Trash at 17,000 Miles Per Hour

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S1: It’s a Katie, this has been a sad week for the space community as we learn to the passing of Michael Collins and of course, Michael Collins was part of that original Apollo 11 crew on the mission to the moon in 1969. How well did you know him?

S2: Well, I have to say that we are we are all a family and he is an especially treasured member of that family when he was really just is was so generous to many of us, you know, even in the past weeks, sharing perspective, just like just the right perspective it there at the right time. And he’s just a very is a very special person with an astonishing career, but mostly he’s just really going to miss him.

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S1: Yeah. And it always strikes me when we have these conversations just how tight knit this community of astronauts is and how deeply knit you are with that. That experience that you all share in common

S2: was something that I think really sticks out, is, you know, for someone who was part of such an historic mission and played such a pivotal role, being that the command module pilot, the Columbia command module being in orbit around the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the moon, it was a pivotal role. And it seems like somebody like that must be so like up on this pedestal and you’d never be able to reach them. And as soon as you meet him, you can reach him. And, you know, even past that, I don’t know if, you know, he has a Twitter account.

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S1: Yeah. So actually, you were telling me about this and you should share some of this because it just actually blew my mind in terms of the humanity of Michael.

S2: Just just a few days ago, he wrote one that said, you’ve seen the world in my window. Now I want to celebrate what the world looks like through your windows. SNAP a picture of your favorite view and use the tag world in my window. Let’s celebrate the beauty in the world around us.

S1: And I find that so moving, knowing everything that we now know, especially coming out to his passing, that he was still able to inspire up until that point.

S2: And just on Earth Day just last week, I’m certain if everyone could see the earth floating just outside their windows every day would be Earth Day. There are few things more fragile or more beautiful than Earth. Let’s work together today and every day to protect our home.

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S1: What a legacy special guy.

S2: He’ll be missed. I’m Cady Coleman,

S1: and I’m Andrew Maynard.

S2: Welcome to Mission Interplanetary.

S1: On today’s episode, we’re asking, what do we do about space junk? So, Katie, you must have encountered space junk up on the International Space Station and we’re talking about the stuff outside rather than inside.

S2: Well, I was just going to say my cabin. I mean, anyone that knows me knows that my cabin was probably not a spiffy although

S1: we should we should make this clear that we’re not talking about the Cady Coleman type of space

S2: or my siblings are going to love this. And actually, you know, microgravity, having everything floating around really does impose a certain amount of discipline because, I mean, your stuff will be gone. You will never find it. But we are actually talking about a much more serious subject, which is the debris out in space. And it’s a very real part of of life up there. And also life on the ground for the people that are tracking this debris, because we can track small things and big things, of course, and living up there on the space station, certainly several times over my six month expedition. There’s a time when it’s just so hard to predict whether that debris is actually going to intersect with our path that we actually climb in our Soyuz, our rescue ship, just in case.

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S1: Right, right. And we should we’re going to get into this in the interview, but we should make it clear to people listening that that sort of space junk isn’t just bits and pieces of stuff floating around outside the International Space Station or a spacecraft. It is stuff going around the world, a bullet speeds. And I just going through my head, we had such a profligate society in terms that we use things and we throw them away. It’s just that usually your trash doesn’t come back and hit us several hundred miles an hour.

S2: Well, I mean, Andrew, it’s faster than that. And that’s the problem is the head on collision is really something. And we’re I’m being a little funny about it, but it’s a very serious business and especially as we get more crowded. Now, luckily for me, we have a guest who is very well versed in space debris this week, and that is my colleague, Mark Brown.

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S1: Yeah. And this was just such a fascinating conversation, but such an important one as well, as you say, because the more people we send up into space, the more stuff we send up, the more debris we seem to be creating. So we should we should probably move on to other obsessions and talk about our weekly obsessions for this week. Cady, beyond space junk, what have you been obsessed with?

S2: It is spring in New England. And so I have been obsessed with spring and the fact that it is so elusive and yet fascinating. I mean, my office is above the garage. I look out I live up in western Massachusetts. And last week, I mean, we had two snowstorms and a hailstorm. And I mean our magnolia tree, I mean, it was just it was filled with these white flowers. It was the most magnificent thing. And they just they actually did manage to hang in there. And the daffodils still came up. And yesterday, tulips and asparagus.

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S1: And I was going to say, you have me at daffodils. So I’m recording this sitting in Phoenix, Arizona. We do not have daffodils and I miss them so much. Coming from the UK.

S2: It is this kind of it is just spring. It is this. It’s a color like no other in the sunlight. And I don’t know. And actually when the grass is that very special green so. Right. I don’t know. It’s if you blink, you miss this special time and I just try not to blink at spring.

S1: Don’t blink.

S2: So Andrew, once again I find myself almost afraid to ask, OK, I mean, well, we’ve talked about crochet before. I think Kamala Harris crochets. Does she did you know that small. She did not tell me herself, but I did read that. So just so you know, you might have some really good company.

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S1: Everybody should crochet. But I’m not going to be talking about crochet this week.

S2: OK, I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m standing on two feet. I’m ready.

S1: So actually, I want to talk about science fiction. So I’ve just finished a series of sci fi books, which I found absolutely fascinating. So it’s a series that I suspect most people haven’t come across called Singularities Children by a British author, Toby Weston. I have moment. No, and they intrigued me because there are a series that talks about the transition of society from something similar to what we know at the moment to something that looks like a wild science fiction future because of the ways in which technologies that we’re developing at the moment evolve. And what fascinates me about this series, and it really drew me in I mean, there are four books I just read them back to back.

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S2: That’s something for you, because you’ve read a lot of science fiction.

S1: It is. But but the books are based on technologies that I work with, AI technologies such as artificial intelligence and gene editing and biotech. Nanotechnology, but but Tony Weston extrapolates these technologies that we’re developing now to look at what the future might be like as they evolve. And one thing really struck me with this. So many intriguing ideas here. And this is a

S2: is this intriguing, good or bad?

S1: Well, I don’t know. It is probably bad. But but let me sort of tell you what it is. It’s the idea that somebody could engineer a virus to make you allergic to meat proteins. So in the book, the idea was that there was this this group that really wants to transform society. So they engineered this virus. So everybody got incredibly sick until they realized that they just couldn’t eat meat. And it was a way of translating or transferring all of society over to a vegan lifestyle. And I’m reading this thinking, hey, this actually sounds plausible with existing technologies we could do at the moment. B, it would solve a lot of environmental issues and see the morals of it are really weird.

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S2: And I’m going to vote no. It’s all but this is where I don’t know. Just because we develop new technology doesn’t mean we have to take away choice

S1: C that that’s it. And that’s what makes it so interesting. Of course, this is right in my wheelhouse. This is exactly what I do. But then I thought, imagine what would happen if I’m going to go back to the idea of that that first human expedition to Mars and say, you’re on this this trip and somehow someone has brought this this virus on board. But half the males you’ve got have got meat proteins in them. The consequences could be devastating.

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S2: Totally. I’m just going to say that on our space station mission, it depends who you have on your crew. But I’ll just say that I’m a I’m a I like meat. But, you know, it was a very precious commodity on our mission. And I did a lot of very good trading.

S1: Yeah. So but so so actually, maybe the takeaway from this is we ought to start getting our astronauts to think about vegan lifestyles moving forward just in case.

S2: I think you should read book five.

S1: We’ll wait for that. OK, so we’re going to take a quick break and then we’ll be right back. Today on into Planetree, we’re asking, what do we do about space junk? Our guest is Mark Brown. Mark was an Air Force fighter pilot and NASA astronaut who flew on the Columbia and Discovery Space Shuttles. He served in several capacities in aerospace and is currently the chair at the Association of Space Explorers Committee on Space Traffic Management and Orbital Debris. Mike Brown, welcome to Interplanetary.

S3: Thank you. Andrew, great to be here.

S1: This is really exciting for me. I have two astronauts on the line with me. I mean, how cool is that?

S2: Well, to me, it feels like family dinner, you know.

S3: That’s right.

S1: So am I. Am I the gooseberry or the intellectual dessert?

S2: Right. So as humans have continued to explore, I mean, it’s so exciting that we’re seeing more and more people leaving our planet. And it’s I like to say, I mean, I used to think that space was somewhere else and we would like to go there. But then once you’ve been, you realize that actually the place that we live, the place that we call home is just bigger than we thought. It’s space belongs to all of us. And that’s actually the problem now with so many people going to space and rockets launching and there is a space debris problem. And that, Mark, I wondered if you could just give us an orientation. What does this look like and what can we do?

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S3: Right. Well, unfortunately, it’s a long answer to a short question, but

S2: you’re

S3: out. OK, let me start by framing it. The first satellite was launched in nineteen fifty seven. And so at that point nobody had to worry about traffic control for spacecraft, much like when the Wright brothers flew in nineteen three. You didn’t have to worry about banging into somebody else. Well now you fast forward to just this past year where instead of one satellite going up on one rocket, we had one hundred and forty three satellites that went up on a single rocket. And the population in space has gone from essentially one up to twenty five hundred with plans for up to thirty thousand active satellites and Earth orbit at one time. And so there is a real need for some kind of traffic control, just like we have with airplanes. Imagine today with all the airline military civil traffic flying around, if there were no rules and regulations, it would it would literally not be a safe thing to do. And we’re on the threshold of that exact same parallel in Earth’s orbit. So a lot of what we’re going to talk about is not only the methodology that you would use for consciously organizing and establishing a framework for operations, but also the other side of the picture, which is how do you deal with hazards and in this case, orbital debris as it exists in space?

S1: So, Mark, I’m fascinated with this because, of course, sort of instinctively, as somebody that hasn’t been up there, I think sort of space debris and my mind goes to everything from huge satellites to sort of chunks of metal. What are these bits and pieces look like? Are we talking about lots of mini little sort of satellites or are we told my great big chunks?

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S3: Well, I’m going to I’m going to answer in two ways. First, I’m going to tell a story, if you’ll allow me, in case probably familiar with this in nineteen ninety one, when I was on Discovery, we were going to have a close approach with a Russian rocket body that was no longer active. And we maneuvered discovery slightly so that we would not bump into each other. But I was asked by NASA to take a picture of the rocket body when it passed by the shuttle. So I duly got my Nikon film camera and went to the window and waited for the time for the rocket to go by. And I never saw a thing. So after about 10 minutes, I called Houston and said, you know what happened? And they said it went by on time. And I said, well, how fast was it moving? And they said, oh, seven kilometers a second. And so and so there were there were two things that impressed me. One is obviously they had some fun at my expense because how on earth you going to take a picture of anything moving at seven kilometers a second? And the other part of it is if an object is moving that fast and you were going to bang into it, it was not going to be a good day. So if you forward that now to the other half, the question is what constitutes what? In the business we would classify as lethal debris in lethal debris would be how big a chunk do you have to have before it will literally do severe damage to your spacecraft, whether there are people in it or it’s a communications satellite or whatever, and where in the past we only used to track objects that were 10 centimeters or larger. In other words, you know, a large softball size. We’ve now found through research that because of the speeds of a typical orbiting object is going at seventeen thousand four hundred miles per hour, that something as small as a marble is potentially lethal to a spacecraft. And so the whole problem changed dramatically when we came to that understanding.

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S1: And that that is such an important point, it seems, because it isn’t just the what we might call the weight of something if it’s on the ground, but it’s the momentum. It’s how fast it’s going, as well as how much mass it’s go.

S3: That’s exactly correct. And so then the problem becomes, OK, well, how many how many pieces of junk are there up there that fall into that category? Because now instead of just rocket bodies like like we had to deal with, you’re talking about nuts, bolts, pieces of whatever glove, food or anything. And so the computational problem that we’re faced with in the industry, instead of looking at about twenty seven thousand objects today in Earth orbit, when you use the proper definition of lethal debris, jumps that total up to about five hundred thousand objects. So just the computation of when things could bang together now becomes an enormous issue

S2: when I think it’s good to and to emphasize maybe that, you know, like I started by joining the astronaut corps in nineteen ninety two and people would say, well, what about all that space debris? And I mean it’s something that people have been conscious of for a long time, but well that’s tracked by the Air Force 10 centimeters. And everybody’s kept that picture for a long time. And it’s not until we now have better instrumentation to really understand those how many smaller pieces and that and the damage that they can do. So it’s really a different world here in the last few years.

S3: I think you’re exactly right. And there’s there’s an important point we need to make when we do that. The the military, both the United States and overseas that has tracked these objects in the past, has a different set of priorities than all the rest of us. They’re they’re worried about military applications and information that supports maintaining a safe and free world. Looking at a university research satellite, it’s not exactly very high on their list of priorities. So where they may look at their own stuff and stuff that belongs to other people on a very frequent basis, they’re not going to look at this other stuff other than maybe once every couple of weeks will be because the observations are spread out in time. The air in terms of understanding exactly where that satellite is at any given day, time and point in its orbit gets large. And often that’s referred to as the air football around the estimated position and either the poor, the quality of the radar or laser that’s used to ping the satellite or the length of time between observations causes this. Er ellipsis er football to grow, and that’s one of the major problems we’re trying to deal with.

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S1: So then how do you deal with that. So I’m beginning to get this sort of picture of space being full of stuff and we’re not quite sure where it is, which sounds incredibly scary if you’re actually going up there. How do you reduce that, that er a football if you like.

S3: Right. Well we’re very fortunate. There’s a number of commercial companies and I’m going to name one as an example called Leel Labs out of California that has a commercial business they’re developing where they’re going to track everything that’s going in orbit in order to generate high precision orbits that can then be used to do these calculations and sell that information to the actual satellite operators. Because there’s another side to this. If if you’re told that you’re about to collide with somebody else’s satellite and either one or both of you have the ability to manoeuvre, somebody should maneuver to get out of the way. I mean, that would be a real good idea because a collision at thirty thousand miles per hour is not going to make your day. So I think

S2: the other guy should move. Right.

S3: Well, and actually, we actually have a case that already one of I think it was one to Elon Musk’s satellites was about to collide with somebody else. And they tried to contact and say, hey, would you mind just changing in orbit a little bit? And quite frankly, he never responded. I mean, he is dealing with a large constellation of relatively low cost satellites. And from his perspective, losing one is no big deal. But if my satellite is a gazillion dollars satellite and he drills a hole right through it, I’m going to be a bit upset about that. So one of the things that are our association is advocating is there need to be clear rules, a clear code of conduct, to your point, Andrew, that if two people are about to collide, somebody needs to change their orbit, whatever, so that this conjunction, which is what they call it, does not occur.

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S1: And how close are we to those sort of rules?

S3: Well, I think we’re very close. We we have drafted a set that we’re disseminating within the community right now trying to stimulate this debate and discussion. And one of the reasons it’s being resisted a little bit is because right now, liability rests with the country from which a spacecraft originated. So if it’s launched from the United States and something bad happens, the United States is liable. That’s really not a workable situation. You’re talking about corporations having constellations of three thousand or more satellites. They should be liable for their own product. So if you put a system of rules and regulations in place, a code of conduct, if you will, and somebody elects not to change their orbit when they should have an a collision occurs, they become legally liable for those damages.

S1: So one thing, if I can just sort of extend this out before Kate Cady comes in, one thing that strikes me, if there is a collision, presumably this debris from that collision, do you then have to take that into account?

S3: Oh, yes. In fact, that’s one of the big problems in this near miss that occurred last October that we’re talking about. You were talking about two satellites with a combined mass of over six thousand pounds. And when these things collide, or if they had collided there close, your speed was going to be over thirty thousand miles per hour. So they they don’t vaporize and instead they shatter into a million little pieces. But most of these pieces are going to be above the lethal debris limit, all traveling now in slightly different orbits. And so you’re effectively trashing large swaths of orbit and making it unusable for other people. And it’s important point to note that we worry about this no matter what else, to these orbits have to be, because if you’re going to put a new communications satellite up in geosynchronous,

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S2: so that means like twenty two thousand miles away, really far away,

S3: but you have to pass through all these lower and intermediate altitudes to get there. So it’s a problem for everybody. It’s not just a problem for somebody down at one specific altitude.

S2: So I’m going to just say that, you know, I’ve been listening and basically it seems overwhelming, you know, that there’s there’s so much that is already up there and how to get people to agree to rules. You know what? Because if you have rules, then you have this liability. So all these questions that are hard,

S3: you’re exactly right. And I’m very encouraged because just like you said, a lot of pieces to this puzzle already exist, that the problem is somebody subadult in this process has to integrate them all together and be willing to enforce the rules. There are commercial companies out there now that are generating proper radar data that could be used to generate an ephemeris or a catalog, if you will, of everybody that’s up in orbit. So the piece that’s missing is the management oversight that will glue all this together and make all the children behave properly. My greatest fear is even though we have all the pieces to make this work, it’s going to require some kind of a minor catastrophe for everybody. Go, Oh, my God, we’ve got to do this today. We got to stop kicking this down the road and finally deal with it. But one way or the other, I think we’re getting very close to having a solution.

S1: So talking about catastrophes, we talk.

S2: He always wants to get to the moon.

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S1: I just be dying to get to this this part. So I suspect that many people listening have watched the movie Gravity. And I know we had this conversation before the show where you expressed your utter delight in this movie. But I imagine people are thinking sort of, is this what it’s like? Do you have these this sort of cloud of debris going around, just obliterating everything? Can we have these sort of runaway events or is that just typical science fiction?

S3: Yeah, let’s see. I’m going to choose my wording carefully. Some of what was depicted was very realistic. If if a debris event occurs, it it it could impact everybody in that localized area, just as it was demonstrated

S2: now, meaning that one thing breaks up. Those pieces hit something else. Those pieces hit something else.

S3: Exactly. Now, the way some of the characters responded to that issue will be for another day, but it was not a bad illustration of what potentially could occur in a very bad day.

S2: I just like to jump in here and say I did consult on the Gravity movie, but not on the physics. I was about like, what’s it like to live in space? What’s it like to be away from you?

S1: You were the Sandra Bullock standing.

S2: I know I would say stand in, but we did get to we had our cell phone number and it’s a race now. But anyway, it was actually quite fun on our crew to try to find out and talk about the things that she wanted to know about living in space. But we did not address the physics.

S3: And we’re having a little fun at Sanders expense and the movies expense. But but it was great and that it brought to light this issue for the general public.

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S1: So listening to this, I’m getting the impression from you that there is this spaghetti mess of a problem. How do you begin to pass that out? What are some of the biggest challenges to you that we need to think about in terms of how we how we come up with something which is tractable?

S3: Well, the obvious one is first you have to recognize that you have a problem. And I think we all are there. Then right after that is you have to have a central management or coordinating body. Some adult has to be in charge, whether it’s a US government agency, the United Nations or who or whatever. But for right now, let’s let’s start with the Department of Commerce, the United States. Then the next steps would be to develop your framework. And just like Kennedy said, it’s not just the radar data that you would either buy from a commercial company or from universities or from the military. You need to be able to integrate that together into a catalog or a database that everybody accepts as being credible and real and accurate. And then there needs to be a third step where you actually analyze this data and look for potential conjunctions, which is another word for collisions. Once you do that, then there’s the communications protocol where you have to be able to contact people and say, listen, you two are looking at a potential collision three days down the road. We need to now go to the code of conduct, the rules of behavior, flight rules, if you want to call it that. And somebody needs to move. And hopefully at least one of them will be able to move, the worst case would be obviously to objects for nobody to move, and then you’d have to deal with the aftermath, aftermath of the collision. So this is all very good. And then along with the code of conduct, of course, comes liability and all the rest of them. But these are all things that we can deal with in a very methodical way.

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S2: Why should ordinary people care about this problem? And I’ll actually ask it a different way, too, which is how do we get ordinary people to care about this problem or enough people to make big strides in solving it?

S3: Well, gravity, too. You need to make another movie.

S2: Well, you know, I think that’s actually I was thinking about it as we were talking. I mean, let’s say you made a movie about an event that we could predict where you needed to contact people and people had to make hard decisions together between different countries. And you basically featured that UN organization that we’re talking about acting. And people were like, yeah, we should be having one of those.

S3: Yeah. Or the worst case. Somebody had the information and just didn’t pass it along and the accident occurred. Right. Well, we can help Sandra write the script. There’s no, no, no. Yeah. And just to jump off of that, we’re going to have more people flying into space than ever before. You know, besides military and NASA, you know, we now have this huge commercial activity. So preventing loss of life in the civilian sector obviously is paramount. And then second to that would be for people down here on the ground to to lose access to the Internet, the videos, all the rest of the stuff that we just take for granted. So those are the things that we just cannot afford to be denied. So all of this is crucial.

S1: So talking about playing out, looking out, say, five years from now, Mark, what is the thing that worries you most want to you is the worst possible scenario from here?

S3: Well, to the first one would be that we would have an accident before we can get our act together. That would be truly tragic to have some kind of an impact on the International Space Station or any other manned vehicle. That would be just horrible,

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S2: even if people weren’t hurt, even if it just basically diminished the capability to do the research that we were doing

S3: up there. Correct. And and everybody should understand this kind of thing has happened before. We’ve had small debris hits on space shuttle. The Mir space station had a hole the size of a large softball through one of its solar arrays. We maneuver in the space station, I think it was 15 times in one year just to avoid these kind of conjunctions. But the other fear I have is that the government agencies, Department of Commerce that we’ve charged with stepping up to this is just not going to move fast enough to deal with a problem of this magnitude. And that’s my biggest fear

S2: when you have when you get to go to Washington and explain this to Kamala Harris and President Bush, what happened over over coffee or adult beverages? What are you going to Telemark?

S3: Well, I think we tell them just every story that we’ve just been through and and all of us in the community have had some of these firsthand experiences, like we talked about earlier, Katie, and help them appreciate this is not science fiction. This is reality. And unless you want to be dealing with a major catastrophe on your watch, you need to step up and deal with this today. Help us put these pieces together so we can feel the robust program that can then be adopted by the international community.

S1: And of course, even if you don’t have that meeting, they can always listen to the podcast. MacBride like it. Thank you for coming on to

S3: Antiplatelet and go see Gravity to start. Cady Coleman.

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S2: Mark Brown and console. There you go. And Andrew, that’s great.

S1: Thanks very much for coming on. This has been fantastic. My pleasure.

S2: Thanks so much. It’s great to talk to you. Nice to see you.

S1: On mission interplanetary, we can’t show you pictures of space

S2: podcast audio only,

S1: but we can let you hear what space sounds like

S2: in a segment we call The Sounds of Space. OK, Andrew, what was

S1: that so that Katie had to be special effects from 1960s doctor who slowed it down, it couldn’t be anything

S2: else. Can I make a call?

S1: Maybe early 1970s, somewhere around about that.

S2: A small course correction. OK, are you ready to go?

S1: Well, you know, I have no idea. I did just sounds like a cheap sci fi effects. Tell me what it is.

S2: That was the sound of Jupiter’s auroras. These auroras are just like the northern lights that you can see on Earth. And the solar wind excites gas particles in the planet’s upper atmosphere and it creates this eerie, spectacular glow. NASA’s spacecraft, Juno, recorded these radio waves during its close flyby of Jupiter in twenty sixteen. Now, this recording is actually 13 hours of data compressed into just a few seconds and shifted into an audio range that we could hear. So radio astronomers call these kmh emissions because the wavelengths are about a kilometer long. That was the sound of Jupiter.

S1: That is pretty impressive, although I have to say the doctor who crew got there first.

S2: OK, I’ll buy that. And I like Dr. Hugh

S1: thinking about this. I cannot believe that we have such a sci fi sounding sound from Jupiter. It’s actually quite incredible when you think about it. And it’s real. It’s it’s real. It’s not made up. It’s real.

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S2: Well, so those sci fi folks didn’t know what they’re talking about, cheap or not.

S1: Right? They were ahead of the time.

S2: Hey, let’s listen to it again. That’s our show for this week. Thank you so much for joining us.

S1: Mission Interplanetary is produced by Lance Ravi, sound designer and engineer is Stephen Kristiansen. Music was composed by Mario Egads.

S2: Please subscribe to us on Apple podcast Spotify. Or wherever you get your podcasts, leave us a review. Tell us what you think. Email us at Interplanetary Podcast at Asou Dot Edu and recommend us to your friends. If you don’t have friends, you could look for friends and recommend us to them.

S1: Mission Interplanetary is a production of Arizona State University’s interplanetary initiative, and Slate

S2: will be back next week asking the big questions about space exploration and the future interplanetary.

S1: We’ll see you there.