Private Spacecraft Makes Historic Moon Landing

12:16 minutes

A view down the silvery side of a moon lander with the gray lunar surface very close in the background.
The Odysseus lunar lander in orbit around the moon. Credit: Intuitive Machines

Thursday evening, the Odysseus moon lander successfully soft-landed on the moon, becoming the first U.S spacecraft to do so in over 50 years. The lander mission wasn’t created by NASA or another government space agency, but by the company Intuitive Machines, making it the first commercial mission to successfully soft-land on the surface of the moon. The mission was part of a NASA program called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which aims to make lunar missions faster and cheaper. There are other commercial moon missions planned for later this year. Umair Irfan, senior correspondent at Vox, joins guest host Sophie Bushwick for an update on the mission.

They’ll also talk about other stories from the week in science, including the move by some automakers toward plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, work on freezing antimatter, a strange meat-rice hybrid, and progress towards a universal snake antivenom.

Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick. I’m a Senior News Editor at New Scientist. But today, I am a Science Friday-ist.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m SciFri Producer, Kathleen Davis. We’re sitting in for Ira Flatow today. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about advances in AI-generated video and how that could affect things like upcoming elections.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And we’ll find out why some people are better than others at trivia contests. But first, on Thursday evening, the Odysseus lunar lander successfully landed on the moon. This mission wasn’t created by NASA or another government Space Agency, but by a private company called Intuitive Machines, making it the first commercial mission to make a successful soft landing on the surface of the moon.

The mission was part of a NASA program called CLPS, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which hopes to make moon missions faster and cheaper. There are other commercial moon missions planned for later this year. Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Umair Irfan, Senior Correspondent at Vox. Welcome back, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Hey, Sophie. Thanks for having me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Last week, we talked about the launch of this craft, so bring us up to date.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. As you noted, this is the first private spacecraft launched by any company or any country to land on the moon, but it was also launched aboard a private space vehicle, a SpaceX rocket. And Thursday evening, it began its descent.

And what was remarkable about it was that this was automated, that essentially it received no input from the ground. But about an hour before landing, there was a bit of a software glitch that mission control detected, and they had to scramble to fix it. But finally, when it entered its descent, they had to wait a few tense minutes, but it did manage to automatically select a landing site, and prop itself up upright, and then start sending signals back to Earth, letting us know that it’s made it safe and sound.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s really exciting. So what’s special about this lander? Why is it important?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it’s landing in an area of the moon that we previously haven’t explored very much before near the south pole of the moon. This is an area where scientists believe that there is ice and water, and potentially that’s something that could be a useful resource for a lunar colony and a springboard for future missions to other parts of the solar system. The goal with this mission, though, is also to do a lot of testing of technology that we will potentially be using in future crewed missions, where humans will return to the moon as well. So this is a bit of a test bed as well as a scientific experiment.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And turning to Earth-based engineering, you have a story about the future of cars, but not electric vehicles, exactly. Tell me about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. You may have been seeing some news about EVs, and people having a lot of trouble with charging them, and some car makers are pulling back on production. And that’s because sales haven’t quite been where they were hoping for them to be.

But car companies like General Motors and Ford recently have announced that they’re going to actually be investing more in hybrid cars. So these are cars that have both an electric drivetrain and a conventional gasoline drivetrain. And one of the things that they’re leaning more into is a variety of hybrids called plug-in hybrids that have a battery that can run fully electric for a little while. You plug it into a wall like an EV, but it also has a backup gasoline engine. And they think this is actually where the market is, that a lot of people are still interested in these cars and that that’s where most of the growth will be in the coming years.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: But I mean, does that mean we’re going to be stuck with at least partial gas engine power for a while yet?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. This is the big strategic question. Do we make the leap into fully electric vehicles as soon as possible? Or do we give people more runway? The issue is that with a technology like electric cars or hybrid cars, we have to wait for people to buy them. It’s not like power plants where you can have a government or a utility make a decision for a handful of sites.

We’re talking about millions of car buyers that have to make these decisions, and we can’t exactly force them to buy the kind of car that we would like them to buy. We have to make this an attractive vehicle, an affordable vehicle. And so waiting for the market and the technology to align has been tricky. And the Environmental Protection Agency recently is proposing and thinking about new rules for future cars and is trying to balance this, the need for zeroing out emissions from vehicles but also trying to see what people will actually buy and trying to make a real-world case for what kinds of regulations we need.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And in a story that’s related to the impact of climate change, the East Coast of the US is sinking?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. NASA reported this week using data from GPS sensors that parts of the East Coast are actually sinking fast enough that they say to threaten farms, to threaten wetlands, and to threaten infrastructure. The land over the past 20 odd years or so has been subsiding by about 1 to 2 millimeters per year. But in some areas, that’s been sinking two or three times as fast.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So what’s causing that?

UMAIR IRFAN: There are two main reasons for this. One is the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. This is something that covered much of the North American continent 12,000 years ago. And as it retreated, it caused the land to start to sink.

Think of sitting in a beanbag chair. If you sit down in one area, it causes another part to come back up. And then as you stand up, it levels out. That’s what the ice sheet was doing with land here in North America. As it retreated, it started to level out, and parts of it began to sink.

But another reason that the land is sinking at a much faster pace is due to the fact that we’re not using water as well as we should be. The main causes here are things like groundwater withdrawal from aquifers, but also things like damming rivers and restricting the natural flows of water that would ordinarily replenish sediment and help keep the land propped up. And so by changing the way that we use water and by drawing on it too readily, we’re seeing the land sink faster.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And turning to some food news, people may have seen this picture on social media of a bowl of pink goo. But it’s actually a meat-rice hybrid. Tell us about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. These researchers have been developing a way to try to cultivate meat or animal-based cells, but they used rice as a scaffold. And this is a way to actually get it to develop a three-dimensional structure. It’s one thing to grow cells flat in a Petri dish.

But in order to give it the texture and the volume that we expect from meat, you need to have some sort of infrastructure for it to build upon. And so this team of scientists thought that they could use rice, and they figured out that they could actually do that. One of the researchers described it as tasting nutty and a little bit sweet.


UMAIR IRFAN: But potentially– yeah, I mean I don’t know exactly what dish you would use it in just yet. But potentially, they say this could offer a more sustainable and more industrialized way of generating lab-grown meat and potentially get to lower costs faster.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I am curious to try this beefy rice. But moving on from the rice, you have a pair of stories this week about the physics of the super small. So first, there’s an advance in antimatter studies?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. If you are a Star Trek fan, you’re probably familiar with the idea of matter and antimatter. Antimatter and matter were created in roughly equal quantities at the dawn of the universe, but now there’s much more matter than antimatter. And if they come in close proximity, they annihilate each other, and they generate a whole lot of energy. The problem is, because of that trait, because matter and antimatter annihilate each other, it’s very difficult to contain antimatter in any way.

So researchers have come up with a technique to contain a form of antimatter called positronium. This is basically an electron and its positively charged antimatter equivalent called a positron. And it only exists for about 142 billionths of a second, which is too short to do anything useful with, let alone being able to power a spaceship engine.

But now they’ve developed a technique using lasers. Essentially, you can use a laser to pin down this wiggly atom long enough to actually be able to do some research on it. And they think that this could potentially lead to research that they can do in the future.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And in other weird physics news, there’s this new theoretical study with an idea for the smallest possible motor.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Researchers at the University of Granada in Spain, they’ve designed an engine that could be powered they say by a single atom. And so using a theoretical framework and computer models, they developed a system where this atom could be put inside a reflective cavity, and it bounces back and forth.

And it’s powered by a phenomenon called quantum radiation. Now, scientists say that this isn’t just a gimmick. It could potentially produce actual mechanical work– maybe not running a very tiny fan, but they say that potentially, in a very small device, it could be used for regulating temperature.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We’ve got some good news for snakebite victims. You have a story about a possible universal antivenom.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. Snake bites are this underrated public health threat. They kill about 138,000 people around the world. And it’s mainly people in poorer countries and in very remote areas. The challenge is that the conventional treatment for snake bites is antivenom.

But it’s produced from sheep and horses, and that can trigger allergic reactions in people when they’re administered. But also, it’s unstable, it’s expensive, and in order to actually make it useful, you have to know what snake bit you. And oftentimes, if you’re in the middle of the jungle or in the middle of nowhere, you don’t know what specific species caused that bite, making it tricky to administer the precise antivenom. So scientists have been trying to come up with a more universal way to do that. And what they did was they developed a synthetic human antibody that could potentially target venoms from a couple hundred different species of venomous snakes found in Asia.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That is definitely good news. And finally, we all love science, but we know it’s not perfect. But now there’s a program to try to catch any errors that creep into scientific papers. Tell us about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. If you’re a pedant or a nitpicker, this might be the ideal side gig for you.


UMAIR IRFAN: A team at the University of Bern in Switzerland says that it will pay reviewers to find mistakes in influential papers, and they’re going to start with the field of Psychology. The more errors you find, the more money you can make. And right now, they’ve put up about $285,000 to start with.

The idea with this is, of course, to get more scrutiny on papers, but they’re also going to try to get the scientists who produce these papers in the first place to be a bit more careful about the kind of research they put out. The authors, they’ll get a fee as well to give them an incentive to submit their papers to the program– about $285. And they’ll get to keep that money if there are no errors found.

But if you’re a very good nitpicker, you could make up more than $1,000 or more, depending on what you find. And if the mistakes that you find lead to a retraction, you could get an additional $2,000 or more on top of that. So this really does reward finding mistakes, particularly big mistakes. And the hope is that this will lead to more robust research and more careful publishing of results in the future.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I can see how this is great for picky people, but why is it so important for us to be scrutinizing scientific papers in this way?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, of course, science depends on things like peer review, and validation, and replication. And oftentimes, in some of these fields when they’re get more and more obscure, it becomes easy to publish results that are not as high-quality or based on experiments that aren’t very robust, and those results don’t actually end up being that useful. Those results are hard to replicate, or they don’t actually lead to any tangible work that can be built upon. And so in order to filter out some of that noise, in order to catch some of these mistakes early on, the idea is that if we can invite more scrutiny on the back end here, then potentially we can get to more robust research and lead to things like fewer retractions and that the findings that do result are things that we can be much more confident in going forward.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: All right. So nitpickers have a chance to help society.

UMAIR IRFAN: Finally something that rewards my skills–


UMAIR IRFAN: –or my instincts.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Umair Irfan, Senior Correspondent at Vox based in Washington DC.

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