SciTech Now Episode 534

In this episode of SciTech Now, discovering the farthest object humanity has ever visited, studying sharks through citizen science and the race to send small launch vehicles to space. 


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Coming up... Drone security...

As the threat grows, we have the ability to detect drones no matter how, when, or where they're being flown.

Discovering the farthest object humanity has ever visited...

Right now the New Horizons probe is more than four billion miles away from Earth.

Studying sharks through citizen science...

If these sharks are migrating, they might be using the shipwrecks as rest stops along their migration route.

The race to send small launch vehicles to space...

The hardest part is putting all the pieces together, so you have rocket engines, you have structural systems, you have electronics and brains.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

As the popularity of drones grows, safety precautions are becoming more important.

Up next, a look at monitoring drone usage.

Here's the story.

So you don't just have hobbyists using drones anymore.

You have terrorists using the exact same drone you have access to today in the Middle East, and you have criminals using drones to smuggle weapons and drugs across the border and into correctional facilities.

These are the drones that you and I can buy and have at our house tomorrow from Amazon, right?

They come with high-definition cameras.

They come with preinstalled GPS systems.

This is not an expensive piece of equipment, but it's very sophisticated.

Drones of Prey is developing counter-drone security for critical infrastructure.

We're here at the Mission Road power plant.

It's the future home to EPIcenter here in San Antonio.

Certainly safety and security are paramount.

That's both cybersecurity and physical security.

Where something like the Drones of Prey would come in would be in the case where you have a drone that is maybe just for fun, trying to enter into the space beyond the fence.

It's already a problem among utilities at their power plants.

So, we had to come up with a new solution to make sure moving forward that as the threat grows we have the ability to detect drones no matter how, when, or where they're being flown.

And that's why we at Drones of Prey are focused on using physical sensors like line-of-sight cameras, infrared detection, and audio detection to make sure that we're as reliable as possible no matter how the drone's being flown.

One of the things that makes these drones so useful to carry out any kind of mission is how easily they can be repaired.

We can lose any of these propellers.

We can lose any of these arms.

We can lose any of these legs and have this repaired and ready to fly again within a week.

So it doesn't take an extreme amount of work to be able to practice, get better, and then be able to carry out an attack or some kind of malicious mission.

You can do it.

I can do it.

That's why it's scary.

So, I mean, there's a few different ways that the capture could occur.

It could happen with a clawlike device.

We could be looking at depending on the type of event just knocking the drone out of the sky, depending on what's on the ground below the drone.

So there are several different solution types that could come into play.

But really what's most important is making sure this detection and tracking system is as sophisticated and reliable as possible so that no matter what the end interdiction model looks like, we have the ability to do it on a reliable, case-by-case basis.

And the reason that we're so excited is EPIcenter has been funded by several different energy companies around the Texas area.

And as a result of these people recognizing the need to not just develop new energy technologies but new technologies for the energy sector, for safety and security.

You know, sporting arenas would be my first thought about that, as well, large-scale festivals.

But also you think about city infrastructure, counties, state facilities, certainly military would be a core potential customer there, as well.

So, I think it has a lot of applications any place where a drone could be where it shouldn't be.

To be able to have a quick and ready defense I think would seem prudent to many industries.

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Dave Mosher is a science reporter who's written for and

Throughout his career, he has watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse, and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss NASA's New Horizons probe and its unprecedented mission.

So, first of all, where has it gone now?

What are we seeing that no humans have ever seen before?

Right now the New Horizons probe is more than four billion miles away from Earth, which is ridiculous.

It takes more than six hours for radio transmissions moving at the speed of light to get back to us.


And it has flown past this mysterious -- less mysterious object now, which is most commonly called Ultima Thule, though its official name is 2014 MU69.


What's the big deal about us seeing it?

So, this object is called a Kuiper belt object.

Pluto is also a Kuiper belt object.

This is kind of this zone of icy, primordial things in the solar system, these building blocks of larger things like planets.

And the key thing that we've learned from this flyby is, like, these are two very pristine, sort of undisturbed objects that have kind of slowly crashed together.

They're barely contacting each other.

It's like two orbs.

And what scientists are learning is that these are the building blocks of planets, like Earth and Jupiter and other things throughout the solar system.

So we're getting a look back billions of years in the past at like kind of how the solar system came together.

So, we're getting pictures, and we will be getting pictures of this flyby for a while?


So this is one of the really frustrating and also really interesting things about New Horizons is it's an almost 20-year-old spacecraft now.

It launched in 2006.

But it was built before that, and it is running on nuclear energy, this radioisotope power source, but it's kind of limited.

It's transferring the heat into electrical energy, and as a result of this it only has like about 15 watts for its antenna, which is one quarter of a 60-watt incandescent light bulb, which four billion miles from earth kind of like cramps your style a little bit.

So it takes a very long time for it to transmit all this data because it's far away, because it's low power, because it's old technology.

So it's going to take 20 months for NASA to get all the data back from this flyby that lasted basically a few hours.

And by that time it's off to the races.

It's traveling at an amazing speed, faster than what we kind of propelled it out of the earth at.


So, it's moving I think about 32,000 miles an hour, 33,000 miles an hour, which is incredibly fast, and they're actually kind of plotting where it's going to go next a few years from now because the energy supply will last for for that long.

They'll be able to hit another one of these objects if they're lucky.

And did they turn it into kind of sleep mode and back on again?

How do they make sure that they'll have enough juice left when it sees the next cool thing?

So, because of the radioisotope power source, the plutonium 238 that's packed into this nuclear battery, if you want to call it that, it's going to last for another decade or so.

Longer than we are, yeah.

Well, it will last longer than we are because it'll take hundreds of years to fully sort of cool down, but the electricity will keep going for at least another decade.

There's nothing that we're going to build today that's gonna be able to catch up to it or pass it, right, because this trajectory is going and going and going, and we'd have to build something that would be infinitely faster to even come close.

So, it's funny you mentioned that.

There's a project called Breakthrough Starshot that is working to build nanocraft with these light sails that are propelled by ultrapowerful laser beams, which if you aim them back at Earth could ignite an entire city.

But this is 20, 30 years on the horizon.

They do want to start doing -- they want to send them to other star systems, but first, as sort of like a warm-up, they're going to start sending them to objects within the solar system.

So we could conceivably catch up to something like New Horizons and just take a peek at it if we wanted to spend a few million dollars on a mission like that.

Getting back to the object it just flew by -- have we learned anything about it?

Is it what we expected it to be?

I mean, those sort of sci-fi animations have this kind of big, cratered object that looks kind of like just any other piece of space rock.


So, what we've learned so far is it's got this reddish hue, which is actually not unusual for very distant objects.

These are called 'tholins.'

It's a chemical -- like billions-of-years-long chemical-breakdown process with cosmic rays and these carbon-containing chemicals.

So, that's kind of expected.

What's not expected is how pristine these things are.

Because of their orientation, because of the way they're shaped, and because of the rotation of the object, It's telling researchers kind of how planets come together.

That was a very unresolved thing and we're not getting much more clarity on that, and it's sort of like a peanuts thing.

But when you're talking about how planets form, it's huge.

I mean, we owe our existence to these minor considerations.

So over time we're going to learn exactly what we know about it.

But again it's going to take 20 months for all the data to come back.

So this is going to be in fits and starts, what we're learning about this topic because we don't know everything yet because we don't have all the data.

All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

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On December 24th, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to orbit the Moon and the first to witness the magnificent sight called 'Earthrise.'

Now we can see this historic event exactly as the astronauts saw it, thanks to data from NASA's lunar reconnaissance orbiter, or LRO.

LRO's superb global lunar maps, combined with the astronauts' own photographs, reveal where Apollo 8 was over the Moon and even its precise orientation in space, when the astronauts first saw the Earth rising above the Moon's barren horizon.

It happened a few minutes after 10:30 a.m. Houston time as Apollo 8 was coming around from the far side of the Moon for the fourth time.

Mission Commander Frank Borman was in the left-hand seat, preparing to turn the spacecraft to a new orientation, according to the flight plan.

Navigator Jim Lovell was in the spacecraft's lower equipment bay about to make sightings on lunar landmarks with the onboard sextant.

And Bill Anders was in the right-hand seat observing the Moon through his side window and taking pictures with a Hasselblad still camera fitted with a 250-millimeter telephoto lens.

Meanwhile, a second Hasselblad with an 80-millimeter lens was mounted in Borman's front-facing window, the so-called 'rendezvous window,' photographing the Moon on an automatic timer, a new picture every 20 seconds.

These photographs, matched with LRO's high-resolution terrain maps, show that Borman was still turning Apollo 8 when the Earth appeared.

It was only because of the timing of this rotation that the Earthrise, which had happened on Apollo 8's three previous orbits but was unseen by the astronauts, now came into view in Bill Anders' side window.

Here's what it looked like as re-created from LRO data by Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio.

You'll hear the astronauts' voices as captured by Apollo 8's onboard tape recorder beginning with Frank Borman announcing the start of the roll maneuver, and you'll see the rising Earth move from one window to another as Apollo 8 turns.

For the astronauts, seeing the Earthrise was an unexpected and electrifying experience, and one of the three photographs taken by Bill Anders became an iconic image of the 20th century.

In 2018, the International Astronomical Union commemorated the event by naming a 25-mile-diameter crater Anders' Earthrise.

A smaller crater was given the name 8 Homeward.

Both craters are visible in the iconic Earthrise photograph.

I'm Andrew Chaikin, author of 'A Man on the Moon.'

You may have heard the term 'citizen science.'

It's the idea that everyday people like you and me help with scientific studies by recording observations and sending them to a central database.

The more observations, the better the science.

That's the idea behind a study of sand tiger sharks off the U.S. East Coast.

So, sand tiger sharks are these iconic coastal sharks that occur in really large numbers off the coast of North Carolina.

And they're really easy to identify because they have this really kind of ragged-tooth grin.

They're very docile, and they have spots along their sides.

And it turns out those spotted toothy-grin sharks like North Carolina.

Sand tiger sharks hang out on shipwrecks that we have off of our coast.

This is such a special area of the world.

It's known as the graveyard of the Atlantic because it's the resting grounds, the permanent resting grounds, for hundreds of shipwrecks.

The sharks are most likely drawn to the wrecks by the large numbers of fish that live on the wrecks.

The fish are food.

Sand tiger sharks are also found on shipwrecks from New England to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, we don't know what the sand tiger sharks are doing on the shipwrecks right here in our watery backyard.

There's numerous schools of thoughts.

So, for example, if these sharks are migrating, they might be using the shipwrecks as rest stops along their migration route.

We also think that sand tiger sharks might be staying here year-round.

And so that's where this citizen-science program comes in.

We've identified these sharks year after year through photos submitted by citizen scientists.

If we're able to see that spot pattern, we then go into the backside as researchers, and in the backside, this is where part of the magic happens, and we can take a photo like this photo.

So we're looking at the side of the shark.

You can see the spots visible.

So now we're going to mark the location where the first dorsal fin meets the body, the second dorsal fin, and then this fin right under here.

And now we can go through and we click on the location of each of these spots.

When we put a green dot over the spot, it means that spot has been mapped.

And then once we're done mapping the spots, we submit it.

And this spot-mapped shark will be compared to all the other shark photos that citizen scientists have submitted to determine whether this is a shark we've already seen or a new individual.

The spots are like human fingerprints because each shark has a unique set of spots.

The spots on sand tiger sharks stay constant, and they are visible at birth.

That combination makes the spots a perfect way to identify a shark and as more photos are submitted track the sharks movements.

Are relatively easy for divers to approach because they're so docile, and it makes them really great subjects for photography.

So, if I were to see that shark I'd want this image right here because I can see those spots right across her side.

There is this inherent fear of sharks.

'Jaws' started this tremendous fear cycle around sharks, around the ocean.

So, it's no surprise that sand tiger sharks are a popular attraction at the North Carolina Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores.

The aquarium is collaborating with the Spot A Shark USA research in hopes of correcting some of the myths surrounding sharks.

Most people don't realize the diversity, the complexity, the sensitivity of those marine environments and how valuable those are to everything we do, from recreation dollars to tourism money to our commercial and recreational fishing industry, which supports and provides the food for which we need.

If we don't have healthy oceans, if we don't have well-managed fisheries and sustainable fisheries, then we're all going to lose from that.

So with the aquariums, the hope is that they come in, that they're inspired to not only learn more but also to take action on behalf of these animals in the oceans.

The sand tiger sharks are just -- they're there, we're there, and they come in, they check you out.

You don't have anything they're interested in, they're on their way.

Bobby Purifoy is curious about the changes he's witnessing in the ocean.

He started diving when he was 10 years old.

He owns the Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City now.

We see different fish every day.

We have four seasons in North Carolina.

We have hurricanes.

We have doldrums.

We have calm. We have rough.

We have cold. We have hot.

We have Gulf Stream.

We have a Labradoran current.

We have shipwrecks.

We have reefs.

We have rocks. We have sand.

It's different, and every day everything changes.

Why are the sharks here?

Why did they come here?

Why haven't they been here all along?

Sharks are top predators in many systems, including right here off our coast, and sand tiger sharks as a top predator really help ensure that our coastal ocean remains healthy.

And if our coastal ocean is healthy, then it's able to continue to produce the large numbers of fish that so many people, especially here off the coast of North Carolina, depend on for their livelihoods.

So learning why they are here in such large numbers on these unique shipwrecks is really critical to maintaining the health of this coastal ocean system that we have.

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When you think about leaders at the forefront of developing the latest rocket technology, you might think of Space X in California or NASA, but a startup in central Texas is hoping to change that.

Firefly Aerospace is working to send small launch vehicles to space.

Here's the story.

With a rocket you have almost no margin of error.

If one thing goes wrong, the whole thing fails.

Firefly is a startup aerospace company, and the particular area of aerospace that we work in is called new space, and it's a movement to dramatically lower the cost and increase the frequency of access to space.

The thing that we do in particular is build the rockets, the launch vehicles to take things to space.

Within all of that new space, we occupy a niche of smaller launchers.

So, you have Space X and Blue Origin, and their aspirations are to build bigger and bigger rockets to do bigger and bigger missions like going to the Moon, going to Mars, human spaceflight.

What we're doing at Firefly is concentrating on the smaller end of the market for smaller satellites that have different applications like communications, Earth observation, and military resiliency.

The hardest part about building a rocket is getting someone to pay for it.

But if we're talking just about the technical challenges associated with building a rocket, the hardest part is putting all the pieces together.

So, you have rocket engines, you have structural systems, you have electronics and brains.

Putting all of those things together and getting them to work harmoniously together as a highly efficient integrated system is very difficult.

And the reason it's difficult is because there is no road map that tells you exactly how to do this.

You put it all together, and things happen that you hadn't even imagined would happen.

Our rocket is built of carbon-fiber composites, and what that basically is are very strong carbon fibers immersed in a resin or a glue that holds it all together.

It turns out that that combination has very strong material properties.

It's much stronger per unit weight than metal is.

And weight is a huge thing on a rocket.

The amount of useful payload that you can take to space is diminished as the rocket becomes heavier and heavier.

So the lighter you can make the rocket, the more payload and satellites and things you can take to space.

As far as the rest of the rocket goes, we try to use heritage technologies.

We're a startup company.

So we have to get from development to making money as soon as possible.

So wherever we can use knowledge that's been gleaned and all the other government programs, we do that.

So our rocket engines for example burn liquid oxygen and kerosene, which is the same fuel combination that propelled early space pioneers way back to the '60s.



The thing that I'm most excited about with Firefly is just being part of this mission.

This new-space mission is just so captivating.

It's so energizing.

It's so difficult from a technical perspective, so it's very gratifying to develop new technical solutions to hard problems, and it's space.

And I can tell you there's something about space.

We live in an unbelievably fortunate time for us to be alive right now.

If you look at all of human history right now, we are the first people that are actually venturing off of this tiny part of the universe.

So, I feel very blessed and fortunate to be part of that time, and the future possibilities are really unlimited.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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