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S2 Ep14: Early Black Holes Formed Before Stars?

One of the unexpected realities of JWST is the discovery that we have really been asking the wrong questions in many astronomy areas. For instance: we generally asked how supermassive black holes and galaxies formed, with a basic assumption that these things happened in some interrelated process. We thought stellar mass black holes came from stars and that there might have been tiny primordial black holes that evaporated away, but that was it. Closed case. Black holes formed with all the normal structures we experience today. Except that now, JWST’s observations require us to find a way to accelerate the formation of those structures, and one way to do that is to seed the universe with black holes.

S2 Ep13: Yes, Scientists DO Look at the (Dark Energy Survey) Data

Every time I get the digital “why can’t you scientists just look at the data” lecture, I wonder what people think scientists do. All we do is look at data, and when that data tells us our understanding of the universe is wrong, we’re pretty good at accepting the data and throwing out our false understandings… even when the data makes our life a whole lot harder. Such is the case with the accelerating rate of expansion of the Universe…

S2 Ep12: Celebrating the Mars Robots that Could

Robots on Mars have a long history of exceeding all possible expectations. From Spirit and Opportunity lasting far beyond their planned 90-day missions to Ingenuity lasting 72 flights out of a planned five, these craft have become so beloved that we mourn their missions ending. Today, while we recognize NASA’s Day of Remembrance, we also celebrate all the Mars missions that have done more than expected.

S2 Ep11: The Compass (Sometimes Kinda) Points North

If you take a compass and follow its pointy little needle, you will end up in Northern Canada but not at the North Pole. If you have a boat, you’ll end up on Ellesmere Island wondering where Santa is hiding. The fact that the rotational north pole of the Earth and the magnetic pole of the Earth don’t align means that if you want to actually get to the Earth’s rotational North Pole – the one the pole sticks out of on your globe – you have to look up corrections online and veer a little bit in whatever direction the correction happens to be at the moment. And if you are catching this show sometime far, far in the future, then Ellesmere Island that is true in early 2024 is likely no longer true.

S2 Ep9: Solar Cycle to the Maximum, 2025

Researchers currently think solar maximum – when the Sun is most active – will occur sometime in late 2024 to early 2025. With this cycle, we will experience just what a good blast of solar radiation can do to the small sats, CanSats, and other satellites in low-earth orbit. If history is to be listened to, it’s only a matter of time before a solar event wreaks havoc on satellites and our ground-based society.

S2 Ep8: Planetary Formation Leads to Strange New Worlds

We keep tweaking our format a little bit every episode, trying to find the right mix for YouTube, podcasts, and now, short-form video. We think we the setup is on the mark now and thank you for your patience as we made adjustments. Soon, we will have content to share on TikTok and Reels. For now, enjoy this week’s deep dive into planetary formation and all the ways scientists have tried to explain stellar systems. 

S2 Ep7: The Volcano That Could… But Didn’t

Dr. Pamela is big on volcanoes, and she hoped we’d have an awesome new eruption to report, but we don’t. There is, however, still a lot of news this week that doesn’t include an Iceland eruption. Instead, the news includes the first images from a new spacecraft, updates on Lucy’s discovery of a contact binary, and more on the OSIRIS-REx sample return. (This episode was originally released in video format on November 24, 2023.)

S2 Ep5: Spooky Season Space Images

From October 25, 2023: Around our parent collaboration, CosmoQuest, Halloween is, hands-down, the most beloved season of the year. Costumes are worn. Yards are decorated. We are here for all the strangers that knock on our door – the weirdos, the witches, and the oh-so-many werewolves – and there will be as much candy as we can afford given out. We know we are not the only ones. With about a week to go, we know that any day now, NASA, ESA, ESO, and others will begin releasing their spooky season images. There will be nebulae cropped with the contrast adjusted just so to reveal witches’ hats, and others rotated to reveal ghosts and maybe – I can hope – a goblin or two.

S2 Ep4: Making Anti-Matter… Matter

In this episode, we look at what tree rings can teach us about past earthquakes, and how well machine learning can identify life, like trees, from carbon-rich materials that were never alive to distant galaxies and spinning black holes. We even take a deep dive into anti-matter, but not a literal deep dive… just a conceptual deep dive.

S2 Ep3: Watch the Annular Eclipse on October 14!

When we headed into recording this episode, I didn’t know if there would be a government shutdown or not, and I have to admit, on Saturday, September 30, I spent more than a few hours binge-watching TV shows while frequently updating my news feeds. This episode would have looked very different with a shutdown. Since we got a budget, today’s episode focuses on science. In the first segment, I get to talk about something I never thought I’d even read about — the effects of spawning anchovies on energy dissipation in the ocean. Along with that fishy story, we have news from the Mars rovers, pretty images, and information on watching the October 14th annular eclipse.

S2 Ep2: It’s Not Aliens (We Also Want Aliens)

There are some news cycles that are just plain weird, and this news cycle tried really, really hard to be one of them. Headlines last week highlighted that JWST observed methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet, which is entirely true. This headline was followed by stories that the reason could be aliens… and there is not enough data to be aliens. We want there to be definitive signs of life on other worlds. We want to know that life is common. We want the universe to thrive with societies capable of art, exploration, empathy, and science. We want our universe to not be a tremendous waste of space. And it is really frustrating to see these stories that inevitably imply that researchers are trying to cover up the truth. We’re not; we’re impatiently waiting for there to be enough evidence that we can say, yes, there is life out there among the stars. And that evidence isn’t here. 

S2 Ep1: More (Failed) Observations of Dark Matter

In this week’s episode, we look at the upcoming solar maximum, how solar activity affects Neptune, the robotic invasion fleet on Mars, and how some of the weirdest star systems in reality have been able to form. In our closer look, we fail to see dark matter – like everyone – but observe its gravitational impact on light from objects we can see.

S1 Ep21: A River Runs Through It – Mars and Titan

This episode reminds you to look up, look out, and reflect on what we see around us. Stories cover a weird white dwarf that is doing things our Sun may do billions of years from now, how satellite images can now be used to measure river flows here and on Mars, and Titan, as well as the emerging field of planetary geoarcheology, that will help us understand just how long it will take for Mars rovers to become buried relics. And also climate change. Buckle up, the news isn’t good.

S1 Ep 20: Satellite Constellations and Early Warning Systems

While putting together this show, I often find myself thinking “Wow, this release is like that science fiction plot line” or “Oooo, this is new… I hope someone uses this in a story.”

Most of the time, when I think things like that, I’m reading about black holes, star formation, or planets of new and weirder layouts.

Sometimes, however, I read stories and think that has to do with tech, and maybe we don’t want to go in that direction. I can’t tell you if advances in AI are going to lead us to Cylons, or if climate change is going to destroy our civilization like it destroyed the civilization in that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What I can tell you is science fiction is how humanity explores the consequences of our behavior. These fictions can sometimes give us insights into possible futures we probably want to avoid.

And this includes the future shown in Wall-E.

Or at least some of the future shown in Wall-E. When our little robot friends depart the Earth, we see it is surrounded by an almost impenetrable shell of satellites and satellite pieces. When the movie came out in 2008, this seemed like a far-off possibility, but according to satellite cataloger Jonathan McDowell, there are now 18 satellite constellations, like Starlink, being planned. These constellations will contain 543,811 satellites. This is a whole lot of missions to try and keep from colliding and all it takes is one particularly bad collision to transform the more than half-million objects from useful technologies to a shield of shrapnel that protects our universe from us by trapping us here.

In our closer look today, we are going to look at early warning systems that are being developed, and how future – more highly mobile satellites, can both do good and create chaos.

S1 Ep19: The Universe is (Still) Trying to Murder Us

A few years ago, an audience member pointed out that I always seem a little too happy when discussing death and destruction from the sky. I’m not actually excited about our universe trying to kill off humanity, I’m excited about science, and it just turns out that a lot of science involves… the universe trying to murder us in myriad different ways. In today’s episode, we’re going to look at everything from how past Earth couldn’t support photosynthesis because the days were just too short, to current Earth letting us get hit by more Cosmic Rays prior to Earthquakes going off, and to supernovae threatening our world while alien stars eat other planets. Science, sometimes, is just kind of violent. And if I seem excited… well, I like science even if science doesn’t like us.

S1 Ep18: Once and Future Life on Venus, Earth, and Mars

Each week, when we set off to do this show, we start with one core idea: We want to tell you what is new in space and astronomy… and remember Earth is a planet too. When we select stories, we try to find the ones we’re excited to talk about over coffee, or the ones we know we will be sharing randomly with strangers who make the mistake of asking, “What do astronomers do?” We are here, week after week, to inflict space on others, and I hope that when we do you will return the favor and inflict this show on others. Before I get busy talking about alien planets, the search for fossil life, and the life and death of our universe’s first stars, I want to remind you that we have a podcast. On your next road trip, fill the boring scenery with descriptions of the universe beyond our skies, and help us in our goal of leaving no mind un-scienced. Together, we can make this a summer of astronomy podcast listening.

S1 Ep17: Earth Science is Planetary Science

In this episode, we need to take one of our periodic looks at our planet’s science and understand what it means to life as we know it. But we will only look at Earth for the first two segments. Then we’re going to race away to enjoy an interview by Beth Johnson with Dr. Kat Volk about the icy Trans-Neptunian Objects that fill the spaces around Neptune and beyond Pluto. In our final segment, we look at all the amazing – and in one case alarming – launch attempts of the past two weeks.

S1 Ep16: A New Space Race?

Space science isn’t where the money is… at least not yet. Astronomy and planetary science in the U.S. are funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and a variety of smaller foundations and extremely wealthy individuals.

And this means that sometimes science can only advance at the speed Congress is willing to budget. This past week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addressed the congressional NASA authorizing committee. During this event, Senator Maria Cantwell called for the passage of a multi-year budget authorization.

NASA last had a multi-year authorization from 2011-2013, when Nelson was a senator on the authorization committee. Now that he is on the other side of the desk, he is requesting a five-year authorization. These bills don’t actually provide the funding – that requires appropriations committees – but the authorization does guide what should be funded and prioritized.

As was pointed out by multiple people during this meeting: The U.S. is in a new space race with China, and our ability to remain competitive in low-earth orbit is now an economic issue, with communications and imaging satellites powering multiple sectors. If a multi-year authorization is passed, there is hope folks will be able to dream, focus on research, and maybe, just maybe, spend less time asking for money.

Speaking of… Want to support CosmoQuest? http://CosmoQuest.org/Donate

S1 Ep13: SETI and the Very Large Array

While we could spend an entire episode on Earth, there is just too much going on in the universe to linger anywhere too long. From our world, we journey out to look at the super massive black hole in the core of M87, and then Beth Johnson will join us with an interview of the SETI Institute’s Dr Chenoa Tremblay and how radio astronomers are one step closer to simultaneously looking for life and doing science with the very large array.

This interview highlights how advances in signal detection and processing will now allow researchers to both study the science of distant stars and look for potential signals of alien civilizations. New partnerships are growing between the SETI Institute and the Very Large Array in New Mexico, and in collaboration we can expect both more research and a deeper understanding of any potential limits for finding life.

S1 Ep12: Do Not Look Directly at this Podcast

This episode features the kind of news week where we looked at the April 20th eclipse in the South Pacific and decided it just wasn’t a huge priority. Between watching Starship’s “will it won’t it” launch attempts and getting news of discoveries in cosmology and new software in planetary science… and the discovery of a totally weird rock formation on Mars… there is a lot going on out there. We’ll have a total eclipse on April 8, 2024. With that event occurring in less than a year, now is the time to start planning your travel if you want to see a transformative celestial experience.