Odysseus Lander Is On Its Way To The Moon

12:15 minutes

A mechanical structure with table legs sticking out of it sitting in front of an American flag.
IM-1, the first NASA Commercial Launch Program Services lunar lander is on its way to the moon. Credit: NASA

Just after 1:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, SpaceX successfully launched a commercial spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Its destination? The moon. If the lander—named Odysseus—makes it all the way there, it’ll be the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo mission, more than 50 years ago.

If successful, this mission will also mark another historic milestone: the first commercial spacecraft to touch down on the moon.

Ira talks with Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at MIT Technology Review, about this latest lunar mission and other science news of the week, including: a satellite to detect methane leaks from space, the development of lithium-sulfur batteries, the first treatment for frostbite, the development of “heart-on-a-chip” devices, a frog with a mushroom growing out of its leg, and how eavesdropping on the love songs of Skywalker gibbons helped scientists estimate their population size.

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Segment Guests

Casey Crownhart

Casey Crownhart is a climate reporter for MIT Technology Review in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, climate scientist Michael Mann wins a defamation lawsuit against right wing bloggers, and he joins us to talk about it.

Plus, mon Dieu! Why some French cheeses are on the verge of extinction. And we’ll check in on the town of East Palestine, Ohio, one year after a toxic train derailment.

But first, slightly after 1:00 AM on Thursday, SpaceX successfully launched a commercial spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Its destination? The moon. Yo, on board is a lander nicknamed Odie. And if it makes its way safely to the surface, it’ll be the first US spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo era more than 50 years ago.

Here with the details and more science news of the week is Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at the MIT Technology Review, based in New York City. Casey, welcome back.

CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me back. Excited to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK. So this mission is really a team effort, isn’t it?

CASEY CROWNHART: Absolutely. So like you said, we’ve got SpaceX– they’re the ones that launched the Falcon rocket that’s carrying all this stuff up into space– but they’re definitely not the only ones involved. So Intuitive Machines is a company based in Texas. They built the robotic lunar lander that’s the center of attention of this mission. And then the mission is also carrying equipment from NASA and also other organizations as well.

IRA FLATOW: And what’s the main goal here?

CASEY CROWNHART: So the main goal is to get this lunar lander to land gently on the moon. This would be, like you said, the first landing on the moon in a very long time. But it would also be the first private mission to reach the moon and land gently, if all goes well. This is not the first time that a company has attempted this sort of mission.

So they’re trying to land this lander, which is about the size of a phone booth, near the south pole of the moon. This area is really interesting to NASA and a lot of other people because there’s ice in that region.

IRA FLATOW: We have to explain to some people what a phone booth is.


CASEY CROWNHART: Are we that old? Oh, no.


IRA FLATOW: And the lander, Odie, is on a week-long solo flight, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. Like you said, it launched early on Thursday. It’ll take a little bit to get up to the moon. And then it’ll orbit I think about a dozen times before it finally goes in and tries to land.

IRA FLATOW: And this marks a turning point in lunar space exploration because this is a commercial mission, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So this could really open up a new era of space exploration. We’ve seen, obviously, national space organizations do a lot of the exploration of space, and particularly of the moon. But if private companies get involved, it could mean that we see costs come down. It could really change how we start to do exploration– a lot more trial and error, more low-cost missions.

IRA FLATOW: And one of many missions coming up, I imagine.

CASEY CROWNHART: I feel like we’re hearing about space launches, and every time I come back I’m bringing news of another one launching off. Yeah. So we had another– SpaceX launched more satellites I think yesterday. China is looking to launch a lunar sample return mission in May. We’ve, of course, got the Artemis missions coming up some time next year. So lots of exciting space news.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is cool. Speaking of space, scientists are trying to use satellites to measure methane leaks on Earth, yeah?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. This is really interesting news that we heard this week. Google and the Environmental Defense Fund are launching a satellite to measure methane, like you said. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. So it’s really important to understand where leaks and releases of this gas are coming from. And so this satellite is going to give us a bird’s eye view of what’s going on on Earth.

IRA FLATOW: And what would it be looking at?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So it’s mostly focused on oil and gas operations. So that’s one of the primary goals of this satellite. It’s carrying a bunch of spectrometers, which look at different wavelengths of light that can pinpoint where methane is coming from. But then there’s also visual mapping equipment on the satellite as well that will try to figure out where are these leaks coming from, what kind of equipment is most likely to leak methane.

So it’ll be a really big step in our understanding of methane emissions.

IRA FLATOW: And in other climate solutions news, Casey, I know you’re on the battery beat again, this time looking into the use of lithium-sulfur batteries. What are they?

CASEY CROWNHART: Always on the battery beat.

IRA FLATOW: I’m with you on this one. I love the battery beat.

CASEY CROWNHART: Great. So lithium-sulfur batteries are a new potential alternative battery chemistry. We use mostly lithium-ion batteries today, in everything from laptops and phones to electric vehicles. But researchers are looking for ways to add new options to the table for batteries, including chemistries that could eventually be cheaper and also have a higher performance– packing more energy into a smaller space– which could be a really big help to extend the range of electric vehicles.

So lithium-sulfur batteries switch out some of the materials that we use in that standard chemistry for more abundant and available ones.

IRA FLATOW: Sulfur, that’s the reason you’d be using sulfur, it’s more abundant, available?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yep. It’s cheap. It’s very, very cheap. People like to say it’s not quite a waste product, but it’s almost literally as cheap as dirt. So it would be a big boon to be able to use it in batteries, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Engineers will tell you– because they’ve told me over the years– there’s always a trade off when you do something like this, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: There’s always, always something that maybe– like you said, always a trade-off. For lithium-sulfur, that is lifetime. So lithium-ion batteries, researchers have been working on those for a long time. So now those can go 800 or even 1,000 cycles. Meaning you can use it and recharge it up to 1,000 times.

Lithium-sulfur cells today, that number is somewhere more like 100 times. So a tenth as long as lithium-ion batteries last. So that’s what researchers are really trying to focus on– getting that number a little bit up.

IRA FLATOW: Because they know that batteries are your passion– I mean, you follow the news– is there any possibility in the future of doing away with lithium, too?

CASEY CROWNHART: There are alternatives that don’t use lithium. I think there are batteries called sodium-ion batteries that are being developed– might even make their way into some low-cost electric vehicles. A lot of the interesting work is going on in China with that chemistry right now. But lithium is really just a great material to use for batteries. So I think it’ll be interesting to see, but it’s really tough to get away from that particular material.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I get it. OK, let’s move on to some health news. And this one’s very interesting. It’s that the FDA just approved the first treatment for severe frostbite.



CASEY CROWNHART: I guess I didn’t know that we didn’t have a treatment for it. But yes, the FDA just approved a drug called iloprost. It’s an injection that can treat severe frostbite. So this is the first treatment for that condition approved in the US. Basically, in severe frostbite, your skin and the underlying tissue freezes, which limits blood flow to the area.

This drug is what’s called a vasodilator, which means it opens up the blood vessels and can get blood flowing to the area.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s not a new drug. It’s just a new use for another drug?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, that is true. So this same drug has been used in the past as an inhaled medication to treat high blood pressure in the lungs. So it’s in a different form and a different dose and, yeah, for a different purpose.

IRA FLATOW: And it has been tried out, I’m sure, so we know that it works?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. This has actually been used in other countries for a while. There was a clinical trial that showed that this drug reduced the risk for amputation.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s very good news, then. There is news of a heart on a chip. Nevermore, as I like to say.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, it is a little Poe-esque.

So researchers developed what’s called a heart on a chip. So this is a small device that mimics the interactions of cells in a human heart. There are cells growing inside this device, with tiny channels that move fluids around. And this is one of a growing body of these organ models that researchers want to use to help test drugs, better understand the organs in our body. It’s really interesting, and, yes, definitely sounds a little bit like science fiction.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because we’ve heard about lungs on a chip. As you say– no pun intended– the growing body of uses.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. And it’s kind of interesting. Researchers say that they’re interested in taking these either organoids or organ models and stringing them together maybe to understand how drugs would impact different organs in the body. There’s still a lot of work to do before these models can be used effectively– getting the cells to act in a way that they would act in the body, using materials that researchers are sure wouldn’t affect the experiment results. But it’s really, really fascinating to follow.

IRA FLATOW: It is fascinating. And speaking of something fascinating, I heard about this. I didn’t believe it actually. Scientists found a mushroom growing out of a frog.


IRA FLATOW: They just happened to be walking through the forest and found this– or something like that?



CASEY CROWNHART: I would highly recommend everybody go look at this picture. It’s adorable and also very confusing.

So there was a group of friends exploring in India, looking for reptiles and amphibians. And they found a bunch of these little frogs. They’re called Rao’s intermediate golden-backed frogs. They were in this roadside pond. And one of the frogs had what looks like a little tiny mushroom sprouting out of it.

They took pictures. They published a note in an academic journal. Experts are all very confused about what is going on here.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, we don’t know how a mushroom ever ended up growing on a frog, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: No. There are so many questions particularly because we think of mushrooms as being what we think about when we think about fungi. But there’s always the root-like structure, called mycelium. So is there mycelium that was growing inside this frog that allowed the mushroom to pop out?


CASEY CROWNHART: What was going on? We don’t know because, unfortunately, this team didn’t collect the frog. It wasn’t dissected. They let it hop along.

IRA FLATOW: They never picked it up and took it with them? That’s as astounding as the finding of the frog is, I think.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. I mean, I’m glad that this frog got to go live its life, but yeah. So experts are going to have to keep their eyes out to understand more about what this relationship between frogs and fungus might look like. We don’t really know.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s wrap up this Valentine’s Day week with a story about scientists tracking a population of gibbons by listening to them serenade each other?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. I love this story. So like you said, scientists in Myanmar were eavesdropping on the love songs from these primates, called Skywalker Gibbons. Which yes, they are named after that Skywalker. They were named by Star Wars fans.


CASEY CROWNHART: So these primates, they wake up every morning and the couples, they sing to each other. And so researchers were able to set up all this acoustic monitoring equipment and identify 44 new groups of these gibbons in Myanmar, which is really exciting because these animals are on the Endangered Species List.

IRA FLATOW: And we actually have a clip. Let’s eavesdrop on their love songs.



IRA FLATOW: I guess if you’re a gibbon that is a sweetheart call.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, the height of romance. I love it.

IRA FLATOW: And how did scientists use that to estimate the population?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So it was a combination of that to help them figure out where to look, and then they were able to collect these chewed-up plants and fruits to confirm with DNA testing that it was actually this particular kind of gibbon in the area, take photos. So it was a multi-pronged effort to figure this out.

IRA FLATOW: Casey, always bringing good stuff for us. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. And have a good weekend.

CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks. You, too. Happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at the MIT Technology Review, based in New York.

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