Ep. 701: Space Science We Look Forward to in the Next 700 Episodes

Last week we looked back at some of the ideas that science has changed its mind about. This, we look forward, into the future, at some of the big ideas that astronomers are making progress in. What space science are we looking forward to?

This episode was made possible by the following Patreon members:

Jordan Young
Stephen Veit
Jeanette Wink
Siggi Kemmler
Andrew Poelstra
David Truog
Brian Cagle
Gerhard Schwarzer

THANK YOU! – Fraser and Dr. Pamela


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:19] Astronomy Cast episode 701. Space science. We look forward to in the next 700 episodes. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our 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, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest, Pamela Hayden. 

Pamela Gay [00:01:43] I am doing well. I just had the realization that we will be well over the retirement age when we hit, episode 1400, right? Somehow, given the current economy will still be podcasting. 

Fraser Cain [00:01:59] Sure. Yeah. Yeah. We’ll still be waiting for traditional media to finally give up the ghost. It’s true, it’s true. Yeah, yeah. And to think how young we were. I know when we started. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:11] We were babies. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:12] Yeah. Early 30s, I guess. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:15] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:15] And now early 50s for me. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:19] I turned 50 on Saturday. Oh, right. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:22] Okay. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:22] There you go. I turned 50 on Tuesday. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:24] Perfect. Yeah. So there we go. We will we will both be now entering that fifth decade. Yeah, yeah. That’s what you do when you. That’s what happens when you make 700 of a thing on a relatively weekly basis, is you just get old. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:38] It’s. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:40] All right. Well, last week we look back at some of the ideas that science has changed its mind about, and then we look forward into the future at some of the big ideas that astronomers are making progress in. What space science are we looking forward to? All right, Pamela, 700 episodes, I guess are we going to predict with perfect accuracy all of the major science that will be discovered within the next 700 episodes, within the next roughly 15 years of our lives? 

Pamela Gay [00:03:08] No, but I’m hoping we might make predictions on at least the things that funding to solve ends up getting dedicated to. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:17] Yeah, yeah. I mean, there is this chain right where you get the a mystery appears. Scientists identify the mystery. Scientists come together and meet and describe what kinds of things need to be built to help uncover the mystery. The thing gets built, the mystery gets solved, and also generates more mysteries. That is the. That’s the life cycle. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:40] Yeah, yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:41] Yeah. And so I guess, what do you use to, to target the to know what the astronomers, what mysteries the astronomers are hoping to solve? 

Pamela Gay [00:03:53] Well, I, you know, at a certain level on the decade by decade, it’s the decadal survey. We’re now far enough into this decade that the we have a survey, we have diverged from the survey, but we have not yet started on the next survey. So we’re in a no man’s land of getting to just guess what we’re hoping comes next. And no one can go further than a decade out in a field where such weird, strange new stuff is regularly discovered. And that’s part of what makes it exciting. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:28] So for, I guess, for people who aren’t familiar with the decadal survey, what is it? Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:04:34] I roughly every ten years the astronomical community and the planetary science community separately get together, form a whole variety of committees and work to determine what are the most significant problems in our field today, that we have the ability to make breakthroughs on. And it’s this survey that is normally administered out of the National Academy of Sciences that is then used to, if we’re lucky, governance, where funding is dedicated for the next ten years. It’s it’s a way of basically prioritizing things. So we’re looking to prioritize, for instance, figuring out what dark energy is. And this is where we see the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope. Is is not going to be allowed to follow us under it shall be done, because this is how we get to dark energy and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. It’s it’s also part of where Mars just keeps staying in the priority list. But Venus made its way in there as well. The outer planets made it in, but didn’t get nearly enough love. They never do. So this is this is our guiding documents on how not as one individual working as chief scientist or director of the NSF community, but as a profession, how do we figure out where to go next? 

Fraser Cain [00:06:07] All right. So let’s talk about the the planetary stuff like this stuff within the solar system. First, what are the big scientific questions that astronomers are hoping? To make progress on within the solar system. 

Pamela Gay [00:06:22] I think the biggest question that would make everybody happy is where does and has life existed in our solar system? 

Fraser Cain [00:06:34] Yes, please. 

Pamela Gay [00:06:36] And and this means more exploration of Titan, more exploration of and solidus and Europa, more exploration of Mars and Venus is at play as well. It’s just wildly different and far more enigmatic. So we have these suites of worlds that we just don’t understand nearly well enough, where all these liquid is. So life requires three things a solvent, an energy, gradients and nutrients. And Titan has methane, ethane as it solvent and triple point liquid solids, vapor. Then Enceladus. Europa. Both have water. Mars previously had water. Venus previously had water and currently has chaos. And so so the question becomes can we find life in some form existing on those three moons of gas giants? And can we find fossils on Mars? And can we figure out how to get to the surface of Venus and live there long enough to figure out anything? 

Fraser Cain [00:07:53] And what is being done to try to get answers to these questions? 

Pamela Gay [00:07:58] So we currently have the Europa Clipper that is being, constructed to go to Europa, do a series of imaging and hopefully orbiting, successfully and maybe getting some samples of geysers that spew stuff into the air. We don’t currently have anything on the books to go to in solidus, but we do have dragonfly that is slated to go to Titan. So that’s two of the three moons on Mars. We’re working on gathering samples, and the Mars sample return mission has become the great vacuum that is starting to, eat all funding within NASA for planetary science. And, if successful, it will bring rocks back to Earth, where significantly larger and more energy intensive laboratories can look for the stuff of life, including things like fossilized lipids, which is now something we have the ability to do. And Venus, there are maybe three, definitely two missions slated to go there and, better explore its atmosphere and its surface through a myriad of different, technologies. 

Fraser Cain [00:09:17] Yeah, we’re at a bit of a tricky time with the Mars sample return mission. It looks like it’s going to cost more than anybody was expecting. And as we saw with James Webb, we don’t like missions to eat all of the funding. And so right now, it looks like they’re going to go through more reviews and try to get a sense of, you know, how do they bring the costs down. Yeah. But but half of the Mars sample return mission is already underway, which is perseverance collecting all of the samples to be able to meet up with the Mars sample return mission and be able to deliver the samples home. The Chinese are planning their version of the Mars sample return mission. So even if NASA and ESA don’t do it, we will see samples returned from Mars probably by 2030. And so hopefully. But but it’s not going to be as comprehensive as said it’s going to be whatever the lander and maybe a helicopter or two can gather up in the vicinity around the lander. While perseverance is taking a decade to stop and smell the roses, as it were, and, you know, grab samples from lots of really interesting different rocks and and go from there. So, do you think within the next 700 episodes we’ll have an answer to this question, is there life elsewhere in the solar system? 

Pamela Gay [00:10:35] I really hope so. I, I think there is the potential that if they’re able to sufficiently grab stuff from the geysers, if we get really lucky, the microscope might be able to see something in the ices. I think there’s the potential to find fossils on Mars. Lord only knows what dragonfly will see on Titan. That is perhaps the most, open ended question. And I just hope that, missions like Mars sample return don’t eat so much funding that there’s no scientists left. Look at the data. Because inevitably, whenever there are cost overruns. Where it comes out of is in the science funding available to independent researchers. And without independent researchers, the field just shrinks. 

Fraser Cain [00:11:29] So you mentioned, you know, the hunt for life on Mars, on Europa, Titan, maybe. But a lot of other work is going to be going into studying Venus. So what are the big scientific questions that we’re trying to get answered about Venus? 

Pamela Gay [00:11:46] There are so many. Where to start. Venus is really an under-researched world because it is very mean to spacecraft, and it’s not entirely easy to get to. So so there’s everything from the great phosphine debacle that I’m not sure is going to end until we have a mission orbiting to say whether or not there’s phosphine, there’s the what is this black, sooty stuff that we keep seeing in the atmosphere? There is the is there active volcanism today or not? Question. There is the what caused Venus to have a runaway greenhouse effect. And there’s always that back of the mind concern of can that happen here. How do we avoid it. Right. And and so with Venus, it’s really what was the past environment, what catastrophe led it to be what it is today and and what is it today beneath all that cloud cover? And does anything live in that cloud cover? So pick a starting point. It’s all kind of exciting. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:58] All good questions. Yeah. And then, you know, those are kind of the big ones, but, I mean, there is a fleet of spacecraft headed towards the sun. There’s big questions about the sun that we’re hoping to have answered. What would you say is, like the biggest question about the sun that we still don’t really have an answer to. Oh, man. I mean, do we know why the corona is so hot yet? Is that like, is that. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:21] All that depends on if you believe any of the papers. Honestly, though, I think there’s no one scientific thing so much today is the ability to predict space weather as as we launch more and more small SATs and Leo SATs for communications that we rely on into low-Earth orbit, it’s important that we know where the atmosphere is. There was already one entire batch of Starlink satellites consumed when our atmosphere was hit by, solar energy, it expanded out. Those satellites were suddenly under a lot more drag than they were prepared for. And no more batch of starlings. And there are plenty of Starlink for those came from. But that’s not true for a university project that launches as a CubeSat. It’s not true for so many other things, and folks are trying really hard to figure out how to predict solar behaviors so we can move things ahead of time so we can lock things down into safe mode ahead of time. And all these things are going to be necessary, to prevent a Leo catastrophe, because every time our atmosphere moves, it moves all the satellites, which makes it harder to predict their locations, which makes it easier for them to collide. And we need space, weather. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:48] And like, one of the greatest threats that we face as a civilization that has gone and connected all of our modern devices together into these giant electrical grids, we’ve launched satellites, is to be able to handle and weather space, weather. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:01] And yeah, yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:02] The more we can understand the sun, the more we can get some kind of notice. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:07] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:07] And that is like this prediction system is the thing that’s being built. And like right now we get like 30 minutes notice. Maybe we can get up to an hour’s notice. Like that is the goal is to get more and more notice so that you can calmly and quietly disconnect parts of the network, shifts things offline, wait for the solar storm to pass, put everything back together. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:28] Transfer orbits in some cases. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:31] And not have to be like putting, you know, I guess being driven back to the Stone age and the worst possible. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:39] Rate and even just sometimes delaying launches could be useful. We just need that five days warning. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:46] Yeah. Five days. Oh, imagine to dream. All right, we’re gonna talk about the Milky Way next. But first, it’s time for another break. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:56] This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Some of you may remember when I did the Slacker Astronomy Podcast in the early 2000. Our tagline for me, for you, for the voices in our heads, was our open acknowledgment that some of us have brains that just like to yell at us about all the things we should do, all the things we could have done differently. And by our, I mean my. My brain likes to shout. If you want to quiet the voices in your head and find a real peace. It can really help to talk through your thoughts while getting therapy. If you’re thinking about starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. The mobile friendly website will have you fill out a brief questionnaire and then pairing with someone who will match your needs. And if they aren’t a perfect fit, you can easily change therapists at any time. Everything is online, and BetterHelp is convenient, flexible, and can work with any schedule, even an astronomer schedule like mine. Get a break from your thoughts with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/astronomy today to get 10% off your first month. That’s BetterHelp. H e lpea.com/astronomy. 

Fraser Cain [00:17:21] And we’re back. All right. So let’s expand our knowledge and let’s look out into the Milky Way. What are the big scientific questions that we’re going to be trying to answer? Well let me guess. Exoplanets. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:35] Yeah. So I think it’s A12 punch of exoplanets will make one side of the community happy and better. Understanding the supermassive black hole in the region around it will make the rest of the community happy. So on the exoplanets front, I think the the the two things are going to again, be is there life out there where they’re atmospheres, where they’re habitable worlds? But there’s also like weird questions like, why the heck are we not finding planets between about 1.5 and 2.5 Earth masses in size? We do not understand planet formation the way we would like to understand planet formation. I. The more systems we see, the more spectroscopy we get, the more likely we are to both understand solar system formation and figure out where, if any, where are there the possibilities of life and potentially civilizations? 

Fraser Cain [00:18:38] I mean, it is really amazing how we are now in the 5500 ish range in exoplanets known with thousands and thousands more candidates that are still being studied. So we probably know of more than 10,000 exoplanets to this point. And think back to like 1995, when they found the first exoplanet, the. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:00] First planet around a normal star. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:02] Orbiting around a sun like star. Yes. Not a neutron star, a pulsar. Oh. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:07] Well, I so the pulsar one makes us 30 years in, and that’s just kind of cool. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:11] Sure, sure. But it’s funny that you always have to say that, but. Yes. Fine. But, but and yet here we are, 10,000 planets. And and, I mean, the real revolution now is examining their atmospheres, taking. You know, originally this work was done with Spitzer on a couple of planets. You had a bit of some ground based observatories, but really it’s James Webb is has been looking at a lot of planets so far and it’s been able to find carbon dioxide, methane, silicon oxide. It’s been able to find sulfur dioxide. Just all of these chemicals, water vapor, all these chemicals in the atmospheres of planets. And it’s moving us towards eventually we will have we will know about the atmospheres of thousands of exoplanets, and then we’ll get into this realm where where we don’t think about planets as one thing, you know, think of how we feel about trees, right? Like, we don’t we don’t name each tree. And and remember that time where we found one more tree. We think about trees in aggregate. And that’s what we’re getting with exoplanets. We’re going to be thinking about exoplanets in aggregate. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:27] And there’ll always be the special planets the way there are special trees like Methuselah and that one American chestnut, but they refuse to reveal the position of for very good reasons. There will always be special trees and special planets, but we do really need to understand the health of the forest, and that’s where we’re at now. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:48] Obviously, we don’t name them. There’s no campaign to name every single tree. No. Yeah. No. And and so when you think about planets, like, I know it’s mind bending to think that an entire world. Yeah. Synonymous. There’s a bunch of them. Who cares? Got lots. Yeah. So. Yeah. All right, so we’ve talked about exoplanets and I mean, obviously like. Like the thing that we hope to find in our next 700 episodes is that Earth sized world orbiting around a sun like star in the habitable zone. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:22] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:23] What is our best shot at doing that? At finding it. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:28] Oh, man. So right now, missions are working on an ion complex, basically. Find it with something like Tess that’s using the transient method. And then do follow up observations with, J. T or I just blanked on the European mission. It begins with the letter c. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:56] O Cheops is is. Yeah. Cheops is more about categorizing the it’s for categorizing the transit and not the atmosphere. But yeah. Yeah. An aerial which launches in 2028 is going to do the atmospheres. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:09] And and through this combination of categorizing what the orbit is, it gives us the ability to then say these are the ones we need to follow up more. And as we build up the data, hopefully we’re going to start to figure out if you want to find rocky planets. You look in these kinds of areas in the galaxy. The best we can do right now is assume it’s going to be someplace like where we are and around the. Yeah, it’s we just have to find and luck. It’s it’s like panning for gold except for panning for planets. Just keep panning until you get there. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:50] I mean, the tragedy is that the the machine that would have done it was Kepler, and Kepler wasn’t able to fulfill its mission. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:58] We need a new Kepler. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:59] We need a new Kepler. And there’s sort of there’s the Earth based version of that, which is going to be the Extremely Large Telescope, which should theoretically be able to distinguish Earth sized worlds orbiting around sun like stars, maybe. But the one that’s really going to do it is the Habitable Worlds Observatory. And this is going to be the follow on to G2 is t you know, this is what Luvoir was after. You have X and match together with Luvoir and you get this the each. Whoa. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:28] Yeah. And the Extremely large Telescope is having funding issues as well. So as always money is the thing that keeps getting in the way of these telescopes. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:37] But but like we can’t guarantee that anybody will find this one. Yeah. Within that next 700 episodes. Yeah. Which is kind of sad. But the but just like the machines that are closest you’re going to get is with the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope, which launches in 27. And it will have the ability to distinguish Jupiter sized worlds. And Jupiter orbits around sun like stars. Yeah, but you need two orders of magnitude more powerful a, sort of ability to distinguish between the star and its planet before you get to Earth sized worlds. Some like star. And that’s the plan with the Habitable Worlds Observatory. So unfortunately, we’re not there yet. All right. And you talked about the center of the Milky Way. 

Pamela Gay [00:24:31] Yes. So? So we are now starting to find massive star forming regions in the core that we didn’t know about. And in fact, 20 years ago, we would have been taught there isn’t that kind of star formation. There are these blobs of gassy mush that are getting destroyed as they orbit. We want to understand that process. It’s there’s just details of, we are overly curious about black holes as human beings. It’s just who we are. And the idea that our galaxy’s black hole periodically eats things and we can see things orbiting it. And do we get to see any of them getting eaten? That would be cool. Do we get to see any of them get completely disrupted? That would be cool. Can we back trace the history of the galaxy and figure out what got destroyed when it blew these x ray bubbles in the past? There’s there’s a whole lot of just we we want to know because it’s because there’s a black hole and it’s really big and it’s nearby. And sometimes that’s enough to justify science. 

Fraser Cain [00:25:40] All right, let’s think about the entire universe now, out beyond the galaxy. What are the big scientific questions that astronomers are hoping to answer? 

Pamela Gay [00:25:51] What mixture of only dark matter or dark matter and mind is required to explain everything you see at a distance? What the heck is dark energy and is it actually necessary? And does it pre-date the formation of black holes? And what the f with these two things that make up the majority of our universe and refuse to be directly detected? And then. Tied in with that, because you have to understand dark energy and dark matter to get at the rate at which structures form is. How do we explain the rate at which structures seem to form? So essentially the story of how do you get from the formation of the cosmic microwave background to our galaxy as it is today, and the large scale structure around us as it is today. How do you connect those two points through history? We know what happens. The one of it is where we’re currently foiled and figuring out the timeline of structure formation. Yeah, that that it’s all one piece and it’s a messy. Puzzle to put it together, and we are putting together an invisible puzzle. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:18] Right. And I think that, you know the Webb. Your main job is to see those building blocks of galaxies coming together early on in the universe. And we’ve got exquisite analysis of the cosmic microwave background radiation. But you’ve got this gap in between those two observations, this age of reionization, the dark ages. Yeah. And right now there are new telescopes coming online, radio telescopes that are going to attempt to probe that time in the universe and fill that gap. And so hopefully we will then have a contiguous understanding of the universe from the cosmic microwave background through the dark Ages, through the age of reionization, through that the first galaxies coming together and into the modern evolution of the universe. Today. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:09] The Square Kilometer Array will come online in our next 700 episodes. One would hope. Yeah, like planning it before we started this show. 

Fraser Cain [00:28:20] That’s true. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:22] And and the cool thing is, we don’t even know what it’s going to discover that we aren’t creative enough to dream of. Yeah, and knowing that the Square Kilometer Array is coming online, knowing that there’s going to be the the Nancy Grace Roman that has essentially the size of Hubble and modern technology mounted on it. We’re going to start seeing things that we just hadn’t imagined. And then Ellis is going to give us the spatial and time coverage that that, like Gaia, has hinted at what is possible, as it did its astrometry and so much science fell out along the way. Alice’s team is going to take what Gaia has been accomplishing and make Gaia look lazy, except for astrometry, and that’s just amazing to dream about. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:17] And of course, after Guy comes Gaia near you, they’re already planning the next phase of Gaia, which will be Gaia Near-Infrared, which is going to be amazing. So stay tuned. I mean, so many cool missions coming out and then, you know, but unfortunately, some of these won’t answer the questions until our next session. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:39] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:39] So when we’re in the 1400 to 2100 stretch, that’s, you know, that’s one we’ll get the next. We’ll do the show again in 700 episodes, I promise. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:50] So as as you look ahead toward the future, what is the one result that you most want to see occur while we’re still kicking around to report on it? 

Fraser Cain [00:30:05] Well, I mean, I want to see the analysis of of a planet from the Habitable Worlds Observatory. I think that would be that would be great. Although I think I do also think it’s going to be probably disappointing. Like I like it will be inconclusive. They’ll say we found oxygen and ozone and methane and all this in the atmosphere and and science. So yeah, you could get that with rocks. So so I don’t know. I don’t know. I think the one that would be really interesting and very meaningful was and this will come very quickly is when you get Nancy Grace Roman working with Vera Rubin, working with Euclid, which is this European Space Agency mission. Those three are going to categorize and characterize dark matter and dark energy to the degree, and we will have a lot of understanding. Question. So if we don’t get an answer, we will at least understand the problem so much better. And I think that will be inevitable and very meaningful and worthwhile to our understanding of our place in the cosmos, because it is weird that we are. In this time that we don’t understand 90% of the cosmos. We can’t even detect it like we don’t even know what it is. So that’s weird. Thanks, Pamela. We’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:31:25] Thank you, Fraser, and thank you to all of you out there who make our show possible. And, I just want to remind you, if you’re looking for a tax deduction at the end of the year, we’re here is a nonprofit. I had someone reach out last week. Fred, if you’re out there anywhere. Thank you. Finding out just what it takes to avoid tax penalties and help us be more successful. This week, though, I’m just going to thank all of the folks that give through Patreon. And I’d like to thank Jordan Young, Stephen White, Jeanette, wink boy, Andre Lovell, Swaggy Kemmler, Andrew ad Boogie natt, Brian. Cagle, David. Trog, Gerhard. Schweitzer, David. Buzz parsec. Zero. Chill, Laura. Kettle. Sen, Robert. Plasma, Joe. Holstein, Richard. Drum, les. Howard, Adam. Annis. Brown, Gordon. Douglas, Alexis. Wanderer, M 101 Felix. Goot, Kim. Baron. Astrocytes. William Andrews Gold and Roland Vollmer, Dom. Thank you all so very much. 

Fraser Cain [00:32:34] Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you all next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:37] 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 Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

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