A Sample From The Far Side Of The Moon Lands On Earth

12:09 minutes

a metal capsule next to a planted Chinese flag on a grassy plain.
The return capsule from China’s Chang’e 6 lunar mission touched down in Mongolia on June 25. Credit: CCTV

This week, the return capsule from China’s Chang’e 6 lunar mission returned to Earth, touching down in a remote part of Inner Mongolia. Inside were dust and rock samples collected from the far side of the moon. Researchers hope that the samples could shed light on both the moon’s formation, and conditions in the ancient solar system.

Rachel Feltman, host of the podcast “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week,” joins guest host Anna Rothschild to talk about the mission and other stories form the week in science, including a CDC warning about dengue fever, a trans-oceanic butterfly flight, and the possibility of seeing a stellar nova in the coming weeks.

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

This is Science Friday. I’m Anna Rothschild, sitting in for a vacationing Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a journal that only publishes when the results don’t pan out and why kids these days are getting their periods earlier than before. But first, this week, China’s Chang’e 6 robot lander returned to Earth, bringing samples of rock and dust from the far side of the moon. Here to tell us more and other stories from this week’s news is Rachel Feltman, host of The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week and Scientific American’s Science Quickly podcasts. Welcome back, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: So we talked about this moon mission when it was just about to land. What’s it been up to since then?

RACHEL FELTMAN: So it has successfully landed back in inner Mongolia, and scientists are now going to be able to start studying the rocks that it brought home from the far side of the moon, which is super cool.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, that’s so exciting. So what could these samples tell us about the moon that we don’t already know?

RACHEL FELTMAN: These will be our first samples from the far side of the moon. China is the first space agency to successfully get landers over there at all. And the thing to keep in mind is that before the Apollo 11 mission brought back any moon rocks, we were totally wrong about how we thought the moon formed, and we still don’t have the mountains of evidence we would like to prove our current idea of how the moon formed. So getting rocks from the far side will help corroborate some evidence and could help us finally be really sure we know how that thing got up there.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: So cool. Yeah, yeah. It would basically be like studying Earth, but you only studied Europe or something.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Exactly. yeah, exactly.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Moving on. In other news, the CDC issued a warning about dengue fever. Tell us what’s going on there.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Dengue is really spiking all over the world this year even in the US. So there have been 2,200 cases so far this year including around 1,500 in Puerto Rico, and most of the cases in the lower 48 have been travel related, meaning folks have gotten sick traveling either abroad or in territories like the US Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. But there have been a handful of cases in Florida where people have caught dengue locally, so the CDC is on notice.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: And this is something that’s passed by mosquitoes?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s passed by mosquitoes, but what is concerning is that when a mosquito bites someone who is infected with dengue, several days later, the mosquitoes can then transmit that dengue to other people. So the more folks we have coming home with travel-related dengue, the more likely we are to start seeing more widespread local transmission.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, that makes sense. Since this is spread by mosquitoes, is there a climate connection here? Why might we be seeing more cases?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. To my knowledge, no one has looked specifically at the numbers of mosquitoes this year, but we know that mosquitoes thrive in warm weather, specifically warm wet weather. And it’s been a pretty warm, wet season. So it’s not hard to connect those dots.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Gotcha. So turning from warm temperatures to icy and cold temperatures, researchers are saying that we need to give more respect to the role of slush. Why is that?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So, of course, most folks are familiar with ice shelves in Antarctica. They know that it’s not good that they’re melting, that they hold a lot of the world’s water, and that they can release that water into the ocean, raising sea levels. It’s not great.

But this new study used satellites along with machine learning to figure out how much half melted water is pooling on top of ice sheets as opposed to just running out into the surrounding water and also how much slush is staying on there. This pooling water and slush that sits on top of the ice sheets is basically not being sufficiently accounted for in the climate models. And the reason that’s a problem is because slush and this pooling meltwater, it’s less reflective than the ice itself. So that means it’s absorbing more heat, and so these places where instead of ice or snow we have these little pools of meltwater or piles of slush, they’re actually potentially going to be experiencing faster melt overall than the climate models are predicting.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: So it’s like a vicious cycle. Slush makes more slush because it all stays warmer. Going back in time now, we have some interesting findings from some ancient Neanderthal remains. Tell me about that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so about 146,000 years ago, these Neanderthals in a cave in what’s now Spain had a member of their community, a child of about six years old when they passed away, who has these very particular anomalies in their inner ear bones. And researchers are saying that these are extremely similar to the formation of the ear bone you would see in a child with Down syndrome, trisomy 21. And while they haven’t done DNA testing, they’re hoping to, but ancient DNA is finicky and often degraded. So they haven’t done that yet. So they don’t know for sure that this child actually had trisomy 21.

However, they do feel confident that this child would have had hearing impairment and probably issues with balance because of the ear bone alone. And so they’re pointing out that this is a great example of how wrong we were for so long about Neanderthals and their culture that they clearly cared for this child and provided them with the support they needed, and, again, just more and more evidence points to Neanderthals and other earlier species of human having these really rich, caring communities.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Let’s move to another story about ancient remains, but this one has a bit of a modern twist. It’s in ancient Egypt.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. So researchers looked at the remains of scribes from around 2700 BC, and being a scribe was a pretty sought after position. It meant you could write, you could do admin work, which at the time was pretty clutch. And the scribes that they looked at compared to other dudes buried around them had more degeneration around their jaws, collarbones, shoulders, thumbs, knees, and spines, which the researchers think is from all of the work they did hunched over their tablets writing stuff. So basically they had their own versions of tech neck and texting thumb, which is just great to me thinking about whether people complained about how technology was destroying the human body 4,000 years ago.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, it sounds just like me hunched over my computer. Love it. Moving on. I really love this next story. So you think of butterflies as being really fragile and delicate, but there’s now evidence that at least some of them have flown all the way across an ocean.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, it’s true. We really think of butterflies as being so fragile. But these painted ladies, they’re already pretty impressive. They’re known to regularly take a 9,000-mile trip from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa when they migrate, but they have stops. They have rest stops along the way. They grab some snacks. They have a nap.

So we understand how they manage that, but then a decade ago, a researcher was walking on a beach in French Guiana and saw a painted lady and was like how did you get here. This is across the Atlantic. And basically they’ve just been spending the last decade looking for various clues because insects are really hard to track with the same methods we use to track larger animals.

They’re tiny. It’s hard to put a band or a sensor on them. So they just had to find a bunch of puzzle pieces to put together. They tested their genomes and then also they sequenced the pollen that they had on them to prove, yes, these butterflies had recently been in West Europe and West Africa. There wasn’t just some random person decided to have a bunch of pet painted lady butterflies over on the other side of the planet.

And then they started looking at wind patterns that might have helped them, and they think that the Saharan air layer, this air current that we already know does really amazing stuff, it blows dust from the Sahara over to South America, where it helps fertilize the Amazon River basin. It can even make it all the way to Florida. So we think that using the power of this current, they probably were able to make the trip in just five days, which explains how they did it without a place to stop because they were just over the Atlantic. It’s great.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Incredible Finally, we got a star watcher alert. There may be a reason to keep your eye on the skies in the coming weeks. Why is that?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So we have a once in a lifetime nova explosion to look forward to. It’s not the same as a supernova, which is the dying, the very beautiful death knell of an exploding star. This is a nova which happens in a binary system. In this case, it’s a white dwarf, which is a dead star remnant about the size of our planet. It’s got a mass about the same as our sun and then a big red giant.

And basically the hydrogen from the red giant builds up on the surface of the white dwarf, and all of that pressure and heat, eventually triggers a thermonuclear explosion that bursts. It blows all of that built up material away. So it reaches critical mass, and it just pfft. And that seems to happen every 80 years for this particular object, T Coronae Borealis also called the Blaze Star. And we’re due for one very soon.

That being said, scientists have called it contrarian. So it’s– the actual burst itself will be brief, and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. It will make this star visible to our eyes for about a week, which will be cool because it’s usually not visible, so it seems like a new star appears in the sky.

That being said, we don’t actually know if it’s happening this summer because one NASA researcher said they’re unpredictable and contrarian and as soon as you start to rely on them repeating the same pattern, they deviate from it completely. So I would say don’t hold your breath

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Don’t hold your breath but do keep looking up.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes Yes. Always.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Well, Rachel, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for being with me.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

ANNA ROTHSCHILD: Rachel Feltman is the host of The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week and Scientific American’s Science Quickly podcasts.

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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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