NASA To Launch An Eye In The Sky For Asteroids

7:12 minutes

A rendering of an asteroid approaching Earth
Credit: Dima Zell, via Shutterstock.

In July, an asteroid the size of a football field whizzed by Earth, just a fifth the distance from the Earth to the Moon. There’s a nickname for asteroids that size: “city-killers.” But the most important detail about this space rock, called 2019 OK, is that astronomers had no idea it was cominga reminder, perhaps, that we might need to keep a more careful eye on the skies.

Now, NASA has announced a new infrared telescope, the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, to do thatalthough 2019 OK might still have flown under the threshold of detection of the new mission. Sarah Zhang, staff writer at the Atlantic, joins to talk about the new mission, along with new guidelines on the use of genetic genealogy in criminal cases, a possible cause of the “sonic attacks” on diplomats in Cuba, and why bananas might go extinct… unless a genetic tool is employed to save them.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Zhang

Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic, based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, an update on this week’s UN Climate Summit and a red flag about the health of the oceans. But first, in July, an asteroid, the size of a football field, whizzed by the earth. And it was close. Just a fifth the distance from the Earth to the moon.

There’s a nickname for asteroids that size, city killers. But the most important detail about this space rock called 2019 OK is that no one knew it was coming. It was a complete surprise to astronomers until just a day before its flyby. And it was a wake-up call that we might need to keep a more watchful eye on the skies.

Now, NASA has announced a new telescope to do just that. Here with the details on that and other selected short subjects in science is Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic in Washington. Welcome back to Science Friday, Sarah.

SARAH ZHANG: Hi, Ira. Nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK. Tell us about– what is this new telescope?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, so NASA announced they’re going to go ahead with this telescope called a Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission. Near-Earth Object being a fancy term for asteroids that might kill us one day, if they got too close to us. So the reason that, as you were saying, we missed this asteroid that came by so close is we were largely relying on ground-based telescopes. Now, obviously, on the ground, you might be foiled by things as you know as common as clouds. And you just can’t see as well into space.

And asteroids are really hard to see because one, they’re particularly small, and they’re very dark since they don’t give off any light of their own. So we’re really relying on light that’s being reflected off of them so the point of this telescope is that it’s going to look for infrared, which is really good at looking at dark objects. And the idea is to catalog all of these quote unquote, “Near-Earth Objects” and try to figure out what their trajectories are and if they are going to come close to Earth. So, hopefully, we have more than 24 hours.

IRA FLATOW: Well, this big rock that just flew by this summer, would it actually have been detected by this new telescope?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, that’s the idea.

IRA FLATOW: It wasn’t too small for the new telescope to see.

SARAH ZHANG: No, a football-sized asteroid is pretty big. If it hit the earth, it would have taken out a city.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to our next story about a bit of news from the Department of Justice on how law enforcement can use consumer genealogy databases. Tell us about that, please.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, so the idea that genealogy could be used to solve crimes kind of burst onto the scene about a year and a half ago with the case of the Golden State Killer. This is a cold case from the ’70s and ’80s where police had really exhausted all of the leads they had. And finally, they had this idea, what if we upload DNA from the crime scene to a genealogy database that genealogists have been using to find family members and help adoptees find birth parents.

And so when they did that, they didn’t get any really close hits, but they did find these third and fourth cousins. And with that, they were able to build out family trees and, eventually, track down and arrest the suspect that they had. And since then, this idea has just really exploded. It’s been used successfully in something like 70 or 80 cases.

But it’s also just really moved forward with like absolutely zero regulation. There’s a lot of questions, right? Like most people can agree, serial killer, do like everything you legally can to catch him. But what types of crimes should this be used for? What types of violent crimes should it be used for? Non-violent crimes? And genealogists have been really bitterly divided over some of these questions.

So finally, the Department of Justice put out a set of interim policies this week. Some of the highlights are that yes, you can only use this for violent crimes. You can only do this when you’ve exhausted all other leads first. And a lot of [INAUDIBLE] can’t pretend that they’re just an ordinary person when they’re using these databases. They have to say we’re actually law enforcement and follow the rules that these sites have set forth.

IRA FLATOW: Now, that’s interesting. At least they’re taking some of the mystery out of what’s going on.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. It had kind of been a black box for a while.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Next up, you have an update on the so-called sonic attacks on diplomats in Cuba. It appears there’s nothing sonic about it. I remember that when they kept saying the diplomats were being attacked with sonic waves of some sort, right?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, this is a really perplexing story that started a couple years ago when diplomats, Canadian, US, and Cuba, were getting these strange symptoms of head injuries like dizziness and deafness and difficulty concentrating.

And as you say, one of the theories was a sonic weapon or maybe microwaves or maybe it was a form of mass hysteria even. A bunch of scientists have said maybe it’s pesticides. And the way they arrived at this is that they looked at the brain damage that these Canadian diplomats had. And they seemed to be specifically focused on an area of the brain that had a particular enzyme that is known to be affected by pesticides. And around this time, Cuba was also going through a Zika outbreak.

So there was a lot of pesticides being sprayed. So they looked at the blood of the diplomats and they did have pesticides in their blood. And they looked at the records for what the embassy was being fumigated and found that they kind of matched up to when these symptoms started appearing.

IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing when you collect the evidence, isn’t it? With the facts. It seems like a pretty straight thing, I mean, you’ve been spraying chemicals at the embassy. Then, a bunch of people get sick. Why did we jump to such crazy conclusions like a sonic or a microwave attack?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, there’s definitely a less out-there explanation. So in the beginning, there were some reports that maybe these symptoms started when diplomats heard these really, really loud noises. And one of these sound files was actually released and it turned out that some cricket scientists heard the sound files and were like wait, those are actually just crickets. So it’s unclear. There may have been other sounds and this is– still, no one is exactly sure. But this is one plausible and kind of less out there explanation.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. OK. Your last story is about the beloved Cavendish banana, which is the banana everybody eats, right? It’s the standard banana. But now, it could be headed for extinction, right?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, that’s right. So the great, and also terrible thing or problematic thing, about the banana is that they’re all genetically identical, which means that they’re identical, they’re susceptible to all of the same diseases too. So there’s this fungus that’s been going around that’s just been really devastating banana plantations around the world, and it’s spreading.

So scientists are trying to find ways to make this banana resistant. So one of the things they’ve done is take a gene from a wild banana, a wild banana that is, in fact, resistant to this fungus, and put it into the Cavendish banana that we all eat. But people are wondering like will people really eat a GMO banana?

So one of the other strategies is using the new gene editing tool called CRISPR. So instead of taking a gene from another plant and putting into a banana, it’s actually just turning on a gene that’s already in the Cavendish banana. And, hopefully, that will make it a little bit more resistant to this fungus. And maybe that will be a little bit easier to get into the supermarket.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, right?

SARAH ZHANG: No, unfortunately not.

IRA FLATOW: Well, those little bananas are quite tasty also. We don’t need to have just the Cavendish.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, but they’re harder to transport.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, well, there you go. We’ll talk about some other time, Sarah. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

SARAH ZHANG: Good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic in Washington.

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