06/04/2021

NASA Plans Two New Trips To Venus

11:57 minutes

an image of the entire planet of venus, showing craters, and canyons on its surface
Venus hides a wealth of information that could help us better understand Earth and exoplanets. NASA’s JPL is designing mission concepts to survive the planet’s extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressure. This image is a composite of data from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week, President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. The U.S. has promised to promptly send it’s surplus to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where countries are experiencing major shortages.

Plus on Wednesday, NASA announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030. It’s the first time the agency has devoted any mission to Venus in 30 years. 

MIT Technology Review editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the biggest science stories of the week.


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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll reflect on the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis with Dr. Anthony Fauci. It’s been 40 years, believe it or not, since the first CDC report documenting what we know as AIDS. I’m going to also talk with Dr. Fauci about the latest news that the NIH is launching a clinical trial of a universal flu vaccine.

ANTHONY FAUCI: We think that this is hopefully going to be a winner. But we don’t know for sure unless we test it, as you well know.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll have more on this later in the hour. But first, in other news headlines, President Biden announced the US will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. We’ve talked a lot about COVAX asking for such donations, and now it appears the US is stepping up.

Plus, move over Mars. It’s time for Venus to take a turn in the spotlight. On Wednesday, NASA Chief Bill Nelson announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030.

BILL NELSON: Congratulations to the teams behind NASA’s two Planetary Science missions, VERITAS– truth– and DAVINCI+. These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world, capable of melting lead at the surface.

IRA FLATOW: It’s been over 30 years since the US visited Venus with Magellan launching in 1989. And here to tell us more about the dual missions is MIT Technology Review Editor Amy Nordrum. Hi, Amy. Welcome back.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Venus has always been such a mysterious planet, has it not?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Venus is so interesting. It’s the second planet from the sun, and it’s a lot like Earth in some ways. It’s roughly the same size, and its orbit is closest to ours. It has mountains and volcanoes, just like we do, and it sits in the zone of our solar system that could support life.

But it’s totally unlivable. The air pressure there is really high, like what you’d find deep in the ocean here on Earth. And it has these hurricane-force winds that just blow constantly, and a very thick atmosphere with lots of carbon dioxide, and even clouds of toxic sulfuric acid that trap heat. So even though Mercury is closer to the sun, Venus is actually the hottest planet, at around 900 degrees.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re not going to send probes down to the surface with a rover, like we’ve done on Mars, right?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. It’s a really difficult planet to send a rover to. There has been spacecraft that have landed on the surface before, but because of the heat, the conditions there, the spacecraft didn’t last very long. Only less than two hours, actually. So we are sending missions to Venus, but it won’t be a rover mission like we did with Mars.

IRA FLATOW: Because we’re really interested in those mysterious clouds. And there were hints recently that there might be life in there somehow.

AMY NORDRUM: Right. We have a lot of questions about Venus’s atmosphere and also the surface of Venus. And so these two missions.

The first is called DAVINCI+, and that’s a spacecraft that will parachute down to the surface of Venus and take measurements and images and study the composition of its atmosphere on the way down. There was a publication last year in which scientists claimed that they might have found traces of life in the atmosphere around Venus, and those results have since been contested. It’s not really clear if that’s the case, but that study will help us determine once and for all whether that’s possible.

And then the second mission, VERITAS, that’s an orbiter. That’s going to move around the planet and use radar to map the terrain and the elevation of Venus’s surface, and use infrared to figure out what kind of rocks are down there and whether there’s still volcanic activity on Venus.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s great. There’s other cool space news. We learned this week that a piece of space debris hit the International Space Station. Whoa. Changing up the film Gravity, I hope not.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. A piece of space debris struck the robotic arm on the outside of the International Space Station and did cause damage. It put a hole in the insulation of this arm, and we found that out through a post shared this week by the Canadian Space Agency, which developed the arm.

They said the damage was found on May 12, so we don’t really know when this happened exactly or what caused it. It was a pretty small hole, and the piece of debris that caused it would have been too small for NASA to track, because NASA does track thousands of pieces of space debris. But it could have been man made, or it could have been naturally occurring, something like a rock or a piece of dust.

IRA FLATOW: There are tens of thousands of pieces of debris from spacecraft out there. Are there any plans for vacuuming up all of this stuff or capturing it somehow?

AMY NORDRUM: There have been some demonstration missions for spacecraft that could travel up there and help us remove some of this debris. The UK tested one called RemoveDEBRIS a few years ago. And it tried out a few different techniques, like it tossed a net at a piece of fake debris, and it stuck another one with a harpoon.

And right now, there’s a company called Astroscale testing out another spacecraft that can latch onto dead satellites and move them toward Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. But it’s really early for those projects, and it’s a big expensive job to do any of that at scale, and there’s really no international effort or agreement around this right now.

IRA FLATOW: Moving on to other news, President Biden is suspending all oil and gas leases issued for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I remember when the Trump administration auctioned these off at the very end of his term. What happened to them?

AMY NORDRUM: Right, that was back in January. Right before the administration left office, it auctioned off nine leases that would allow whoever owned them to drill for oil and gas on specific tracks of this National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But on Tuesday, the Biden administration said it would suspend all of those and review them to decide whether they should be allowed to proceed.

And Biden said during the campaign that he opposes drilling in ANWR, this Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But these leases were awarded as part of a program approved by Congress back in 2017. So he can’t just cancel them, because the companies that hold them could sue the administration if he did that. So the suspension is just a temporary measure, and the Interior Department will need to find some kind of legal or environmental reason why these leases shouldn’t be allowed to proceed or else reinstate them at some point.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re not going to have an immediate halt to all the drilling?

AMY NORDRUM: Right, there hasn’t been drilling happening there– they’re more for exploration at this stage. So it’s not halting any actual equipment happening there, but it would delay and halt any plans that any company may have had to develop there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Next up, a story– boy, I remember this story from back in the ’70s in the early environmental movement days– talking about freshwater lakes are losing oxygen. As I say, we’ve known about these for years, but now it seems to be for a different reason. Before we were talking about algae and eutrophication, something different happening?

AMY NORDRUM: Right. Freshwater lakes are losing oxygen at a far faster rate than oceans. And this is driven primarily now by climate change and warmer air temperatures, which cause the surface water to get warmer and make it harder to absorb oxygen, and for the oxygen that does get in the water to mix all the way down to the bottom.

So a new analysis published in Nature led by Kevin Rose quantified this loss for the first time. It looked at around 400 freshwater lakes, including some in Maine and Minnesota and New Hampshire and Missouri, over a period of about 75 years. And they found a decline in oxygen of 6% at the surface and 19% in deep water. And so for comparison, oceans have lost about 2% of their oxygen.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s happening to fish and other wildlife in the water? Is it dying off?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, it is a problem, because some species do need a minimum amount of oxygen in the water in order to survive. They didn’t find any specific examples of species that had necessarily been impacted that was in the scope of this study.

But it certainly could threaten populations if the oxygen in lakes drops down below those minimum levels, or even goes to a situation where there’s no oxygen, in which case other chemical reactions can also start to happen. And there can be phosphorous released in the water, and that can actually spur the growth of algae too. So it could cause the growth of more harmful algae blooms in the future as well.

IRA FLATOW: I’m wondering if there’s anything you can do about this. If it’s due to global warming, I don’t know what kind of solution you could come up with except the obvious.

AMY NORDRUM: Right. I mean, addressing climate change would be the primary priority, and certainly monitoring some of these lakes. The situation was worse– it wasn’t across the board the same in every lake. So keeping an eye on those lakes, especially those that are close to urban areas or agricultural areas, where there is a lot of runoff and pollution already happening in them. And making sure that those oxygen levels aren’t dropping below the levels required for species in those lakes.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to the controversy at the prestigious medical journal JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, this journal has been criticized for months for comments that one of its editors made on a podcast back in February and on a tweet that JAMA published to promote that podcast episode. The episode was about structural racism in health care, and a deputy editor who is white essentially said that he didn’t think it was constructive to talk about racism, and that he and others like him were offended by the suggestion that they might be racist.

And to promote the episode, JAMA posted a tweet saying, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?” And that editor has since resigned for those comments, and the journal has apologized and deleted the tweet and retracted the episode. But the fallout for the situation continued this week, when the American Medical Association said the editor-in-chief would also be leaving at the end of this month.

IRA FLATOW: Amy, do people feel like this is enough of a response?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, physicians and health care employees for a while have been calling for broader changes, both at JAMA and other medical journals. In particular, physician Raymond Givens of Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center has been calling on these journals to diversify their staff. Because he did a study last year that found that of 49 editors at JAMA, as of last October, only two were Black and two were Hispanic.

So there’s a lot of people like him, saying that medical journals need to do more to hire and promote a more diverse staff, and prioritize articles and conversations that address structural racism and the fact that it exists in health care and in society, and how that affects people’s health and well-being.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to a story we talked about a few weeks ago, and that is the fate of the right whales. This week, there’s new research suggesting the whales are getting shorter. What does that mean?

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly, these right whales, which live in the North Atlantic off the East Coast, are an endangered species. There’s actually fewer than 400 of them left in the world. And the new study out this week in Current Biology found that the whales are getting shorter and smaller in size. Researchers from NOAA used airplanes and drones to take aerial measurements of more than 100 right whales. On average, they found that the whales born today are about three feet shorter than those born in 1980.

And the main reason for this, they say, is that right whales are getting tangled up in fishing gear. And even though it might not kill them, they’re getting caught in nets and fishing lines and dragging that stuff through the water with them. And that just takes so much energy that it’s physically stunting their growth and the growth of their calves.

IRA FLATOW: This is such a sad story, but there is some good news. The New England Aquarium scientists have spotted the 18th right whale calf of the season in the Bay of Fundy. And while that number is still low, it represents the highest calf count since 2013, Amy, so there’s some good news at the end of that trail.

AMY NORDRUM: Oh, that’s fantastic to hear.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Amy. Always great to have you on the show.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, editor at MIT Technology Review.

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