In a rare moment of weakness, Pamela has decided she’s open to the possibility that a future exists. That missions, telescopes and spacecraft are going to be built and they’re going to do some science. Today we’ll talk about what we’re looking forward to before she changes her mind and ruins Fraser’s naive optimism for the future.
Dream Chaser Spaceplane (Sierra Nevada Corporation
Rubin Observatory (LSST)
Ariane 5: The Heavy Launcher (Arianespace)
Vulcan Centaur (ULA)
Soyuz: The Medium Launcher (Arianespace)
PODCAST: Ep. 554: Big Telescope Controversy in Hawai’i (Astronomy Cast)
Rise of the Super Telescopes: The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (Universe Today)
Here’s the Extremely New Website for the Extremely Large Telescope (Universe Today)
The Orion Molecular Cloud Complex – Facts (The Planets)
IMAGE: Star-Forming Region in the Carina Nebula (Hubblesite)
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)
GRAIL (Ebb and Flow) (NASA)
Chang’e-5: China’s Moon sample return mission (The Planetary Society)
Tianhe, the core of the Chinese Space Station (The Planetary Society)
The Luna-Glob lander (Russian Space Web)
Space Launch System (NASA)
New Glenn (Blue Origin)
What’s Next for Blue Origin After Today’s Successful Flight? (Universe Today)
Moon Village (ESA)
International Space Station (NASA)
Top astronomy events to get excited for in 2022 (Accuweather)
Total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024 over Mexico, the United States, and Canada (Great American Eclipse)
Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services
Fraser: Astronomy Cast, Episode 630, what we’re looking forward to. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, a weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of CosmoQuest.
Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Dr. Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser: I have never been so happy to have seasonal allergies.
Dr. Gay: Beg pardon?
Fraser: I’ve never been so happy. Just never. Like, the fact that it is so warm outside that plants are blasting their pollen out and it’s getting into my eyes and it’s causing me to take Claritin is just absolutely wonderful. It means that hope is around the corner.
Dr. Gay: I’m gonna have to remember that. We’re still about three inches deep in snow, which is not bad. And it’s quite pretty. It’s just enough to hide all the lawns and we have deer tracks across the front yard.
Fraser: Yeah. But your body trying to, I guess – I’m not sure how seasonal allergies work – freak out about these foreign particles entering your airstream and your eyeballs is a sign of hope and freedom. So, I’m excited.
Dr. Gay: I love that.
Fraser: Yeah. In a rare moment of weakness, Pamela has decided that she’s open to the possibility that a future exists. That missions, telescopes, and spacecraft are going to be built. And they’re going to do science today. We’ll talk about what we’re looking forward to before she changes her mind and my naïve optimism for the future.
So, Pamela, you’ve come around to this idea that the future is real. That spacecraft may or may not be built and may or may not do science. That telescopes could possibly be completed and begin doing science. This –
Dr. Gay: Sort of.
Fraser: Sort of. All right. Well, then, you know what? This is gonna be a caveat-filled – where you – let’s just say, like, let’s just get a write-out right now. Can you just give us your great big caveat now and then we can just act as if for the rest of this episode?
Dr. Gay: So, in general, spacecraft remain dead to me until they have launched and functioned and demonstrated they’re functioning correctly. I’m fully happy, though, to dream about things on the ground. But occasionally, it’s nice to get excited about potential spacecraft. So, we’re gonna do a little bit of both today. And this isn’t the, “What to look forward in 2022.” This is the, “What big things are we spending our money on now,” kind of look at across astronomy.
Fraser: Okay. Have you got it out of your system?
Dr. Gay: I think so.
Fraser: Okay. No more caveats. Now, we just embody this beautiful future of success and astronomy and great things accomplished by teams. And the science is flowing and we’re looking back with just enthusiasm and excitement at what happened, right?
Dr. Gay: Okay.
Fraser: You ready?
Dr. Gay: Yeah.
Fraser: All right. What are you looking forward to? It’s okay.
Dr. Gay: Dream Chaser.
Fraser: Dream Chase – what? You picked a spacecraft. Of all the things you’re looking forward to, you picked a spacecraft. Okay. Fine. Then, I’ll entertain it.
Dr. Gay: So, everyone’s heard me talk about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope which has been renamed to the Large Survey in Space and Time. But Dream Chaser’s just plain cute. And in the current world, we need more cute. And I’m just excited that this little thing that I thought would never happen again not only looks like it’s gonna happen again, but looks like it’s going to allow humans to launch from French Guiana. That’s a spaceport that people just haven’t taken off from before.
So, yeah. This is a little, tiny space plane. It was originally designed to launch either atop an Ariane or a Vulcan rocket. And with the Vulcan, it is currently checked out – or designed, I guess, is a better phrase – to launch just hanging out on the top of the rocket, being a little space plane just plugged in the way you plug in a capsule. It looks like with the Ariane, they may be, instead, launching it inside of giant fairings. But this is a spacecraft that can carry cargo and/or humans – up to seven of them – up to the International Space Station. And the way they phrase this is what has me excited, is they said it can land on any commercial runway.
Fraser: So, not, as very specially built extra-long runway like the space shuttle. So, it’s like a mini space shuttle, but it’s only job is to carry humans to and from the International Space Station.
Dr. Gay: Or cargo.
Fraser: Or cargo, right.
Dr. Gay: So, they’re actually hoping to launch the cargo version in 2022. And in the future, build towards getting human certification for a slightly different variant. It lands entirely autonomously. And so, this, to me, is like the much more interesting future for commercial space flight, for sending scientists up and down to run experiments. It’s strictly lower Earth orbit, but it can go higher than the International Space Station.
So, this opens up the whole Bigelow hotel in space future with a nice friendly space plane that is far easier on the human body for landing, and less terrifying to me than a parachute.
Fraser: And I was about to ask you what advantage does this provide over the safe and sound, tried and true capsule. And then you said it, which is the landing.
Dr. Gay: Yeah. And so, the thing you have to think about is with capsules, you have to land them in large, wide open places. Different nations take different approaches. SpaceX is currently dumping humans into oceans. That’s a little squirrely to me. It works. They’re doing it consistently, but we’ve had one capsule back in, I believe it was the Gemini era, that dumped itself back down to the bottom of the ocean.
So, with this one, that whole idea that they can land anywhere a commercial airplane can land means that if something goes wrong and you need to put down in Morocco, you can. I don’t know why you would do that. But it just opens up a whole world of possibilities and also makes me start thinking about that future where you can have suborbital travel in a more realistic way. Launch like a rocket, land like an airplane.
Fraser: Yeah. Like, when you think about, say, the SpaceX Crew Dragon, you’ve got a fairly large capsule sitting on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It flies to the International Space Station. The astronauts get out. They get into the – and then, when it’s time to come home, they get into this thing. They plummet through the atmosphere and they land out in the ocean. And as you said, there’s some risks there.
Or, if they go in a Soyuz, then they land in the steppes of Kazakhstan with a very hard bounce. Like, that landing, it sounds quite terrifying.
Dr. Gay: And there’s bear.
Fraser: Yeah, right, of course. There’s bears around. So, with this, you get in the spacecraft and then it autonomously flies back to the Earth and lands on a runway right beside Cape Canaveral. And then, you hop out and wave to everybody, just like the space shuttle. But it doesn’t have all the additional stuff. This is what the space shuttle could have been if they’d focused on just how do we make a reasonable space plane to take people to space. And I agree with you a hundred percent. It is a terrific idea. And it looks awesome.
Dr. Gay: And it’s something that we’ve been talking about doing. And builds on a long history of things developed with NASA funding over decades where it just felt like all of those prior missions that the whole X series of little space planes they developed down at Johnson was just gonna get dead-ended. But now, we have, admittedly, the spy series version that we know very little about, frustratingly.
But now, we’re also looking at having a human version. And that’s just super exciting.
Fraser: Yeah, that’s awesome. All right, Pamela. I’m stoked. You’ve got me and the rest of the audience excited. What else are you looking forward to?
Dr. Gay: So, the next big thing is one that isn’t going to come along as planned. And this is the idea of having a northern and southern hemisphere pair of truly massive telescopes. One of these they’ve broken ground on. The other, not so much. So, we’re looking at, in the southern hemisphere, the Extremely Large Telescope. And in the northern hemisphere, it was supposed to be the 30 meter telescope. But the 30 meter telescope they decided to build in a place where the people did not want it built. We’ve done entire episodes on that. Go follow up on those.
We’re now going to, instead, be excited about that Extremely Large Telescope that is totally under construction. And in the image that those of you watching the video can see and all the rest of you can go get on astronomycast.com, there are little, tiny humans in this image that look kind of like ants. Because the building for this telescope is so big.
Fraser: So, this is the European Extremely Large Telescope. It’s the follow-on to the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. Go ahead, make the jokes. They cancelled Overwhelmingly Large Telescope.
Dr. Gay: I was so excited about that name.
Fraser: I know. Me, too. A hundred meter telescope. But anyways, but this is a 37 meter telescope.
Dr. Gay: The secondary is over 4 meters. The secondary is over 4 meters.
Fraser: That’s crazy. Due for construction. Should be complete, what? 2026? So, we’re still, maybe, only four years away from this telescope coming online. What will it be capable of doing?
Dr. Gay: It’s going to be able to make images taken by the Hubble space telescope look sad and pathetic. I really don’t know any other good way to describe it because it has significantly higher resolution if they’re able to get the adaptive optics working as well as they hope they can get them working. It has 256 times the light-gathering capacity. So, they’re gonna be able to see a tiny bit fainter, you might be able to say. And 16 times sharper. So, we’re going to be able to start to better define what are the structures of galaxies hosting quasars? What are the fine details in star-forming regions?
We’re going to be able to see fainter things and higher angular resolution. And this is going to turn so many currently fuzzy blobs on the sky into more than fuzzy blobs. And that allows better science. And I’m just excited about this. And it’s not just the Extremely Large Telescope that’s looking to do this. There’s also the Magellan Giant Telescope, which is also in the southern hemisphere. And both telescopes are taking slightly different approaches where the Magellan Giant Telescope is a series of giant mirrors that were cast individually. Nice, big, old round giant mirrors. The Extremely Large Telescope is taking the many, many hexagonal mirrors approach.
Getting multi-mirror systems to work is really hard. So, I think using two different approaches gives us a chance of getting one of them working, short term. Both of them working, long term. Because you can fix things you build on the surface of the planet.
Fraser: And I think that with the Very Large Telescope, we mentioned that. That these are really a precursor and pathfinder. They’ve been testing out. They’re phenomenal telescopes. Really, the biggest telescope in the world. But they’ve added a lot of instruments recently, designed to figure out what will be needed for the Extremely Large Telescope. So, you’ve got the SPHERE instrument, you’ve got the ESPRESSO instrument. These are designed to reveal planets forming around newly forming star systems, to be able to reveal planets.
You scale that to the next level, just as an example of its capability, the Extremely Large Telescope will be able to see Earth-sized worlds – just directly observe – Earth-sized worlds orbiting sun-like stars far away from us. And we’ve never had that ability before. And this is gonna be the telescope that will bring that capability online. That if we find a planet that we wanna look at, the Extremely Large Telescope will be able to just look at it.
Dr. Gay: And this is one of those things that makes me super grateful that one of the best star-forming regions for exploration is the Orion star-forming region in the sky. Basically, the entire Orion constellation, which is out this time of year and visible from both hemispheres – that’s the key piece of information, here – it’s one of the best places to study star formation. We also have the Carina star-forming region which is down in the southern hemisphere.
Because both Magellan and Extremely Large Telescope are going to be southern hemisphere and construction of the 30 meter telescope, which was one of the last big things we covered at the American Astronomical Society meeting back in 2020, it’s still not going anywhere.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah. Maybe it’s gonna happen in the Canary Islands.
Dr. Gay: Yes.
Fraser: Probably. But it’s not as good a site as Hawaii. But we’ve talked about this, that Hawaii has some issues right now. So, all right, Pamela. Cool spacecraft, exciting telescope. What else are you excited about?
Dr. Gay: It looks like we’re going to start having a human presence in space that involves more and more nations. And it looks like all this chatter about getting back to the moon might actually culminate in getting back to the moon. This is stuff we’ve been hearing – Gen Xers, since we were in middle school, and Clementine went up and started making its observations. And it’s felt a little bit closer, over time, where we’ve seen LRO doing all of its amazing work. There was GRAIL. There’s been all the Chandrayaan missions to the moon. The Chinese have sent mission after mission and are currently roving away on the far side.
Fraser: Well, they have astronauts on their – they have a space station with astronauts.
Dr. Gay: Yeah. China has astronauts on their space station. And it looks like India’s gearing up to get human certified rockets going to be able to launch in India. I already mentioned iSSA is looking to be able to launch using the Dream Catcher. And Russia has announced that they are returning to the moon not with humans, yet, but they’re going to be sending the newest in their Luna series. This is Luna 25. And Luna 25 is going to go and land in the South Pole. And have you watched For All Mankind at all?
Fraser: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Dr. Gay: The whole idea that we’re looking at Russians and Americans going back to the South Pole of the moon brings that series back a little bit too strongly for me.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Gay: But I’m really hoping that scientists will, as they have so often done across the entire space race, will find ways to collaborate and get the science out to the entire world. Because, well, knowledge is for everyone. And, yeah. So, I’m looking forward to that. And I don’t know if looking forward is the right word or not, but I’m hoping for the bandage to get ripped off on the SLS Project, where it either works and we just go all in and admit it’s gonna be $2 billion a launch or it fails spectacularly while harming nobody. And the program just gets cancelled. I want one or the other. Please give me one or the other, that’s all I want.
Fraser: But the thing is, right now, we have choices. So, the space launch system, we should see the first launch, the Artemis 1 launch, in a few months from now. We’re close to seeing the first Artemis mission go. It’s gonna go around the moon, recreate Apollo 8. It’s gonna release a solar sail that’s gonna go and study an asteroid. So, that’ll be exciting.
And then, we’re gonna see the first people jump on board, probably 2024.
Dr. Gay: See, you’re of the opinion that we’re gonna go all in on this one.
Fraser: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, I guess where I was going with this is that even if this doesn’t work, even if it looks like, okay, yeah. Spending all the development cost and that we’ve got the Starship coming from SpaceX. And if the Starship works – and, again, we should see a test of Starship now in just a couple of months – perhaps it going orbital. Perhaps it demonstrating that it can return from orbit. That’ll be an entirely new direction. And then, I think, SLS is done. Like, how do you compete against a fully reusable two-stage rocket system?
But then, we have options. We have choices. And until then, we have two separate, distinct paths. Both are pushing towards trying to land humans on the moon. And in reality, the lunar lander is going to be Starship. So, it’s all gonna come back together.
But not only that. As you said, the Chinese are working on sending humans to the moon. There’s various private organizations.
Dr. Gay: New Glenn is still going.
Fraser: New Glenn, plus the rocket that’s supposed to come after that, the New Armstrong. You’ve got the European Space Agency is planning on building a village on the moon. Like, this time it’s going to be real. I think, I hope.
Dr. Gay: I do, too. And it’s one of these things where there’s been recent astronaut calls both with the European Space Agency and NASA. And the people who got selected in this call are the ones who are going to be starting it. And that next astronaut call are going be the people who live it. And it’s really an interesting time to be young, athletic, multilingual and skilled in many different things because if you check enough boxes and are a good and wholesome human, you just might make it into space. And that’s awesome.
Fraser: Yeah. And so, I think that we will see – it may not be 2026; like, that’s the plan right now – but maybe it’s 2028 that we will see the beginnings of a base, of a science station like the Space Station, on the moon, coming together. And it will end up being permanently inhabited. The Space Station has been permanently inhabited for 24 years now.
Dr. Gay: Yeah. There are people old enough to have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree who have lived their entire lives with a Space Station as occupied.
Fraser: Yeah. And there are more people in space now when you include the Chinese than have ever been in human history. Like, it’s happening. It’s finally happening.
Dr. Gay: It’s because so many different nations are making a break for it that I really feel it’s gonna happen this time.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Gay: So, I have one last thing I wanna bring up because it deeply amused me and we missed it when we talked about things to look forward to in 2022. And this is the March 31st coming together of Venus, Saturn, and Mars. And the Accuweather diagram, which unfortunately was very few pixels so it doesn’t look stunning here.
But the caption for it is, “Planets are not to scale. The rings of Saturn cannot be seen without a telescope.” And I just love that there was someone in the back who was basically going, like, “We have to make them big enough for people to be excited. And as soon as we do that, it’s not scientifically accurate and we’re gonna get hate mail. So, we have to put this caption on it.” I can just feel this discussion that had to take place with this caption.
Fraser: That’s awesome.
Dr. Gay: Ah, yeah.
Fraser: All right. Well, there’s one thing I wanna contribute to the what I’m looking forward to. And this is in 2024 – so, just two years there’s going to be another total solar eclipse that’s gonna pass through North America. We hung out back in 2017 the last time this happened. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hang out again in 2024. I’m planning to go to Texas. I’m not sure what your plans are. But make sure, if you wanna see an eclipse, it’s gonna go from the south to the north this time, not across the United States. So, it’s a much narrower region that’s gonna be visible.
Dr. Gay: Mexico to Canada.
Fraser: Yeah. And so, make your plans. If you wanna see a total solar eclipse – and you do – you wanna make your plans now. Book your hotel. Find out how you’re gonna do this. Start making the logistics of how you’re gonna be able to watch this eclipse. Because, again, people are gonna realize two years from now and they’re going to have run out of time. And they’re gonna have to be very far away. But you can try to be right on the track. It’s gonna be trickier. It’s in May, I think?
Dr. Gay: Yeah.
Fraser: So, it’s not the weather –
Dr. Gay: I think it’s April. Let me pull it up.
Fraser: Yeah. Anyway, it’s not gonna be right in the middle of summer. So, the weather won’t be necessarily as good. But still, we’re gonna take a crack at it. I’m gonna see a totality solar eclipse from beginning to end and not mostly clouded out most of the time. And you missed pretty much the entire thing last time.
Dr. Gay: I missed the entire thing.
Fraser: So, yeah, yeah.
Dr. Gay: Yeah. So, this is scheduled for April 8th, 2024.
Fraser: There you go. April 8th.
Dr. Gay: It’s possible to see it from Carbondale, Illinois. So, if you want to be in the same place you were last time, that’s a possibility. I have to admit, I’m waiting to see how the visa situation works its way out and will probably be making a call in January of 2023 on where to be. Because I wanna be able to hang out with people from many nations.
Fraser: That sounds awesome. All right. Thank you, Pamela. And now, I will have to go back to your Pamela is skeptical and the future doesn’t exist. But it was wonderful to talk about it briefly. Thanks.
Dr. Gay: It was my pleasure, Fraser.
And I just wanna take this moment to thank all of you out there who make the show possible through your donations on Patreon. This week, I would like to thank Joe Hook, Zero Chill, Rob Cuffe, David, Allan Mohn, Saebre Lark, Richard Drumm, Disasterina, Rebecca, Thomas Sepstrup, Mountain Goat, Burry Gowen, Stephen Veit, Jordon Young, Kevin Lyle, Jeanette Wink, Andrew Poelstra, Brian Cagle, Vankatesh Chary, Davie Truog, TheGiantNothing, Aurora Lipper, David, Gerhard Schwarzer, Will Hamilton, Ronald McCoy, J. F. Rajotte, cacoseraph, Bill Hamilton, William Kraus, Robert Palsma, Laura Kittleson, Les Howard, Joshua Pierson, Jack Mudge, Joe Hollstein, Frank Tippin, Gordon Dewis, Alexis, Adam Annis-Brown, Neuterdude, Helge Bjørkhaug, Richard Drumm’s name – here he is again, WandererM101, William Baker, William Andrews, Andrew Cowley, Jeff Collins, Harald Bardenhagen, Brian Cox, Phillip Walker, and Matthew Horstman.
Thank you, everyone.
Fraser: Thank you, everyone. And we’ll see you all next week.
Dr. Gay: Bye-bye. Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy Cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it. But please, credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay.
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Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.