Waiting For Opportunity To Call

7:06 minutes

series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view
This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018). Credit: NASA

The Mars rover Opportunity has been exploring Mars since 2004—an almost unthinkable number of years beyond its original 90-day mission plan. But mission scientists are worried as the rover hibernates through a huge dust storm that has already engulfed more than a quarter of the red planet. If solar-powered Opportunity, which already missed one check-in call on Tuesday, remains dormant for too long, scientists are worried it will succumb to cold or other technical problems.

[What exactly is the mathematical definition of infinity?]

Rachel Feltman, science editor for Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about Opportunity’s odds and other science stories from the week, including a new weightlifting study, and the alarming decline of Africa’s giant baobab trees.

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Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow coming to you today from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. It’s been an emotional week for fans of a certain persistent explorer, and no, I am not talking about that raccoon that scaled a tower in Minnesota earlier this week. I’m talking about Opportunity, the longest running rover on Mars. Opportunity has been on the planet since 2004. It’s survived years longer than its 90-day design lifetime.

But a mammoth dust storm on Mars now threatens its continued existence. Here with an Opportunity update, plus other short subjects in science, is Rachel Feltman, senior editor for Popular Science and host of their new podcast, “The Weirdest Thing I Learned this Week.” She joins us from our studios in New York. Good to have you back, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: This rover is not the weirdest thing this week but a very sad thing. Why is it in jeopardy?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so it could have been very sad news, but for now, we’re being cautiously optimistic. As you said, Opportunity has lived a very long and productive life, so it has a lot of fans not just in NASA but around the world. And this dust storm is covering a quarter of the planet. It’s one of the biggest dust storms they have ever seen on Mars in the time that we’ve been able to observe the red planet, and the problem is that Opportunity is solar-powered and the dust is blocking out enough of the sunlight that it’s getting basically no power.

Now the dust storm has reached where Curiosity is on the other side of the planet, but Curiosity is totally fine. It has a nuclear reactor. The issue again for Opportunity is that power. So right now, it’s kind of powered down, and there was some concern because it missed a scheduled check-in last week or in this past week, and NASA announced a press conference and a lot of people thought that they were going to have very bad news.

In fact, they said that there’s no reason to be overly concerned. They think that everything is going as it should– that the rover is hunkered down and that it should survive. The primary concern is that it might get cold. It’s sister rover, Spirit, died of cold because she wasn’t getting enough power many years ago.

And Opportunity luckily is in a dust storm in the start of the Martian summer so it’s already pretty warm, and also, the dust itself is acting as a sort of insulator. So NASA can’t know exactly when Opportunity is going to wake back up and sync back with communications with Earth, but they are hoping that it’s all going to be OK.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’re all keeping our fingers crossed. Back to the bad news story. [LAUGHS] The giant baobab trees of Africa are suddenly in decline? Tell us about those trees and why we’re worried about them.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so researchers were studying the baobab trees because the oldest ones are 1,000, 2,000, 2,500 years old, and they’re all over sub-Saharan Africa. You know, in Madagascar, Zimbabwe, lots of different countries on the continent. And they’re just really– not just important pieces of the ecosystem because of how long they are part of the ecosystem, but they’re are also just really iconic. They have a lot of cultural significance.

And researchers were interested in figuring out how they grow so big– they get like 100 feet tall– and how they live so long– you know, again, they are trees that have lived for 2,500 years. And in studying them over the course of like 12 years or so, they saw an unexpected number of them start to deteriorate and die. And so they’ve come away thinking that they have actually witnessed the start of an uptick in kind of the decline of the oldest and biggest of these trees. The one bright side is that younger trees seem to be as robust as ever. It’s just a question of whether trees that historically have lived for thousands of years are going to be able to continue doing so.

IRA FLATOW: Dare I ask you to conjecture why this is happening?

RACHEL FELTMAN: So the researchers are very open about the fact that climate change is the most obvious culprit. They’re not able to say for sure, but they think that some combination of drought and just contributions to extreme weather events. You know, rains coming at the wrong time of year and not for very– you know, no rains coming for a long time after. That this might just be messing with a tree that historically has been incredibly robust and resilient.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of robust and resilient, I know there is now some good news–


IRA FLATOW: –about the best way to get stronger muscles. Tell us.


IRA FLATOW: We could all use that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Great news. So a lot of people are familiar with HIIT, or H-I-I-T, High-Intensity Interval Training, in cardio. You know, it’s short bursts of activity instead of more sustained moderate activity. And there’s been a lot of research that using this method gives you a lot of the same, if not more, of the cardiovascular benefits, weight loss benefits, et cetera of your standard cardio routine. So it’s become very popular.

And a new study came out about the same concept in weightlifting or resistance training and it really just amounts to what you would call lifting heavy. You know, choosing the weight that is the heaviest you can lift, even if you can only do it for fewer reps. And according to this kind of meta-analysis of the studies out there, that is the best way to gain more muscle, is to be pushing as hard as you can, even if you can’t get as many reps in.

The caveat there is that it doesn’t increase your endurance. So you might be able to pick up a bear but you wouldn’t be able to carry it home from the store. And there is also the worry that people who are really excited about this kind of lifting heavy are going to put themselves at a greater risk of rhabdo, which is a potentially deadly kidney failure.

IRA FLATOW: Bad news.


IRA FLATOW: So you have to do this with some trainer or somebody who knows what they’re doing if you’re going to get some advice on this.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. Right. Working with a trainer is great, and if you can’t work with a trainer, then just being reasonable about easing yourself in is important. You know, just because intensity is good doesn’t mean you should jump right into intensity that’s wildly above what you’re used to.


RACHEL FELTMAN: You know, you still need to kind of get there incrementally.

IRA FLATOW: Well I am in no risk of doing that [INAUDIBLE]. [LAUGHS] Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. Thanks for taking time to be with us again this week.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: She is also host of her new podcast, “The Weirdest Thing I have Learned this Week.”

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