Orbital Path

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Recently, we’ve started to get the first images back from Juno, which is on a mission to Jupiter. Host Dr. Michelle Thaller walks us through the results so far and how you can participate in what Juno discovers next. [Image of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft.](https://www.nasa.gov/missionpages/juno/images/index.html)_
Galileo discovered Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, in 1610. In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft buzzed past and we realized it was covered in ice. It took a few more years to understand that it also likely had unfrozen liquid water oceans. In this episode, Kevin Hand, Deputy Project Scientist for the Europa mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) explains how his team plans to launch a series of missions to orbit, land on, and hopefully explore the curious moon’s deep salty oceans with a self-driving space submarine. Hand thinks Europa has the best chance of fostering living alien life at this moment in time. “If we’ve learned anything about life on Earth, where there’s water, you find life and there’s a whole ton of water out at Europa,” Hand says. And Tom Cwik, manager for JPL’s space technology program, describes how he looks to Earth-bound submarines, ice drills and self-driving cars for inspiration of how to explore this distant world. Image credit: Courtesy NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and editor Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.
Coronal mass ejection courtesy of NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory The sun can seem like a friendly celestial body. It is the source of summer, crops, and basically all life on Earth. But just as the sun decided when life on Earth could begin, it will also decide when life on Earth will definitely end. Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with Dr. C. Alex Young, Associate Director for Science in the Heliophysics Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. We’ll hear about the impressive fleet of spacecraft NASA uses to monitor the Sun, including the upcoming Solar Probe Plus, an exciting new mission to delve closer to our star than ever before. Episode Extras C. Alex Young’s office doormat at NASA Goddard! This 2015 video celebrates five years of solar observations from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory: Follow along with the development of Solar Probe Plus, slated for launch in 2018. Find out about the fleet of Sun-observing spacecraft NASA uses to monitor our home star.
In this darkest season of the year, Dr. Michelle Thaller and NASA astronomer Andrew Booth curl up by the fire. Gazing into the embers, red wine in hand, they consider the meaning of the winter solstice — on other planets. Like Uranus, where parts of the planet go 42 earth years without seeing the sun. Or Mars, where winters are made colder by an orbit politely described as “eccentric.” Or Saturn — where winter’s chill is deepened by the shadow of the planet’s luminous rings.  Marshmallow, anyone? 
Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman. The program is edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Dr. Michelle Thaller. Photo credit: NASA
After a full day in a clean suit, there’s nothing like … a dip in the hot tub. NASA astronomer Andrew Booth spends his days working with lasers, developing some of the word’s most advanced telescopes. When he gets home from work, he loves to pour a glass of wine and slip into the hot tub. And ponder some of the weirder aspects of astrophysics. Orbital Path host Dr. Michelle Thaller (who happens to be married to Booth) rather avidly shares this enthusiasm. For Orbital Path’s first adventure in Hot Tub Physics, the topic is: The weirdness of light. And something called interferometry. And telescopes that don’t work unless a single particle of light can be two places at exactly the same time. Which raises the question: Are we living in a parallel universe? Join us in the hot tub as we get wet and weird (the water’s just fine)! Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller. (You didn’t really expect a NASA photo this time, did you?)
Locked up on the Greek island of Crete, Icarus and his dad made wings out of  beeswax and bird feathers. They soared to freedom — but Icarus got cocky, flew too close to the sun, and fell into the sea.  A few thousand years later, NASA is ready to do the job right. The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to fly in 2018. The spacecraft has a giant heat shield, tested to withstand 2,500-degree temperatures. For something so basic to all of our lives — and fundamental to the science of astronomy — the sun remains surprisingly mysterious. To learn more, Michelle meets up with Nicky Viall, a NASA heliophysicist working on the mission. She describes how direct measurements of the sun’s super-hot plasma, and solar wind, may dramatically enhance our understanding of the star at the center of our lives.

 Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller. Photo credit: NASA
(17 May 2009) — Astronaut Mike Massimino peers through a window on the aft flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Atlantis during the mission’s fourth session of extravehicular activity (EVA) to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Going to Mars is hot right now, just ask Matt Damon. But would you go if you knew your bones would turn into something called “pee brittle”? Former astronaut Michael Massimino reveals the uncomfortable side of liftoff. And Dr. Jennifer Fogarty from NASA’s Human Research Program elaborates on the physical challenges humans face with longterm weightlessness.
Listeners, we’ve heard you! You requested more episodes, so we present the first of our mini episodes. They’ll arrive two weeks after each monthly regular episode, and include Michelle Thaller’s insight on the latest space news. Enjoy episode one: NASA’s NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) mission will launch in May. Michelle explains the NICER mission’s many applications, including the possibility of using neutron stars as intergalactic global positioning systems. Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and editor Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller. Image courtesy NASA: A star’s spectacular death in the constellation Taurus was observed on Earth as the supernova of 1054 A.D. Now, almost a thousand years later, a superdense neutron star left behind by the stellar death is spewing out a blizzard of extremely high-energy particles into the expanding debris field known as the Crab Nebula. This composite image uses data from three of NASA’s Great Observatories.
Dr. Michelle Thaller visits the NASA lab that discovered that meteorites contain some of the very same chemical elements that we contain. Then, Michelle talks to a Vatican planetary scientist about how science and religion can meet on the topic of life beyond Earth.
Instead of grappling with the big, cosmic questions that preoccupy adults, this week on Orbital Path we’re doing something different. We’re grappling with the big, cosmic questions that preoccupy kids. It’s part of a new project called “Telescope,” where Dr. Michelle Thaller takes on the really big questions in astronomy—from public school students. In this episode, Michelle fields questions from Mr. Andersen’s Earth Science class at MS 442, a public school in Brooklyn. Sarah Cole asks about creating artificial gravity on spacecraft. And Carter Nyhan wonders whether the stars guiding mariners ancient and modern, were, by the time their light reached the earth, completely kaput. Is the twinkling night sky actually a graveyard of dead stars? Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman. The program is edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Dr. Michelle Thaller. Support for Orbital Path is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. Image credit: NASA image of the International Space Station, where gravity does, in fact, still apply.
NASA’S office of planetary defense isn’t worried about Klingons or Amoeboid Zingatularians.  They worry about asteroids and comets.  Like the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. It was about 20 yards across. An asteroid 150 yards in diameter could take out a city. An even bigger one — as the dinosaurs reading this will attest — could change earth’s ecology, and lead to mass extinctions. Kelly Fast, program manager for NASA’s office of planetary defense, tells Dr. Michelle Thaller about an asteroid that watchers in Hawaii recently sighted:  a mysterious, massive, cigar-shaped object.  Millions of years into its journey, it was traveling faster than any spacecraft ever built by humans. It’s the first object ever known to visit our solar system that originated in the orbit of another star. Too fast to be trapped by our sun’s gravity, it’s now traveling a path that will take it back into deep, interstellar space. 

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman. The program is edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Dr. Michelle Thaller.

 Illustration credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan avidly guards its traditional culture. Bhutan is a nation that — instead of looking to GDP or debt ratios — measures success by an index of “Gross National Happiness.” In this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thaller describes her recent adventures in Bhutan — including a climb to a Buddhist monastery perched on the face of a cliff. In that rarefied air, Michelle was confronted by a link between the thinking of contemporary astrophysicists and old-school Bhutanese monks: a challenging concept of Time. 
Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.
 Photo credit: Michelle Thaller
To make a black hole, you need to think big. Really big. Start with a star much bigger than the sun — the bigger the better. Then settle in, and wait a few million years for your star to die. That should do the trick, if you want to get yourself a garden-variety black hole. But there’s another kind of black hole. They are mind-boggling in size. And deeply mysterious: Super-massive black holes. Last year, in the journal Nature, a team of astronomers reported finding one with the mass of 800 million suns. It’s the most distant black hole in the known universe. And it’s so ancient, it dates to a time when it seems light itself was only just beginning to move. On this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thaller talks with astrophysicist Chiara Mingarelli — Flatiron Research Fellow at the Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York. Using a special gravitational wave observatory, Dr. Mingarelli is part of a cadre of astronomers hoping ancient super-massive black holes will soon reveal mysteries dating to the dawn of our universe. Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman. Our editor is Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Support for Orbital Path is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. Image credit: NASA artist’s rendering of a super-massive black hole.
NASA is relying on hi-tech lasers — and some vintage U.S. Navy hand-me-downs — to learn about the polar regions of a remarkable, watery planet. It’s located in the Orion spur of our galaxy. NASA scientists have detected mountain ranges completely under ice. But the remaining mysteries of the ice here are profound, and what the science tells us could have dramatic impact on human life. In this episode, Dr. Thaller visits with two key members of NASA’s IceBridge mission — Christy Hansen, Airborne Sciences Manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Joe MacGregor, Deputy Project Scientist for Operation IceBridge. Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller. Photo credit: NASA
In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey discovered something that shocked scientists around the world: the ozone layer had a hole in it. And the hole was growing very quickly. When they were presented with the problem, politicians and world leaders quickly came up with an international agreement to immediately reduce chlorofluorocarbons released into the atmosphere. It was a success story, and we can learn from it on climate change. In the episode: Atmospheric chemist Dr. Susan Solomon shares her story of leading a team of scientists to Antarctica, scrambling to understand the problem and pretty quickly finding the root cause: a group of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons that people were releasing into the atmosphere on the other side of the planet. NASA chemist Dr. Anne Douglass explains ozone and and the very serious consequences of living in a world without an ozone layer. She also compares the decisive Montreal Protocol to the very different modern reaction to climate change, where American politicians openly deny the science at the root of a global crisis.
Host Michelle Thaller talks with astronomer and author Phil Plait of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog about this conundrum: why are humans so quick to explain the unknowns of the cosmos as aliens? And why is this healthy imagination important in science? — This is our first episode of Orbital Path, a new monthly series from PRX. Learn more here and check out our other science series, Transistor.
We’ve got some awkward news to share, folks: The producer of Orbital Path is claiming he’s been abducted by space aliens. So this week, we’re dusting off the theremin and returning to one of our favorite early episodes — “Must Be Aliens.” Dr. Michelle Thaller talks with Phil Plait — AKA the “Bad Astronomer” — about the Kepler mission to find planets circling other stars … and why we humans are so quick to ascribe the unknowns of the cosmos to aliens. In the two years since this episode was originally produced, however, the universe has not stood still. So Michelle has an update on the Kepler project — and a discovery that, once upon a time, had certain astronomers murmuring the “A” word. Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. “Must be Aliens” episode produced by Lauren Ober. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.
To hear Leonard Susskind tell it, we are living in a golden age of quantum physics. And he should know. Susskind is a grandee of theoretical physics. In the 1960s, he was one of the discoverers of String Theory. His friends and collaborators over the years include the likes of Nobel Prize winners Gerard ‘t Hooft and Richard Feynman. And, for more than a decade, Susskind engaged in an intellectual clash of the Titans with Stephen Hawking — and came out on top. On this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thaller talks with Susskind about his extraordinary life in physics. And Susskind offers a tantalizing glimpse into his recent work on the holographic principle, which suggests our universe may be a far, far stranger place than humans have yet imagined. Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman. Our editor is Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Support for Orbital Path is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. Image credit: Linda Cicero / Stanford News Service
Nearly 100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves — huge undulations in the fabric of space-time itself — in 2015, detectors here on Earth finally picked up the signal of these massive disturbances. Dr. Michelle Thaller pulls apart the power and mystery of gravitational waves, and talks with Dr. Janna Levin, theoretical astrophysicist and author of the book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space. Image caption: The LISA Pathfinder Mission paves the way for our first space-based gravitational wave detector. Having these detectors in space, instead of on Earth will make them much more sensitive and have less interference from other Earth-based noises, in our search for more clarity on gravitational waves. Image courtesy NASA JPL / ESA. Orbital Path is produced by Justin O’Neill and editor Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.
Michelle (L), her mom and sister. In this special Mother’s Day episode, Michelle talks with her mom about what it was like raising a space-obsessed daughter in Wisconsin and watching her grow into a scientist. Big hair ’80s. Michelle’s sister, Michelle and her mom. Michelle’s sister, Michelle, and her mom today.
We live our lives in three dimensions. But we also walk those three dimensions along a fourth dimension: time.

 Our world makes sense thanks to mathematics. Math lets us count our livestock, it lets us navigate our journeys. Mathematics has also proved an uncanny, stunningly accurate guide to what Brian Greene calls “the dark corners of reality.” 

But what happens when math takes us far, far beyond what we — as humans — are equipped to perceive with our senses?  What does it mean when mathematics tells us, in no uncertain terms, that the world exists not in three, not in four — but in no fewer than eleven dimensions? 

In this episode of Orbital Path, Brian Greene, director of Columbia’s Center for Theoretical Physics and a celebrated explainer of how our universe operates, sits down to talk with Dr. Michelle Thaller. Together they dig into the question of how we — as three-dimensional creatures — can come to terms with all those extra dimensions all around us.  
Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

 Photo credit: World Science Festival / Greg Kessler.

 For more, visit briangreene.org
Proposed mockup of our solar system (the sun is the tiny yellow dot in the middle), and the proposed orbit of Planet 9 (called Planet X here). (Courtesy of Scott Sheppard / Carnegie Institution of Washington) An Orbital Path episode all about…an orbital path! Planet 9’s, to be exact. The replacement for Pluto as our solar system’s ninth planet is out there somewhere, and astronomers can see the ripples it creates, especially at this time of year. In this Episode: On November 5, 2012, astronomer Scott Sheppard and his team discovered a small, frozen space rock at the edge of what we’re able to observe in our solar system. He never anticipated that this observation would hint toward a big change in how we understand solar system: the existence of an undiscovered planet inside our solar system. Astronomer Mike Brown, better known for “killing Pluto,” is leading the hunt for Planet Nine and he thinks that we won’t have to wait for much longer.
From space, the view of earth has no boundaries for countries, no barriers to achievement. Michelle Thaller speaks with Aprille Ericcson, a senior engineer at NASA, about her career path and about current challenges recruiting more women and minorities into engineering and space science. Orbital Path is hosted by astronomer Michelle Thaller and produced by Lauren Ober. Learn more about them here.
The most rare objects in the night sky are only visible in some extreme places. Dr. Michelle Thaller introduces us to Dr. Anna Moore, a scientist whose trips to Antarctica help us better understand the solar system.
For a long time, probably as long as we have been gazing up at the night sky, people have been asking ourselves: Are we alone? Is there life out there, anywhere else in the universe? For modern Earthlings, our fascination with extraterrestrial life has focussed on one place in particular: Mars. The planet today is a forbidding, arid place. But billions of years ago, Mars may have had a gigantic ocean. It was, like Earth, just the kind of place you’d think life could get started. Earlier this month, in the journal Science, NASA astrobiologist Dr. Jen Eigenbrode and her team published a stunning discovery. The Curiosity rover on Mars had found rocks that contain organic molecules — the building blocks of life. On this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thaller sits down with Eigenbrode to understand what this discovery really says about the possibility of life on Mars. This episode of Orbital Path was produced by David Schulman. Our editor is Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Support for Orbital Path is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. Image credit: NASA
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Podcast Details

Started
Dec 11th, 2015
Latest Episode
Dec 21st, 2018
Release Period
Weekly
No. of Episodes
45
Avg. Episode Length
18 minutes
Explicit
No

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