Weekly Space Hangout – May 26, 2017: Stephen Petranek and How We’ll Live On Mars

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
NAT GEO’s Stephen Petranek is the author of How We’ll Live on Mars (TED Books.) Stephen became a reluctant doomsayer when his earliest TED Talk (10 Ways the World Could End) racked up 1.5 million views. But Petranek is, in fact, an optimist who believes that humanity will escape its predicaments — literally. Within a century, he predicts that humans will have established a city of 80,000 on Mars: and that not only is that plausible, but it’s also inevitable.

Having worked in publishing for four decades — most of it straddling the line with science and technology, Petranek is the former editor-in-chief of Discover magazine, editor of the Washington Post’s magazine, and a renown TED Talk speaker has also given him some unique perspective and insight on the changes that lie ahead and new tools that reflect a potential disruptive shift in how we observe the world around us. Petranek is the editor-in-chief of the Breakthrough Technology Alert, a technology newsletter that ties scientific breakthroughs to investment opportunities.

Dr. Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Their stories this week:

Boyajian’s Star is at it again

Q&A about the new dipping event

Familiar Galaxy Shows New Object in the Radio

Gravitational Waves Alter Spacetime?

Defining a new stage of planet formation

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!


The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit http://www.wsh-crew.net/cosmicstory for all the details.

If you’d like to join Fraser and Paul Matt Sutter on their Tour to Iceland in February 2018, you can find the information at astrotouring.com.

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

NASA Releases Strange ‘Music’ Heard By 1969 Astronauts

Lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA
Lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA
Lunar module pilot Gene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA

Calling it music is a stretch, but that’s exactly how the Apollo 10 astronauts described the creepy sounds they heard while swinging around the farside of the moon in May 1969. During the hour they spent alone cut off from communications with Earth, all three commented about a persistent “whistling” sound that lunar module pilot (LMP) likened to “outer-space-type-music”. Once the craft returned to the nearside, the mysterious sounds disappeared.

Apollo 10 Farside-of-the-Moon Music.

Hands down it was aliens! I wish. Several online stories fan the coals of innuendo and mystery with talk of hidden files and NASA cover-ups narrated to disturbing music. NASA agrees that the files were listed as ‘confidential’ in 1969 at the height of the Space Race, but the Apollo 10 mission transcripts and audio have been publicly available at the National Archives since 1973. Remember, there was no Internet back then. The audio files were only digitized and uploaded for easy access in 2012. Outside of the secretive ’60s, the files have been around a long time.

Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Credit: NASA
Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Click the image for a pdf copy of the full mission transcript. Credit: NASA

The story originally broke Sunday night in a show on the cable channel Discovery as part of the “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series; you’ll find their youtube video below. As I listen to the sound file, I hear two different tones. One is a loud, low buzz, the other a whooshing sound. My first thought was interference of some sort for the buzzing sound, but the whoosh reminded me of a whistler, a low frequency radio wave generated by lightning produced when energy from lightning travels out into Earth’s magnetic field from one hemisphere to another. Using an appropriate receiver, we can hear whistlers as descending, whistle-like tones lasting up to several seconds.

Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA
Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA

Lightning’s hardly likely on the Moon, and whistlers require a magnetic field, which the Moon also lacks. The cause turns out to be, well, man-made. Cernan’s take was that two separate VHF radios, one in the lunar module and the other in command module, were interfering with one another to produce the noise. This was later confirmed by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins who flew around the lunar farside alone when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon’s surface.

The Apollo 10 command/service module nicknamed "Charlie Brown" orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 10 command service module nicknamed “Charlie Brown” orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission to place a man on the Moon. Click the image to visit the Apollo 10 photo archive. Credit: NASA

In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins writes: “There is a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie woo-woo sound.” He said it might have scared him had NASA’s radio technicians not forewarned him. The “music” played when the two craft were near one another with their radios turned on. Unlike Apollo 10, which never descended to the Moon’s surface but remained near the command module, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Once it did, Collins writes that the ‘woo-woo’ music stopped.

The astronauts never talked publicly or even with the agency about hearing weird sounds in space for good reason. Higher-ups at NASA might think them unfit for future missions for entertaining weird ideas, so they kept their thoughts private. This was the era of the “right stuff” and no astronaut wanted to jeopardize a chance to fly to the Moon let alone their career.

Outer Space Music Part 1 of NASA’s Unexplained Files —  to be taken with a boulder of salt

In the end, this “music of the the spheres” makes for a fascinating  tidbit of outer space history. There’s no question the astronauts were spooked, especially considering how eerie it must have felt to be out of touch with Earth on the far side of the Moon. But once the sounds stopped, they soldiered on — part of the grand human effort to touch another world.

“I don’t remember that incident exciting me enough to take it seriously,” Gene Cernan told NASA on Monday. “It was probably just radio interference. Had we thought it was something other than that we would have briefed everyone after the flight. We never gave it another thought.”

Messages from the Ringed Planet

Want to hear some real outer space music? Click the Saturn video and listen to the eerie sound of electrons streaming along Saturn’s magnetic field to create the aurora.

Surprise! Fireballs Light up the Radio Sky, Hinting at Unexplored Physics

A series of All-Sky (fish eye) images showing the plasma trail left by a fireball, which extends 92 degrees across the northern half of the sky. These images are 5 second snapshots captured at 37.8 MHz with the LWA1 radio telescope. The bright steady sources (Cygnus A, Cassiopeia A, the galactic plane, etc) have been removed using image subtraction. Image Credit: Gregory Taylor (University of New Mexico)

At any given moment, it seems, the sky is sizzling with celestial phenomena waiting to be stumbled upon. New research using the Long Wavelength Array (LWA), a collection of radio dishes in New Mexico, found quite the surprise. Fireballs — those brilliant meteors that leave behind glowing streaks in the night sky — unexpectedly emit a low radio frequency, hinting at new unexplored physics within these meteor streaks.

The LWA keeps its eyes to the sky day and night, probing a poorly explored region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It’s one of only a handful of blind searches carried out below 100 MHz.

Over the course of 11,000 hours, graduate student Kenneth Obenberger from the University of New Mexico and colleagues found 49 radio bursts, 10 of which came from fireballs.

Most of the bursts appear as large point sources, limited to four degrees, roughly eight times the size of the full Moon. Some, however, extend several degrees across the sky. On January 21, 2014, a source left a trail covering 92 degrees in less than 10 seconds (see above). The end point continued to glow for another 90 seconds.

The only known astrophysical object with this ability is a fireball. So Obenberger and colleagues set out to see if NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network had detected anything at the same location and time as the bursts.

While the network shares only a portion of the sky with the LWA, the fireballs seen in this direction matched fireballs caught by NASA. Additionally, most bursts did occur directly after the peak of a bright meteor shower.

The top panel is a histogram showing the number of events per day as compared to several major meteor showers (red lines).
The top panel is a histogram showing the number of events per day as compared to several major meteor showers (red lines).

The fireballs detected here are extremely energetic, traveling with an average velocity of 68 km/s, near the upper end of the meteorite velocity spectrum (from 11 km/s to 72 km/s).

They can be seen in the radio due to radio forward scattering. When fast-moving meteoroids strike Earth’s atmosphere they heat and ionize the air in their path. The luminous ionized trails reflect radio waves. During a meteor shower these waves can not only be picked up by vast arrays, such as the one in New Mexico, but by your TV and AM/FM radio transmitter.

Whereas most fireballs have been detected well over 100 MHz, “we’ve discovered that they also produce a low frequency pulse,” says Obenberger’s PhD advisor, Gregory Taylor.

This pulse is telling us something about the physical conditions in the plasma created by the meteor.  “It could be cyclotron radiation (emitted from moving charges in a magnetic field), or perhaps some sort of plasma wave leakage from the trail, or maybe something completely different,” says Obenberger. “It’s too early to tell at the moment.”

Meteors come in a range of energies and sizes. So investigating this unexpected signature further will yield new insights into the interaction between meteors and our atmosphere.

“This is just the beginning,” says Taylor. “Now we have to put this new technique to use — find out more about the spectrum of the pulse and the meteors that produce it. It’s an entirely new way of looking at meteors and how they interact with our atmosphere.”

If you’re curious what’s currently emitting radio waves in the New Mexico sky check out the LWA’s live radio cam.

The paper was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters today and is available for download here.