A Busy Time For Space Launches

17:17 minutes

Artemis I is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. Credit: Joel Kowsky, NASA

While much of the astronomical world was gazing at the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope, there’s been a lot of other space news to discuss—from launches and testing associated with the Artemis I mission to the moon to new data from the Martian rovers. There’s also big news with commercial space flights, and even plans from some commercial vendors to work on a replacement for the aging International Space Station. 

Ira talks with Brendan Byrne, space reporter from WMFE and host of podcast “Are We There Yet?”, along with planetary scientist Matthew Siegler, about recent solar system news, and space events to keep an eye on in the months ahead. 

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Segment Guests

Brendan Byrne

Brendan Byrne is a space reporter for WMFE and host of “Are We There Yet?” in Orlando, Florida.

Matthew Siegler

Matt Siegler is a research associate professor at Southern Methodist University and an associate research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Dallas, Texas.

Segment Transcript

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

Those deep space images were quite amazing, weren’t they? But you know what, that’s not all that’s going on in space because it’s been a busy few weeks closer to home, closer to Earth. And there is more action on the horizon. And joining me now are Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for WMFE in Orlando and hosts the Are We There Yet space program, and Matt Siegler, research associate, professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and associate research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. And his interests include the Moon, Mars, and Mercury.

Welcome back to Science Friday, both of you.

MATT SIEGLER: Thanks, Ira.


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back.

All right, Brendan, let’s start with you. A lot of the public’s attention has been focused on that telescope but there’s been some progress to report with the Artemis mission taking us back to the moon correct

BRENDAN BYRNE: That’s right. The rocket that will be flying the Artemis 1 mission completed a very critical test before its launch sometime this year. The rocket that’s going to take us back to the Moon is this rocket called SLS. It’s like this 300-foot-tall rocket, with this massive orange core, and these two side boosters. And it’s going to be boosting the Orion space capsule. This will eventually take humans back to the Moon.

So they stacked it all together in the massive Vehicle Assembly Building here at the Kennedy Space Center. They rolled it out to the pad. And they did a dress rehearsal. So they fueled it up and they practiced counting down the rocket. They did not launch it, which was a good thing because it wasn’t ready just yet.

And that went very well, according to NASA leaders. So what they ended up doing was bringing the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building, to do some final preparations before bringing it back out to the pad for one final time before they launch this uncrewed mission around the Moon and back. We are months, if not weeks away, from this actually leaving the planet.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. We will launch no rocket before its time.

We briefly talked about the CAPSTONE mission, that would kind of scout out the orbit for the Space Station circling the Moon. That’s associated with this mission. What are some of the other parts that need to go into it?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, there’s quite a bit of stuff that needs to get near the Moon before we can send our astronauts there. So Artemis 1 is this proving ground. It’s following in the footsteps of CAPSTONE, in this very intricate and novel orbit around the Moon. But before we can put humans on the surface, NASA wants to put a small space station around there. This is called Gateway.

And so when astronauts leave Earth, they will meet up in the Orion spacecraft with Gateway. They will dock there. And this is kind of like the mudroom before you head out onto the lunar surface. And waiting for them there will be some sort of lunar lander.

Right now, NASA has an agreement with SpaceX to use its Starship as the lander for the first few missions. So the things that need to come into place, we’ve got to have a successful Artemis 1 mission, this first uncrewed mission. The following mission, Artemis 2, will have humans on board.

And in parallel, while these are happening, the development of the Gateway, this space station, will go into this orbit around the Moon. And then the development of SpaceX’s Starship, this lander, to go there. So a lot of these pieces still need to come around, and come into play, and get off the planet, and get into orbit around the Moon, for this to happen. But things are marching towards that goal.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’ll have to wait for it. And Matt Siegler, from a science angle, what do we still need to learn about the Moon, that we don’t know already. And how does this all fit into that?

MATT SIEGLER: Well, it’s really exciting. I mean, this SLS launch is actually carrying a couple lunar satellites on it as well. These small CubeSats are kind of the first stage. One of them is an exciting one called LunaH-Map, which is going to map the water at the poles of the Moon by looking at hydrogen. And a lot of the new exploration of the Moon is motivated by the discovery, probably about 20 years ago now, of water at the poles on the Moon.

And so we’re going to have, in the next few years, three landed missions at least, to the south pole of the Moon, one of which is a very exciting rover called the Viper Rover, that I’m part of the mission team on. And we’re going to drive around. And we’re going to drill down to about a meter underground and search for potential places where there might be ice near the surface. And then that’s not going to land too far from where we might land astronauts before the end of the decade.

IRA FLATOW: Is that why it’s so important to find water there at the south pole because they’re going to be landing astronauts near there?

MATT SIEGLER: It’s certainly important for– so astronauts can drink martinis on the Moon.


But it’s going to be an exciting discovery just figuring out how the water got there. It’s a big question whether it is recent water, delivered continuously, potentially from small micrometeorites continuously hitting the Moon; or the solar wind depositing hydrogen on the Moon, which links with the oxygen in the rocks that are already there. And from that, you can make water in situ on the Moon. Or it may be that this is water that’s 3 and 1/2 billion years old. And it’s basically giving us a preserve of the same water that we believe came to Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Cool, cool. Matt, most of this Moon work is in preparation for an eventual trip, right, maybe to Mars. What’s the latest Mars news? We can never get enough of that.

MATT SIEGLER: Oh, sure, Mars is really fun. I’m personally working on two Mars missions, the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, which is really exciting right now. It is finally reached the delta. So if you know a river delta, something like by New Orleans, right. A river dumps out, the material fans out as it dumps out the river. And this basically is showing us that this landing site where Perseverance is exploring used to be a big lake, with a big river running into it.


MATT SIEGLER: All this material was deposited out about 3.6 billion years ago probably. And we’ve just, this last couple of weeks, taken the first samples from this delta. And we’re putting them in little capsules. And later in the decade, there’s a new mission that’s going to go and land, take these capsules back to Earth. And we’ll be able to learn in detail about them.

And one of the things that’s excited about the delta, down by New Orleans, they also drill for oil and such. So these deltas are very good for preserving organic material. And so it may be that this is one of the best places to preserve ancient organic material on Mars. And we’re getting samples that are going to come back to us.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I think if you’re using the New Orleans and the Mississippi as a reference, you got to name the lander or the return mission, the Delta Queen or something like that.


Brendan, you mentioned Starship earlier. Right before the first web image was unveiled on Monday, there were some, let’s say, unexpected activity at a SpaceX rocket test. Tell us about that.

BRENDAN BYRNE: That’s right. Well, I mean, SpaceX likes to blow things up. So how unexpected was it, that’s up for debate. But they like to push their hardware to the limit. And that’s kind of how they’ve gotten as far along in development in such a short period of time.

But what you were talking about, when we were all kind of gazing at these James Webb Space Telescope images, SpaceX was conducting a test of its Super Heavy booster. Now, I mentioned earlier, Starship, that is this kind of like– it almost looks like a steampunk 1950s cartoon spacecraft. It’s this really sleek, stainless steel looking thing.

To get it off the planet, they need a big booster. So they’re testing this thing called the Super Heavy booster. And it’s got at least 30 engines on it. And during one of these tests, where they’re testing out these new engines, there was this massive explosion.

We don’t really know too much about it. SpaceX’s CEO, who is kind of their lead engineer, Elon Musk, he said, yeah, that wasn’t supposed to happen. We’re trying to figure out what it is. And it’s going to be important for SpaceX to figure out what happened and how to fix this because

NASA is relying on this booster and the eventual Starship that they’re going to launch. We don’t know if at all this will have an impact on landing people on the Moon or getting that Lander there. But it definitely looks like a setback.

IRA FLATOW: They’re not the only commercial space operation, right. What else is going on there?

BRENDAN BYRNE: There’s so much happening in commercial space, Ira. I don’t– I don’t even know where to begin. SpaceX–

IRA FLATOW: I got some time. Go ahead.


BRENDAN BYRNE: Well, SpaceX is definitely leading the charge. I mean, they’re working with NASA to kind of get cargo to the International Space Station, get astronauts to the International Space Station. We also have Boeing is probably going to launch NASA astronauts on their spacecraft this year.

There has been this kind of paradigm shift at NASA, where NASA no longer owns the hardware that they’re sending to space. They’re relying on these private companies. And it’s been described to me as instead of or I buying a car, Ira, we just call an Uber when we need to get somewhere. Well, that’s what NASA is doing. And that’s really been propelling a lot of commercial development when it comes to spaceflight.

We know the International Space Station will be decommissioned by the end of this decade. It wasn’t built to last longer than this. And NASA has told us 2030 will probably be the end of it.

So there are commercial companies that are building private space stations and already starting to lay the groundwork in doing that, learning how to fly their own private astronauts, testing out some of these habitats that may become a space station in the future. So when it comes to the kind of civilian side of space, there’s a lot of commercial companies coming in to fill in the blanks.

MATT SIEGLER: Also on the Moon, the entire new wave of lunar landers that– we’re going to start landing about two commercial lunar landers a year. They’re all private, small companies. Astrorobotic is going to be the one that lands the Viper Rover for us. And so it’s really exciting that all of these new science, without humans, instruments to the Moon are also going on commercial spacecraft.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Uh-huh. And that CAPSTONE mission that we spoke briefly about earlier, Ira, that was launched by a commercial company Rocket Labs, a relatively new commercial company. So you’re seeing that they are kind of doing the heavy lifting for all this exploration.

IRA FLATOW: Now, Matt, I know one of the planets closest to your heart is Mercury. You were on the show about 10 years ago talking Mercury with us. What’s the latest going on there?

MATT SIEGLER: Oh, yeah, Mercury is going to get exciting again in a few years as the BepiColombo, the European Space Agency spacecraft, gets in orbit there. It’s a JAXA/European Space Agency combination. It’s done a couple of flybys of Mercury, one of them fairly recently.

What’s new about it, especially from what we did 10 years ago on the Messenger mission, is it’s going to be in an orbit that gets close to both the north and south pole. So we got a lot of great data about the north pole of Mercury. But BepiColombo is really going to fill in the south pole. And it’s got a lot of neat instruments to tell us more about Mercury.

IRA FLATOW: Why do we care about Mercury, this hot rock sitting close to the Sun?

MATT SIEGLER: I mean, I guess to go back to what we had talked about before about the delivery of ice to the inner solar system in general, the polar regions of Mercury are especially interesting there, in that somehow you got ice delivered to this hottest body in the solar system. And it’s because the poles have these craters that are colder than the surface of Pluto. And then Mercury itself, the formation and everything, is very weird. It’s basically a big, large core, with a very thin mantle. And that’s one of the things we discovered with the Messenger mission.

It’s a really weird. Planets shouldn’t form that way. Did it lose its surface material because the early solar system was so hot and volatile? What’s going on there?

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case, you’re just joining us, we’re talking about space exploration with Brendan Byrne, who hosts the Are We There Yet space program, and Matt Siegler, research associate professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Let’s expand our horizon to the whole solar system, Matt. And if you were picking a spot for the next planetary mission, where would you want to go?

MATT SIEGLER: Well, I mean, I think the exciting thing that’s already on the horizon is this Europa Clipper mission, which should launch before the end of the decade, probably scheduled for 2024. That’s going to be a very exciting mission, in that it’s going to a place where we think it could have the conditions currently to harbor life.

IRA FLATOW: A moon of Jupiter, right?

MATT SIEGLER: Yeah, Europa is a moon of Jupiter. It has an ice shell that is maybe a couple of kilometers thick, to as much as 10 to 15 kilometers thick. And Europa Clipper will actually carry a radar instrument that will measure that thickness very precisely. So that’s pretty exciting.

And then what I’m really excited about is, I’m part of the Juno mission. And we’re going to fly by Europa in September. So that’s going to be some neat new images and data from Europa coming up this fall.

IRA FLATOW: And the attraction of Europa receiving all this attention, besides Arthur C. Clarke, talking about it so much, is what?

MATT SIEGLER: Europa, I think– I’m trying to remember the volume– is roughly times as much water as all the water on the Earth, in liquid form, underneath this ice cap. And then there may be volcanoes at the bottom of that. And a lot of theory now says that we think that the first forms of life formed in these hot subocean volcanoes on Earth.

So it could be that we have those conditions for life on Europa. And what we’re trying to figure out with the Europa Clipper mission is how that material doesn’t get back up to the surface? Does material from the surface get down into that ocean? And could we detect it without having to drill through miles and miles of ice?

Right. Brendan, it’s obvious that the US is not the only player in space. What’s going on the international launch scene? What’s going on with vehicles on other planets? Anything we should be watching out for there? For example, China has a moon lander, right?

BRENDAN BYRNE: When you look internationally, I think China is definitely something that’s extremely exciting. They’ve got a moon lander. They’ve got a Space Station in orbit, with three of their taikonauts just launched last month. They are on the station for an extended period of time. And they’re kind of putting it together.

So I think what’s happening with the Chinese Space Agency is really interesting. I also think there’s a little bit of politics at home playing into that. Seeing China as a bit of an adversary when it comes to exploration is helping us get some money here in the US for US exploration because we don’t want to be left in the dust by what they’re doing.

But also, when we talk about what we’re doing here at the US, a lot of the stuff that we’ve talked about in this segment, Ira, is because of international collaboration. Matt talked about those sample returns from Mars. That has to be done with international collaboration. One country can’t do that alone. The Artemis missions, that gateway is international collaboration as well.

So we’re seeing all these kind of countries come together and really explore our solar system like never before. It’s a really exciting time to be following space.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Let me wrap up by asking each of you, what are you looking forward to? What’s the biggest thing that excites you for the year ahead, Brendan? What is it?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Well, unlike Matt, I haven’t had any of my work leave the planet. So–


–I’m sure he’s got far more exciting things to talk about. But I think watching Artemis 1 launch, that SLS rocket, for me to be able to see something like that, that’s right here in my backyard, is going to be absolutely incredible. And I’m counting down the days for that to happen.

IRA FLATOW: You’ll feel it more than you see it–

BRENDAN BYRNE: Oh, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: –fairly correctly.

And Matt, what about you? What’s the most exciting thing for you next year?

MATT SIEGLER: Oh, there’s just so many exciting years. I mean, both the SLS and the SpaceX launches that are going to take place this year are really great. I’m sad to see the end of the InSight mission. But it was very excited to be on it. It probably will not last through this fall.

And as I said before, the Juno mission, flying right by Europa, is going to be so exciting to see. And then, Mars 2020, driving up this delta, hopefully, this year we’re going to drop off the first sample cache of material that would be brought back. But then we’re going to keep collecting more samples over the next couple of years. So there’s a lot of really exciting things this fall.

BRENDAN BYRNE: And Mercury, I’m Team Mercury. Whoo-hoo.

IRA FLATOW: OK, well, I’m writing that down right now because we’ll be back talking to both of you– how’s that– during the year and see how these things are going.



MATT SIEGLER: I would love that, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to be with us today, Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for WMFE in Orlando and hosts the Are We There Yet space program– I love that name– and Matt Siegler, research associate professor at Southern Methodist University and associate research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. Thank you both for joining us today.

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