SpaceX Car Launch And A Hot Getaway By Bombardier Beetles

6:56 minutes

On Tuesday, SpaceX successfully test-launched the Heavy Falcon rocket. Two of the three boosters safely landed back onto the launch pad, and the payload (Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster) made it beyond Earth’s orbit. PopSci editor Sophie Bushwick tells us what this means for future SpaceX missions. Plus, we talk about the bombardier beetle that is able to escape the stomach of predators with a mix of hot chemicals.

[We asked a bunch of 10th-graders how the 200-year-old novel “Frankenstein” fits into their modern lives. Here’s what they said.]

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is a Senior Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. SpaceX has been testing all sorts of rockets since it was founded over 15 years ago. And this week, the company launched a car, Tesla, into space with its Falcon Heavy rocket. Is this the most expensive cross-marketing campaign or what? Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science, is here to tell us what this means for SpaceX’s future, all part of a bunch of selected short subjects in science. Good to have you back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: A car in space!

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The pictures of it are amazing! This car with the Earth behind it, I mean, the best advertising in the world.

IRA FLATOW: And where is it headed? They actually launched it toward Mars? Is that where the car–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The goal was to put it in orbit around Mars, but they overshot a little bit. So now instead of going to Mars, the car and its passenger– it’s this mannequin in a space suit they call Starman– it’ll be going to the asteroid belt instead.

IRA FLATOW: You know, one of the things that struck me as someone who has grown up with the whole Space Race is the return of the boosters. I think this is a first in all of history to have two boosters returning, landing virtually at the same time.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There was something almost balletic about it, these two enormous, absolutely massive boosters just slowly landing in sync. And unfortunately, the third booster was supposed to also land on a drone ship and that one missed. But just the two that did land together was incredibly impressive.

IRA FLATOW: It’s just amazing. You know, one wonders, because we know Tesla is having trouble getting its cars built and made cheaply enough and having them sold, maybe there’s something that will leak over from the rocket factory.


IRA FLATOW: That will make them faster.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: –maybe if they make more parts of them reusable. I don’t know. I don’t know, maybe if they start trying to launch them into space more.

IRA FLATOW: That’s the delivery thing. You got it! I think we’ve figured that out.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Delivery from low-earth orbit, that would be terribly dangerous.

IRA FLATOW: Dangerous. All right. Let’s move on to something a little more serious, and that is the Arctic permafrost is melting, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So researchers have known for a while that this frozen soil in the Arctic, it covers about 25% of the land in the northern hemisphere, that it’s melting. And that as it melts, a lot of things that have been trapped in it will be released. So one of the things trapped in this soil are dead plants. When they’re frozen solid instead of decomposing, all these plants basically stay together. And it’s only now, when the permafrost is melting, that they’re starting to release the things that they hold, which is, in the case of the most recent study they found, about 32 million gallons of mercury. That’s twice as much mercury as all the mercury in all the rest of the soil and the oceans and the atmosphere of Earth combined.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s pretty toxic stuff, mercury, isn’t it?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, mercury is a neurotoxin. And it can get into the atmosphere when, for example, humans burn coal. And from there, it can get into the food chain, which is why we see mercury in fish like tuna.

IRA FLATOW: So it could actually travel from its source where it’s leaking in the permafrost to get into fish and into people’s diets.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. Right. If the mercury leaks into the water of the Arctic Ocean, for example, then ocean life could very easily take that up.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is something, unexpected consequences.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. I mean, it’s terrible. It’s not the only terrible thing happening with permafrost melting. Another thing that can happen is that you might release long frozen microbes. For example, in 2016, there was an anthrax outbreak that they think was caused when reindeer carcasses thawed. And in addition to microbes, there is greenhouse gases.

IRA FLATOW: Methane and stuff like that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. When these plants start thawing, then microbes start eating them, and they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to baseball, one of my favorite subjects. My listeners know I’m a giant baseball fan, but I found out that Babe Ruth the Bambino’s birthday was Tuesday. We knew that. We all know this from what a big home run hitter he was, but we didn’t know about his cancer treatments. We know he died of cancer, but do you have some information about those treatments he was taking?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So Eleanor Cummins, one of the writers on staff, did this amazing story about how Babe Ruth was one of the first humans to receive a treatment that’s standard today, which is the combination of chemotherapy and radiation. So at the time, the chemotherapy drug he received had only been tested in mice. It essentially went straight from mice into Babe Ruth.

And it turns out, so the type of tumor that Babe Ruth had was nasopharyngeal cancer. It started growing behind his nose. And by the time he started feeling pain and seeking treatment, it had grown all the way into the back of his neck. So it was at a very advanced stage. But with radiation therapy and this sort of cutting edge chemotherapy treatment, he lived for two more years. He lived long enough to go back to Yankee Stadium and attend a dedication ceremony. He retired his jersey. He had to lean on his bat for support, but he received a standing ovation from the crowd.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ve seen the film, and it was a big bat. And of course, it could have happened to the Babe, because he was the Babe. He got the cutting edge treatment of his day. Right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. Every advanced technique they had they were going to use to try to help him.

IRA FLATOW: Your last story’s about– well, how shall I put it? It’s a beetle that sprays hot chemical out of its butt.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s correct. So this Bombardier beetle, it sprays hot chemicals out of the tip of its abdomen to ward off predators. And researchers knew that, but they’ve just found out that one species of beetle can do this inside a frog’s stomach and make the frog vomit it back up. And the beetle can survive, so some of these beetles survived. After an hour and a half in a frog’s stomach, they survived being vomited back up.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You think this is a meme now? People are going to try this with other toads and frogs and things.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They’re actually planning to. They want to see if other animals could eat these beetles and see if the beetles could survive a trip into that digestive tract as well.

IRA FLATOW: And do we know, is there a follow up? I mean, besides trying it with other beetles. I mean, is there something to be learned about how you can survive inside a frog’s stomach so long or?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Ah, that’s actually a really interesting thought. I’m not sure. I think that the trick is that if you make a nuisance of yourself before an animal tries to eat you and after an animal tries to eat you, maybe you’re still going to make it out of there alive.

IRA FLATOW: I guess the beetle has evolved to do this, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Oh, absolutely. So we’re not sure if every species of beetle can do this. This is a particular species, but they probably evolved this technique to deter predators outside. And then the fact that they could also use it to survive inside the belly of these animals is–

IRA FLATOW: I’ve seen the video. It’s just– [LAUGHS].

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s crazy. The researchers can hear a popping noise when the beetle is inside the frog. And they’re like, OK, that’s the spray that’s about to be vomited up.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you have to see it. And thank you, Sophie, for giving us something this weekend to look at.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You’re very welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science.

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