for proof of identity needs to do instead is to reach out to me, like you said, by sending a text to my phone, something that it would be much harder for a hacker to get a hold of or by requiring some other form of authentication that relies on something I own, like a device. Some other methods include– some people have these USB keys that maybe you can’t log into account an account on a computer until you both enter a password and you’re using a machine with this USB key plugged in, which proves that you are who you say you are.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because I have on my phone– I have an app called an authenticator, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: And you have– the authenticator generates all these little numbers that you then put back into the response and that makes sure that it’s holding the phone, you’re the right person.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, that’s a great example, a very common example of multifactor authentication. And I think a lot of us find this inconvenient, but, ultimately, it’s much better to go through a little bit of inconvenience than to make it super easy for hackers to get into our personal accounts.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Yeah. Finally, there was news this week about some ancient footprints found in New Mexico that could push back the date for humans in North America. But you have a story about prints somewhere else– some ancient muddy handprints. Tell us about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So researchers have discovered the remains of five hand and footprints on the Tibetan plateau. And they dated them to see when these came from. And they date back about 200,000 years to the ice age. And when they measured the size, they think these came from kids, from a seven-year-old and a 12-year-old.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. Isn’t that? That’s really cool.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s especially cool because it– they don’t think that this was just kids wandering by and accidentally leaving these traces. They think they were deliberately pressing the hands and feet into this muddy material that later hardened and was preserved in limestone. So it just proves that kids have always loved making prints with their hands and feet all over everything.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s like what my kid does on the wall, right, in the house with dirty hand prints, they– these are just muddy prints on the side of a cave or a wall someplace.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. Maybe you should be saving your kid’s handprints because they are technically a form of art. I mean, some of the oldest evidence we have of human species making art comes from handprints on cave walls or, in this case, in mud.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Sophie. As always, have a great weekend.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You too.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick is technology editor for Scientific American based in New York. We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, will Congress say yes to the country’s first major climate change legislation. We will talk about it. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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