Space-X Booster To Hit The Moon, After Years Of Hurtling Through Space

12:14 minutes

a rocket launching on a bright sunny day, with a marsh in the foreground
A SpaceX launch at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Shutterstock

A Space-X rocket booster is on track to slam into the moon, which scientists predict will happen on March 4. The rocket was originally launched in 2015 to deploy a space weather satellite. Now, it’s a piece of space junk that’s been caught in limbo for the past seven years.  

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Miles O’Brien to talk about that and other science stories of the week, including implications of Russian cyber warfare, climate scientist Lisa Goddard’s legacy, a Lego robot with an “organic” brain, and everlasting bubbles

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

MILES O’BRIEN: This is Science Friday. I’m Miles O’Brien. I’m guest hosting this week for Ira Flatow. You might know me as the science correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.

A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about the plight of Florida’s manatees and the work being done to reverse their bad fortune. But first, part of a SpaceX rocket is on track to slam into the moon. Scientists predict the booster will collide with the moon in just a few weeks.

The rocket was originally launched in 2015 to deploy a space weather satellite. Now it’s a piece of space junk that’s been caught in limbo for the past seven years. Joining me now to talk about this and other science stories of the week is Sophie Bushwick, Technology Editor at Scientific American, based in New York City.

Sophie, welcome back to Science Friday. Thanks for being here.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right, Sophie, why is this rocket, which has been orbiting for seven years, now on a collision course with the moon?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this is the upper stage of a SpaceX rocket. And typically when this type of rocket launches, the stage will have enough fuel left to push it back down towards the Earth. But what happened in this case is it was launching a space observatory pretty far, and so it didn’t have enough fuel left. So it ended up moving into this big looping orbit around Earth, where it sort of passed the orbit of the moon.

And so as it’s moving, it’s been pushed on by the gravitational force of Earth, of the moon, of the sun, and even sunlight is actually able to push on this object as well. And so amateur astronomers have calculated that its orbit is on a course to intersect now with the moon. And they think that it’s going to smash into the far side of the moon in March, and that it’s going to possibly leave a crater as much as 65 feet across that will be visible from some of the satellites that are orbiting the moon.

MILES O’BRIEN: Very interesting. Well, how big a deal will that be when it hits the moon? Would it actually disrupt the moon’s orbit potentially?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the good news is this is not a doomsday scenario. The moon is going to be just fine. It’ll keep moving in its orbit. This object, though, will leave evidence that it’s passed. So spacecraft have crash landed on the moon before, but usually that’s because they were trying to land on the moon, trying to land there safely. I think this is the first time we’ve got an accident of this kind happening. And it’s going to give scientists a chance to study what happens when this type of object crashes into the moon, I think.

And India has a satellite orbiting the moon that’ll be able to take images of this. NASA will be able to take images of this. So we’ll be able to get an idea of what this looks like, what the impact, literal and scientific impact, of this kind of event is, and to learn a little bit more about this type of crash.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right. Let’s continue on the subject of collisions. This one is a little more closer to terra firma, I’ll put it that way. Tensions mounting on the border of Russia and Ukraine, we all know about that. But less visible is this cyber war that is burgeoning as we speak. Tell us what’s going on.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Russia has a history of using cyber attacks and also there have been attacks that Russia has denied responsibility for but that security experts say can be traced back to hacking groups based there. So Russia and Ukraine have been having this conflict since 2014. And there have been occasions when Russian hackers have knocked out Ukraine’s electric grid. Most recently, hackers have defaced government websites in Ukraine. And there’s also a history of using malware attacks against Ukraine.

But one of the issues is– so, for example, NotPetya, which was one of these malware attacks, seemingly started as an attack against just one country, but it’s spread. And it ended up impacting a lot of other– a lot of companies, a lot of countries, that were not even close. So it sort of shows how cyber warfare, it’s not limited geographically. It can really spread out across the world in a way that we’re not used to from physical traditional warfare.

MILES O’BRIEN: And it’s very asymmetric, of course. This could change the nature of war itself, couldn’t it?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. It’s a completely other front. It’s the ability to attack a nation economically and to use intimidation without ever having to put boots on the ground. But at the same time there are limitations. So it’s possible for Russia to use cyber attacks against allies of Ukraine. But if it does, it could face push-back.

So if Russia were to attack the US, the US could say this is an act of war and we’re going to respond in kind. It’s unclear how much of an effort is going to be put towards deliberate attacks on, say, infrastructure versus more subtle use of cyber attacks, like trying to spread misinformation campaigns.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for something a little more fun. How about that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I wouldn’t mind something a little bit lighter.

MILES O’BRIEN: We need a light moment here. OK, researchers have developed an organic computer chip that they’ve implanted into a LEGO robot. Tell us, first of all, what is this chip made of?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: For a couple of decades now, researchers have been interested in a type of chip called neuromorphic. So this is a chip that’s designed to function kind of like the way the human brain functions. So the human brain is a little thing, right? It fits right inside your head. It’s not nearly the size of like a supercomputer, but it’s still capable of doing these incredible calculations and reasoning, and doing so very quickly.

So researchers have been trying to develop kinds of chips that are structured sort of like a circuit of neurons. And in this case, these researchers have made such a chip out of these polymers. So it’s an organic material. They behave in some ways like neurons, and they can still carry a charge. So you’re able to have this electronic circuit made out of organic materials. And it’s capable of learning things.

So to really put it to the test, researchers used a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit, which you can use to make robots. And instead of having the standard controller, they used their neuromorphic controller to control this robot. And then they dropped it in a maze to see if it could learn to navigate it.

MILES O’BRIEN: How does it learn?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this maze, it’s structured sort of like a honeycomb, like a bunch of hexagons. So it’ll travel a short distance, and then it’ll hit a branch where it could go either left or right. So it was designed to always turn in one direction. But sometimes if it kept making that same turn, it would hit a sidewall or it would end up back where it started. And when that happened, the researchers would give it a tap or it would physically impact the sidewall. And so those touches sent a message to the chip that said that’s the wrong direction. And it learned, oh, when I get to this intersection, I’m going to turn the other way.

And so by trial and error, by learning at each time it turned wrong that it made a mistake, it managed to slowly learn. It took it about 16 tries to complete a full run of the maze, but it finally did it.

MILES O’BRIEN: It would be cool if you could teach a LEGO to get out of the way of a bare parent’s foot as they’re walking in their kid’s room. Because if you’ve done that, you know how painful that can be, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I think if scientists came up with something to protect bare feet from LEGOs, they would be absolutely eligible for a Nobel Prize. I mean, I would want to see it happen.

MILES O’BRIEN: Absolutely. I’m voting for that one.

All right. Let’s talk also about some kid stuff, seemingly, bubbles. Kids love bubbles, blowing bubbles. We all enjoy that. Scientists, however, have figured out a way to make them stay intact. I mean, there’s nothing more ephemeral than a bubble, right? But maybe not anymore. Tell us about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Researchers have recorded the lifetimes of a few different kinds of bubbles. And as you would expect, a soap bubble does not last very long. But they’re talking about a type of bubble, called a gas marble, where instead of having the outer shell be made out of a soapy water solution, it’s got these little tiny plastic beads in it that make it stronger. And they took one particular type of this bubble, where it was a mix of water, a substance called glycerol, and these plastic beads, and they wanted to see how long it lasted.

Well, it lasted 465 days, which is a world record for that type of object.

MILES O’BRIEN: Who knew there were bubble researchers like this? Tell us how this happened in the first place.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So researchers are really interested in bubbles. Because you’ve got this pocket of gas or air, and then it’s surrounded by an extremely thin shell. In a soap bubble, that little bit of liquid can be only a couple microns thick, and it can still keep the inner parts separate from the air outside. And so there’s all sorts of interest in using bubbles to make up foams or as even detectors for gases.

And these particular researchers had been looking into this gas marble type of bubble for a while. And because it’s so strong, they think that there could be kinds of novel applications for it. And even if it’s not in bubble form, if you use this stuff that makes up the bubble as a basis for a foam or a film, they think it could have other applications as well, because it is much stronger than you’d expect from something that’s just little pieces of plastic with water and glycerol.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s interesting. This was serendipitous. Like a lot of great science, penicillin, corn flakes, Vaseline, all serendipity. In this case, a pleasant accident in the lab, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. A graduate student was studying this film with little teeny plastic beads floating in the surface of a solution. And she dipped a wire frame into it. So sort of like the loop that you use to blow bubbles, that you can get these little plastic bubble wands. When she pulled it up, she created a gas marble, which was this cool new type of bubble. It was strong. It could be rolled along a surface. It could be put under pressure in the hand.

MILES O’BRIEN: Did she say “Eureka”? [LAUGHTER]

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That I don’t know

MILES O’BRIEN: All right. Unfortunately, now we’ve got to take it in another direction. This is a sad note to mention to everyone.

We lost an important scientist this week. Climate scientist Lisa Goddard died this week. And lots of contributions. What would you say her biggest contribution to the field of climate science was?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Lisa Goddard worked in this in-between space that when she started researching it, it was not commonly studied. So a lot of people study weather events, like day-to-day weather. And then there was researchers who studied the long-term impacts of climate change and how it would change Earth 50 or 100 years down the line. But Dr. Goddard specialized in looking in between those two, at short-term events, at being able to predict whether there’s going to be a drought next season, if there’s a flood coming, these extreme weather events that are actually incredibly important for day-to-day function, but that don’t really fall into the realm of daily weather or of that long-term climate prediction.

And she also was really great at communicating her findings, at helping governments learn how to track these events and setting up programs to study them and to focus on what the needs of different regions are. So a region that’s subject to drought might not necessarily have to worry about floods. So you know, their predictive model is going to focus on one type of weather event rather than the other.

MILES O’BRIEN: What a great legacy. Our condolences to her family. May she rest in peace.

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you, Sophie.


MILES O’BRIEN: Sophie Bushwick is Technology Editor for Scientific American.

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About Shoshannah Buxbaum

Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

About Miles O’Brien

Miles O’Brien is a science correspondent for PBS NewsHour, a producer and director for the PBS science documentary series NOVA, and a correspondent for the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE and the National Science Foundation Science Nation series.

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