07/24/2020

Three Missions To Mars

11:16 minutes

an illustration of a satellite with three solar panelled wings in orbit above mars
The UAE Mars Orbiter “Hope.” Credit: United Arab Emirates

This month, three different countries are launching missions to Mars—the first for The United Arab Emirates, China is sending an orbiter and a rover, and NASA’s Perseverance will join the Curiosity rover already on the ground. Amy Nordrum from MIT Technology Review talks about the science that each of these missions will be conducting. 

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll explore campfires on the Sun, and help fact-check your COVID news feed. But first, this week, the Chinese entered what’s turning out to be a Mars marathon, launching their rover and orbiter to the red planet. It’s set to arrive next February.

But wait, there’s more, as Amy Nordrum, Editor at MIT Technology Review, is here to tell us about it. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: This Chinese launch is just one of three, right?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. We’re in the middle of three launches this month, to Mars. United Arab Emirates launched their mission on Sunday. China followed with its mission yesterday. And NASA is set to launch its mission on July 30.

And all these missions are distinct. The UAE sent an orbiter that will move around Mars, called Hope. It has a special camera and two spectrometers. And it will focus on studying the composition of the atmosphere, and the famous dust storms that Mars is known for.

And China sent an orbiter, a lander, and a rover to Mars. It could be the second nation ever to land on the surface of Mars. And those missions are expected to arrive there sometime around the start of next year.

IRA FLATOW: The Chinese, I know maybe could have predicted they’d be sending an orbiter or a lander to Mars. But the United Arab Emirates? What are they in this for?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, they are a newcomer, and really pulled this together quite quickly. It’s just a few years ago they started their space program. And I think they approached it in a smart way. They relied on a lot of international collaboration to put this mission together.

They launched atop a Japanese rocket, from a Japanese space center. And they worked with a number of collaborators at universities here in the United States to design their spacecraft. So it was like a startup, to really reach out and find the resources available to them and put together a pretty-impressive mission.

IRA FLATOW: So Mars is going to get pretty crowded after a while.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Yeah, it’s a particularly good time to go to Mars. Mars and Earth are closer than usual right now. It’s a little bit easier– relatively easier to get there. And those launch windows coming up about once every two years or so.

So Europe also has a Mars mission in the works, but they had to delay theirs until the next window, which will be sometime in 2022.

IRA FLATOW: So Perseverance will be NASA’s second rover on the ground, right? At the same time, we’ll have a couple.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. NASA’s sending the Perseverance mission, launching later this month. They’re sending a rover to explore a particular crater there, that scientists think once had an ancient river flowing through it. And they’ve also put a little helicopter on-board for the mission. It’s called Ingenuity. It’s going to try to make a flight on Mars as well. It won’t go far, but it’ll be a kind of a neat technology demonstration if it does work.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to your next story. It’s a bit of a microbial mystery. Scientists find microbes that eat metal. It sounds kind of interesting.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, it is. Caltech researchers have discovered two new types of bacteria, that can metabolize manganese. So that’s a metal commonly found in nature, usually combined with other stuff. And these bacteria use manganese to convert carbon dioxide to biomass– so essentially, to make more of themselves.

And there are other bacteria that are known to metabolize iron, which is another metal. But these are the first to do with this particular kind of metal, which as you say, is kind of neat.

IRA FLATOW: Is this the first time that we have found microbes that eat metal?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, there are microbes that do the same process, called chemosynthesis, with iron. But this one– these are the first to do it with this particular metal, called manganese. And the researchers found this bacteria in drinking water. And they think that it could help explain clumps of manganese oxide that are often found in municipal water drinking systems. It’s a kind of black goo that can build-up and plug pipes. And it results from this process of chemosynthesis, that the new bacteria go through. But it’s not thought to be harmful in any way.

IRA FLATOW: Were they looking for this, or were this some sort of discovery they made while they were looking for something else?

AMY NORDRUM: This was an accidental discovery. There was a researcher who had filled a container that had a substance containing manganese in it with water and just left to soak, because it was tough to get the substance off. And then he came back and he saw this goo had built-up. And he was wondering what had happened, and suspected that there might be microbes at work with this process of chemosynthesis. So when he took a closer look, he indeed found several.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. Let’s go on to his study that looks at the carbon footprint of households in the US. What did they find there?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, researchers from the University of Michigan this week published this very-large analysis of carbon emissions associated with millions of individual US homes. And they were trying to answer questions, like, what kinds of homes emit more greenhouse gases, and where in the United States homes use the most energy. And they basically found that some of the biggest drivers of emissions associated with your home are the size of your home, which you might expect, but also the climate that you’re in and the age of your home.

So older homes tend to emit more. And homes in the Northeast, for example, which require a lot of heating, also emit more than homes in even the South– where there is a lot of air conditioning. But that’s not necessarily as energy-intensive an activity.

They did find that homes in certain regions, especially in the Northeast that require more heating and are perhaps older, were more energy-intensive than those in other areas. And they also looked at trends based on income. So they found that the carbon footprint, for example, of wealthier Americans is about 25% higher on average than low-income residents. A lot of that has to do with the size of the home, and perhaps the age of the home, to some extent, as well.

And so that that’s interesting. Because here in the US, we’re already one of the highest-per-capita emitters compared to other countries throughout the world. But there’s also these large disparities within the US between who is emitting more or less.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm, that’s interesting. Does this tell us something about how the US can reduce its carbon footprint?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, they were looking at this bigger question of decarbonizing the electrical supply– so whether we could move toward renewable sources of energy, and then perhaps get closer to some of the goals with emissions reductions– for example, that the Paris Agreement spoke to. And so they found that decarbonizing the electrical supply would be a very important step in that direction, but couldn’t get us all the way there. So we’d have to do more beyond just the residential sector to really achieve some of those goals. So we’d have to address things like transportation and industrial building stock as well.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, those are some big numbers there to be had. Let’s move on to your next story, . About tiny cameras for blood vessels.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that. Yeah.

AMY NORDRUM: Researchers in Australia and Germany this week reported what they say is the world’s smallest imaging device. So this is an endoscope, which is a medical tool or camera that physicians can use to look inside of organs and other parts of the body.

And this particular one that they made can fit inside of an artery, where it can help physicians look around for plaque and try to figure out whether you have harmful plaque, or a plaque that’s OK built-up in there. So they made this tiny, tiny endoscope, by using a 3D printer that can print really small stuff right on top of an optical fiber. So it’s no thicker than a human hair.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re not going to send this into the body, are they? They’re just going to explore around? Or does it have a defined purpose, I’m supposing?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s only been tested in mice so far. Their hope is that this would be a medical tool that physicians would use on human patients someday. But right now there’s only one printer like it in the world that can make this particular device. And so it’s a proof of concept. And they would need to scale-up their manufacturing abilities. But they do think that this kind of tool would be really useful in helping physicians figure out where to place a stent, for example, or how at-risk certain patients are for heart disease or heart attacks.

IRA FLATOW: That is quite interesting, because we find all kinds of secondary uses for these kinds of cameras. You build it for one thing. And it shows up somewhere else, when someone says, hey, I’ve got a great use for that.

AMY NORDRUM: Right. I mean, it could end-up in Mars someday. We don’t even know.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: I like the way you’re thinking. Let’s talk about in Germany. There is a giant scientific instrument buried under the ground. It sounds like something from “The Avengers,” or a comic book. Tell us about it. Yeah, this instrument is called a ring laser. It’s the only kind like it in the world. And it’s named [? Roni. ?]

It’s really a collection of four lasers and mirrors that are used to point the lasers in a kind of inverted-triangle shape– and then photodetectors that measure changes in the path of the lasers that are caused by outside forces. So this was built really to help seismologists measure rotational forces that are associated with earthquakes. And it’s been doing that for the last couple of years.

But this week, geophysicists reported that it can also apparently help research in another area, involving the measurement of the rate of the Earth’s rotation and the position of the Earth on its axis. So it can pretty accurately measure these two things. And they’re hoping that eventually this data could help us, for example, make GPS measurements more accurate– which I think we would all welcome.

IRA FLATOW: So how accurate is our measurement of the rotation of the Earth now? And how much better might it be? Well, it could make it, they say, quite a bit better. But it would require some improvements to the device itself. Right now it’s, I think, about 100 times less accurate than it could conceivably be.

And so they’re hoping that they can make some improvements. They’ll need additional funding to do that to the system. But this test at least showed that it is possible. And with those improvements, I think it could make our measurements more accurate than they currently are today.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about another story you’re working on. And that is a team of scientists built an uncuttable material.

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: This sounds so geeky. I mean, you know, hey, let’s just sit around and– hey, let’s build something that’s uncuttable. We haven’t done that before.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s a cool idea.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you do it just because it’s cool, right?

AMY NORDRUM: You could imagine ways this might be useful. They had one case in particular that I found interesting. Having had a few bikes stolen, they think it could make really strong bike locks, perhaps.

But yeah, these materials engineers and researchers in Europe have designed this material that can’t be cut using traditional saws or blades, or even high-pressure water jets. It’s made from ceramic grains that are formed into spheres and placed inside of an aluminum mesh.

And even though the materials they use to build this are pretty cheap and not that strong on their own, it was able to hold its own against methods that could be used to cut much stronger materials, like steel. And this material they made is much less dense and lighter. So they’re hoping that it could be useful for a number of different applications.

IRA FLATOW: You know what’s going to happen, right? Now that word gets out that we have built an uncuttable material, the race is on to prove them wrong.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it very well could end up someday being cut by something. So they were careful not to say it’s impossible to cut. But so far, they haven’t found any way of cutting through this material that they built.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Amy. Always a pleasure.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, Editor at MIT Technology Review.

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