SciTech Now Episode 604

In this episode of SciTech Now, launching a mission to Saturn’s largest moon, delivering the water we drink, an online platform helps keeps students in school and the mind of the octopus.



Coming up... Launching a mission to Saturn's largest moon...

It's the first quadcopter that's ever going to be sent to another world.

...delivering the water we drink...

Most people don't think of their water as a product, but, actually, it is. platform helps keep students in school...

We work with around 80 colleges across the country.

The impact, I think, has been pretty swift.

...the mind of the octopus.

The octopus brain is distributed with two-thirds of its neurons in its arms.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

It's called Dragonfly, a drone-like spacecraft that is going to travel to Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons.

Will Dragonfly find traces of life on Titan, and how did scientists come up with this plan and win a more than $800 million prize from NASA?

Joining me now is Dave Mosher, senior correspondent for Space, Science, and Technology at Business Insider.

We want to go to Titan why, again?

Titan is a extremely weird place.

I mean, that's the basic reason, but it's weird in that it's sort of a time capsule.

If you're a scientist, you're looking at it as a sort of time capsule of Earth in the past.

It's this place where all of these organic compounds and maybe a little water and some sunlight and some other things are just mixing together, and they want to see if, on this world, which actually has an atmosphere and flowing liquid, there could be possibly these prebiotic conditions, these places where life, the very first parts of it, could have formed and maybe led to the life that we know today.

Okay, and what kind of a spacecraft are we sending there?

The spacecraft is absolutely nuts, and this is why I find the mission so exciting.

It's the first quadcopter that's ever going to be sent to another world.

Okay, when I think of quadcopters, I think of the things that you can buy at the mall and the little, you know, four spinning sides, and it's like little drones that kids can play with, but on a much bigger scale.


This thing is the size of a lawn mower, and it's got a nuclear power supply on the back of it.

[ Laughter ] So it's just slightly different from the things you would find flying around the mall, but it's got drills in its feet.

It's got a seismometer on it.

It's got cameras.

It's got radar.

It's got --- just everything you could possibly think of is packed into this flying lawn mower, basically, and it's just a nutty mission, and it's going to look for signs of life.

It's going to study Titan's weather.

It's going to do all of these things that we've never been able to do before, period, on another world, but of all the worlds we're picking, we're picking the one that is maybe most like Earth in the distant past.


A nuclear battery or a nuclear power source means that this battery runs out how long?

The great thing about these power supplies, they're made with Plutonium-238.

This is a leftover... a thing that's created from the leftovers of the Cold War, the nuclear weapons production process.


We've only just now, you know, decades later, figured out how to make the stuff again, and Congress has put the funding to make it, but it decays very slowly.

About half disappears every 87-ish years.


So these missions can last decades.

They're saying, 'Oh, it's going to last, you know, 2, 2.8 years,' but it's going to go much longer than that.

That's the baseline mission.

I think that Dragonfly will last much longer than about 3 years.

So how long would it take Dragonfly to get to Titan?

This is part of the problem and why you need a nuclear battery.

Saturn is 886 million miles away on average from Earth.


It takes about 2 hours for light to reach one way, 4 hours round trip at that distance, and the light there is about 1 percent as strong as it is on Earth.

So if you're going to send something, you need a power supply that isn't solar powered because otherwise your solar panels will be, you know, astronomically huge.


And it's going to take 8 years, so you need something that's going to last.

And then what does it do, circle around for a while, and does it send data back?

I mean, it's not sending it at the speed of light, right?

It's going to take us a while to get that information back.

There's going to be a very nail-biting moment where they have to land the thing without making a crater on Titan, and that's going to be challenging.

It's got to get through an atmosphere which is almost twice as thick as Earth's.

That's actually kind of helpful because we understand Earth, so we can figure out, you know, an aeroshell and some other systems to get it down safely and some parachutes.

That should be fine.

Once it gets there, it's going to use that nuclear power source to charge up the battery.

Once that battery is charged, it's going to be able to fly around.

It's going to take... you know, survey the area.

It can pick and choose where it wants to go, and most of it is going to be autonomous.

The scientists back on Earth are occasionally going to get some data.

But they're not going to be remote controlling it from here because they can't.


Because it takes 2 light hours for, you know, to see, to get even one signal back at you, you have to use artificial intelligence to help you guide the spacecraft on the surface of another world, but the good news is through consumer technology, we've, like, we've gotten there already.

These drones that we have flying around, most of them are operating autonomously, hovering in space.

You tell them to move to a certain waypoint, they'll do it.

We already have all these technologies, and this is why this mission is possible now as opposed to even 5 years ago.

It's scheduled to launch in 2026, and then it's going to land, in theory, in 2034, so...

And when do they lock down all of the tech, so to speak, the best camera that, sort of, is on the market today or the best, you know, AI, a year, 2 years before that?

So typically when you're launching a spacecraft, the lag is anywhere from 3 to 5 or even more years because they want lots of data about how these systems perform.


So you have to do a number... You have to jump over a number of hurdles to get the hardware you want.

You have to put it in vacuum chambers and bombard it with radiation and get it really hot and get it really cold.

And, speaking of Titan, the surface temperature is about -290 degrees Fahrenheit.


So that's almost down to liquid nitrogen temperatures.

So when I say liquid, it's not water we're talking about.

We're talking about liquid methane, liquid ethane.

These are hydrocarbons that you would find in natural gas.

So what does it touchdown on?

Where they're going to land first is this dune area called Shangri-La, which it has a great name, and then from there... That's kind of, like, you know, the easy, like, warm-up space.

And then from there, they're going to move to more rugged terrain and try to do more ambitious things, maybe, like, check out this crater where there might have been, you know, water and light and these organic compounds mixing together.

Maybe there's some prebiotic chemistry happening there, and they're also going to try to look for these signs of cryovolcanoes because there's a liquid subsurface ocean underneath Titan's crust, which is about 60 miles thick.

Will it be able to detect what's in that liquid, if there's any kind of beginnings of a cellular organism that would say, 'Hey, this is what the soup is producing.'

They're going to have to figure out what exactly the instruments they want to put on this are and how sensitive they'll be because there are sacrifices you have to make to put all this stuff on to one spacecraft.


The Dragonfly spacecraft will have drills in its landing gear so they can drill into the ground.

All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is one of the biggest stories of the blue economy.

The focus is now on replacing the lead service lines that run into the city's homes.

Detroit Public Television's Great Lakes Bureau gives us a firsthand look at how clean water and new pipes are starting to resolve the Flint water crisis.

At the Great Lakes Water Authority, they produce the most important part of the blue economy -- the water we drink.

Cheryl Porter is responsible for overseeing the process of creating drinking water.

Our industry is governed by a lot of rules, and those rules are laws.

We make sure that we're following the regulatory standards in a way that you can drink our product.

Most people don't think of their water as a product, but, actually, it is, and we are ensuring that throughout the treatment process we are producing a product that is safe for consumption.

The Great Lakes Water Authority provides drinking water to over 125 communities throughout the state of Michigan, almost 40% of the state.

Since October of 2015, one of those communities is Flint.

The water crisis in Flint is the biggest story to hit the blue economy.

Clean water is flowing to Flint from the Great Lakes Water Authority, and the focus is now on replacing the lead service lines that run into the city's homes.

It's a massive infrastructure project that could cost over $100 million.

I think that there's some exciting things that can happen as a result of what's happened in Flint.

We've got to be responsible and fix this and get people the services and supports they need.

Flint has an example of how to solve the problem just an hour away in Lansing, the state's capital.

After experiencing its own lead water issues over a decade ago, Lansing set out to replace its lead service lines.

Richard Peffley is the General Manager of the Lansing Board of Water & Light.

We brought on crews, added to our workforce in that area, and we've started doing it, and we've done about 13,500 out of the 14,000 lead services that are in Lansing.

We're just over 500 left to do, and we do about two a day.

The project has taken almost a decade and cost over $40 million, paid for by a slight increase in water rates.

Replacing the lead service lines in Lansing has been a learning process.

We used to trench.

That took 9 hours and cost about $10,000.

Now we do the directional pulling, we call it, and that costs $3,600.

Lansing replaces its service lines by attaching a new copper line to the old lead one and pulling it out of the house.

In Flint, they've adopted the same method.

They call it the FAST Start program.

We partnered with Lansing Board of Water & Light so they could train us in this new technique that really takes half the time and doesn't cost as much, so now we're ready to move forward.

It's estimated that there are 17,000 lead service lines to replace in Flint.

Karen Weaver sees an opportunity in the FAST Start program.

A huge project like this could create much-needed jobs in Flint.

That's why we're trying to really work with my community college and getting some young people trained, putting them in these apprenticeship programs so they can be helpful with that and get a trade, as well, so I'm excited about this opportunity for us to hire some of our own people to be part of the solution to helping fix Flint with the FAST Start program.

Cheryl Porter sees an opportunity, as well.

Our industry is something that's hidden.

It's not like a fire truck in the street or an officer in a car.

Our assets are usually underground, and they're not readily visible.

Before I became a part of this industry 20 years ago, I didn't think about it, so this is an opportunity for us to get the message out as to what we do and how we do what we do.

Each year, nearly 2 million students drop out of college.

An edtech company in Austin, Texas, is hoping to change that.

Using an online platform and virtual assistant designed to address the struggles of first-year and nontraditional students, Upswing is helping students make it to college graduation.

You hear all the time about how much more money you can make as a college graduate than you can as a high school graduate, but what people don't talk about are the, you know, 50% of 4-year university students who actually drop out and still have student debt.

And if we can figure out a way to help just keep even just a few more of those students in school, then I think that, you know, we're doing a great service to the country.

I grew up in south Georgia, a small town called Albany, and in that hometown, you know, we didn't always have a lot of resources that were available for students to take advantage of.

What I really wanted to do was help create a service that would support students regardless of where they lived, regardless of what kind of means they had, to basically give them every fighting opportunity that they can so that they can be able to better their lives, not just for themselves but for their families in the future.

Upswing is a platform that really works to connect students, users, to the resources that are available to them on campus.

In particular, we really want to focus on what are typically called non-traditional students.

There are resources, critical retention-saving resources that are on campus, whether they be tutors, advisors, counselors, professors, office hours, and these students don't get the access to those resources, and, as a result, a lot of them are at a higher risk of dropping out.

And so what we try to do here at Upswing is give them the resources and opportunities to create those connections and ultimately stay in school longer.

We have a tool called Ana, which is a virtual assistant.

That virtual assistant allows for the students to get help with, say, scheduling a session with their advisor or connecting with a tutor for, you know, math homework that they're having to do, or maybe it's final exam time and they need to get prepped for that.

What we're able to do is nudge them just in time, give them those reminders right then and there so that they can get the help that they need.

Each one of the interactions that happens through our platform is focused specifically on trying to pull data from there and give an understanding back to the school on where students might be struggling, where they might need additional help, and how they can help to contribute to that student's success.

We work with around 80 colleges across the country.

The impact, I think, has been pretty swift.

For example, we work with Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU based in North Carolina, and there we've been able to see a 10% increase in math grades for the students that were using Upswing and a 20% increase in writing grades.

We worked with Houston Community College.

We continue to work with Houston Community College, and they've been able to find that each time a student receives an intervention through the Upswing platform, their GPA increases by 0.05.

That's for each specific intervention, and so what they've been able to find is that if you can actually daisy-chain that, you know, have students go in and interact through Upswing multiple times, you can take a student who is coming in and isn't college-ready and actually put them on the same level playing field as students who come in and are college-ready.

About 80% of the students who are on our platform are either black or brown.

You know, you don't usually see, I don't think too often, software platforms and services that are created for these communities by people from these communities, and I think that's something that I'm really proud of, as well.

Even if you, you know, look around at the people who work here at Upswing, if you look at our board, if you look at the people who make up our strategy team, you know, a large part of us have had some of those backgrounds and experiences that contribute to how we want to support those students, and I think that's a big part of why we've been so successful so far in HBCUs and HSIs, and that's a big part of where we want to continue to grow moving forward.

I'm encouraged by, I think, companies like Upswing.

A lot of the students in these regions, whether it's inner cities, rural communities, these students are bright.

They're smart.

They're intelligent.

They're driven.

These students have the intelligence, the intellect, all the abilities that all the other students have.

Maybe they come from the suburbs or other, more affluent areas.

They just lack some of the resources.

The whole reason why I think ICUT is so important... We've actually been able to work with nearly 800,000 students.

We've been able to keep 26,000 students from dropping out.

I want us to have an engine that can be added in to each one of these colleges and continue to impact those numbers and continue to change the life trajectories of these students.

Just one small change can really have such a monumental impact on, you know, an entire legacy.

Researchers in behavioral neuroscience and astrobiology at the University of Washington are studying the mind of the octopus to understand how different kinds of brains process information.

Our partner, 'Science Friday,' has the story.

We are not the only kinds of intelligence.

It's important to consider the diverse forms the mind can take on Earth and in the universe beyond.

I think we need to understand how brains evolved to work, so what we're looking at is a completely different neural architecture.

I first gained interest in the mind of the octopus when I was in a lab full of marine invertebrates.

There was one of those animals that seemed to be studying me as much as I was studying it.

I am Dominic Sivitilli.

I am a graduate student in Behavioral Neuroscience and Astrobiology at the University of Washington.

The octopus fits into our research program because they stand out as an extreme example of intelligence that has evolved along a completely different trajectory than that of the vertebrates, yet the octopus is solving many of the same problems that you or I would solve.

My name is David Gire.

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, and my lab studies Comparative Systems Neuroscience.

That means we study how different kinds of brains process information.

In the broad sense, octopus nerves do function like ours.

They have physiological properties that are very similar, and yet they're forming networks that are completely different from the networks we see in our brains.

So it takes more time for information in the octopus' nervous system to get from point A to point B compared to vertebrates, whose neurons can fire a lot faster.

Because it takes so long, how these systems are designed plays a much bigger role in how they can compute.

The octopus brain is distributed with two-thirds of its neurons in its arms.

There is actually this dense network of neural clusters or ganglia that are locally controlling the muscles, so you can have a bunch of little individual decisions being made along the arm which don't necessarily agree with each other.

This creates a unique form of movement that the octopus is able to possess.

If we're watching a rodent look for some food pellets, we're seeing some nice, rhythmic motion, but when we watch an octopus it's almost like watching the fluid environment itself moving across the surface of the rocks.

There's an extreme density of chemoreceptors in the suckers of the octopus.

They literally can smell and taste with their arms, so it seems like the way the octopus deals with having eight independent arms and having to process all of that sensory information is that it has located a lot of the sensory processing as close as possible to the external world.

In a way, the octopus has sent its mind out into the environment to meet it halfway.

Key to understanding their intelligence is to understand how this distributed network is sharing information with itself.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪

LEGOs are a form of enrichment in the lab, much the same way they are for my 4-year-old kid.

We try to give them a variety of these kinds of textures so that this extensive peripheral nervous system they have is always kept occupied and active.

No matter how hard one can work in that lab, we'll all still spend a few minutes playing with them.

This is really important to them because they're very exploratory.


They're very curious animals, and at the same time as enriching them, we can also study how their arm is processing information and how their suckers are processing information.

In designing puzzles that these animals will solve, we're looking to challenge different parts of the nervous system and to see how information is going to be integrated across the arms.

Where we began with two-dimensional tracking, now our methods are more sophisticated.

We now use three-dimensional tracking cameras, which are stereo cameras, and this is helping us understand the strategies that the octopus is using to control its distributed mind, and we can interface that with virtual reality.

This will help us pick out patterns that we may not have seen before.

It gives us an entirely different perspective on our data and the movement of our animals.

So we can infer what might be going on in their brains by using puzzles and motion tracking.

But, to really test that, we need to move towards electrophysiology and make recordings from the nervous system while the animals are making decisions.

You can imagine trying to fit electronic hardware onto an animal like that is probably nearly impossible, yet we're at a really exciting point now in the lab.

We're using techniques that have been pioneered by Josh Smith's lab in computer science and engineering to use a wireless, battery-free system to implant tiny electronics into large octopuses.

So once we do a small incision and plant the device, the animal will never have to think about it again, and we as researchers can screen the data and power the device without ever disturbing the animal.

In some ways, this is a watershed moment in general for science.

If we understand how a neural structure like the octopus nervous system can solve difficult problems, we might be able to design better ways to solve similar problems artificially.

We reach out to them across the evolutionary divide out of curiosity to understand this unknown as they are, so it's like we're meeting each other halfway through our mutual interest and novelty in the unknown.

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.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪