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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 15, 2024

Air Date: March 15, 2024



Methane Tracking From Space

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A new satellite recently blasted off into Earth orbit with the important mission of tracking methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure across the globe. Dr. Stephen Conley is an atmospheric scientist and joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to explain why free public access to the data from MethaneSAT is a game-changer for holding oil and gas companies accountable for climate pollution. (08:31)

Night / Mark Seth Lender

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The vastness of space can provoke fear but the perspective it brings can also bring inspiration and even comfort. Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender recounts the impact on his consciousness of a star-studded sky, planets in full view, and shooting stars. (03:17)

A Mars Testing Ground

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Since 2001 the Mars Society has run over 270 simulated missions at a remote site in the high desert of Utah, to study the effect of extra-vehicular activity or EVA on the human body and mimic field research people might run on Mars one day, such as looking for fossilized life. Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to describe the research station, what a day in the life of a participant looks like and says why he believes we should send humans to Mars. (14:56)

Life on Europa?

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Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most promising places to look for extraterrestrial life. Europa has a large liquid ocean beneath its icy crust, so NASA plans to launch the Clipper space probe later this year to investigate. As part of the mission NASA is sending a poem to space. US Poet Laureate Ada Limón reads aloud her poem, “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.” (04:53)

Solar Eclipse Magic

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On April 8th millions across North America will have the opportunity to experience a total solar eclipse, when the moon briefly blocks out the sun. Cosmologist Roberto Trotta is the author of “Starborn: How the Stars Made Us (And Who We Would Be Without Them)" and joins Host Jenni Doering to describe how our ancestors reacted to this strange, otherworldly phenomenon and how you too can safely witness it. (15:58)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

240315 Transcript

HOSTS: Jenni Doering, Aynsley O’Neill

GUESTS: Stephen Conley, Ada Limón, Roberto Trotta, Robert Zubrin

REPORTERS: Mark Seth Lender


DOERING: From PRX – this is Living On Earth.


DOERING: I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

Getting humans to Mars is hard but for some, that’s the point.

ZUBRIN: A humans to Mars initiative would be a tremendous positive challenge to society. We would get millions of young scientists out of it as we did out of Apollo. Those are the people that create new health cures, new industries, new defense technologies, you name it. The humans to Mars program would once again make science the great adventure.

DOERING: Also, total solar eclipses amazed our ancestors and could rock your world too.

TROTTA: There’s this amazing contrast between the pitch blackness of the disc of the moon in the center and the brilliant white of the corona. Also look around, look at the stars you see in the skies. If there's any planets visible, they will show up as well. It's really amazing.

DOERING: That’s this week on Living on Earth. Stick Around!

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[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]


Methane Tracking From Space

MethaneSAT launched on March 4th, 2024. (Photo: Courtesy of SpaceX, via Environmental Defense Fund)

DOERING: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston this is Living on Earth. I'm Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

Today on the show, we’re launching into space.

[COUNTDOWN:… 3, 2, 1… Ignition and Liftoff… ]

O’NEILL: On March 4th, a new satellite with special methane detectors blasted off into Earth orbit. MethaneSAT, led by Environmental Defense Fund and launched by SpaceX, has the important mission of tracking methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure across the globe. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that can be 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so it’s a major contributor to climate disruption. While some private entities are already using satellites to track methane emissions, MethaneSAT is the first initiative to make the information free and accessible to the general public. Dr. Stephen Conley is an atmospheric scientist and the founder of Scientific Aviation, which conducts plane-based measurements of methane and other greenhouse gases. He has worked with Environmental Defense Fund in the past, though he is not involved in MethaneSAT. He joins me now for more. Dr. Conley, welcome to Living on Earth!

CONLEY: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

An infrastructure tank’s methane flare in Bakken Shale Fields, Mississippi. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when first released. (Photo: Trudy E. Bell, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

O'NEILL: So please start us off with an overview about the project. What are we going to learn from this?

CONLEY: I think what's different about MethaneSAT is this is going to bring much needed transparency to the industries. So it's interesting because if you go back to, say, 12 years ago, nobody was talking about methane, like it just wasn't on the radar. And it was EDF, the Environmental Defense Fund, that really brought methane to the forefront. So they started doing these studies with lots of aircraft flying around. In fact, we did a bunch of their flights, like all over the country. And what they started to do was bring awareness to the methane problem and started this discussion. And one of the challenges that we face is that you need to be able to separate the people in the industry that are doing the right thing from those who aren't, because not all oil companies are created equal--the same for every industry, right? Some landfills are doing a fabulous job of capturing their methane emissions, and some aren't. And so how do you separate them? And what's different about MethaneSAT, and I think what's going to make a profound impact on our emissions, is that all of a sudden, it's that old--was that Ronald Reagan?--"you can run but you can't hide," that now you're gonna have this satellite flying over. And it's actually giving everyone free access to data on who's emitting what, where. And like, right now, we have plenty of satellites that are flying around looking at methane emissions. But they're very expensive to use their data. They're not free. And EDF is making this data publicly available. So everybody's gonna have it. Now, the United Nations has a program where they're monitoring, the International Methane Emissions Observatory. And so I have been talking with them for years, and it's almost gleeful. They're so excited, because at the moment, they're getting most of their data from voluntary reporting. And this is going to sort of be this spy in the sky. It's like, all of a sudden, someone that's watching and giving them the ability to confirm those reports. So that I think is what's going to cause the effectiveness, it's not so much that it's a new technology as it is, it's publicly available.

O'NEILL: And what kind of reactions to this project have you seen from the fossil fuel industry, if any?

CONLEY: So you know, it's interesting, because if you think about it, the companies that are trying to do the right thing, in a way they get put at a competitive disadvantage, when there's sort of no accountability for those that don't, right, because it's obviously less expensive to not do the right thing. And so, both with regulation and with stuff like this, those companies that are taking the right steps are going to be happy about the fact that now there's going to be some public accountability for the fact that we are doing the right thing and others are not, it's gonna help to level the playing field. So I have actually heard good reactions from those companies.

O'NEILL: And what about a major fossil fuel emitter like Exxon or Chevron?

CONLEY: Well, here's a good way to look at this. So there's this organization called the Oil and Gas Methane Protocol [editor’s note: the full title is Oil and Gas Methane Partnership] connected to the United Nations organizations. It's totally voluntary. But as far as I know, all of the super majors, at least the ones that we deal with here in the United States, have joined. So Chevron, Exxon, Shell, ConocoPhillips, they're all part of that, which in itself requires sort of a higher level of attention to the emissions. So I would say, statistically, those super large companies are less of a worry to me than the small ones. Well, one of the typical problems that gets us is that a super large company builds a well, and in the beginning, it's producing tons, it's very valuable. And as that production drops off over the years, ultimately it becomes not profitable to apply their standards to it. And so it ends up getting sold to a smaller operator. And those smaller operators often don't have that level of attention.

O'NEILL: Now, Dr. Conley, you've been working in this field generally for about two decades or so. Why is it that this is happening now, in 2024? What is sort of been a hurdle to it happening earlier?

CONLEY: Oh, a few things. So obviously, one of them is money. There's other operators that have satellites that look at methane, but they had a commercial model. So getting funding was, I don't want to say easy, but it was easier because there was a potential to make a lot of money off of that. Now, EDF had to raise money from people who are just interested in stopping the methane emissions. The other thing I think that's happening simultaneously is the urgency is increasing. So when you see these reports from the Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, where they talk about the timing now that--I think the last one was that we have 12 years to get our emissions under control before we reach the tipping point and it's too late. I think those kinds of statements coming out that stress the urgency are what's sort of driving all this stuff forward in 2024. It's that convergence of funding available and urgent need for change.

Dr. Stephen Conley is an atmospheric scientist, pilot, and programmer. He created Scientific Aviation in 2010 and spent the next decade developing systems for methane emissions detection and quantification. Scientific Aviation was acquired by ChampionX in 2021. (Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Conley.)

O'NEILL: Dr. Conley, what is the big takeaway from this new project?

CONLEY: What this means, bottom line, beyond all the other talk, is transparency. You've got this device that's circling the planet. And all it's doing is telling us when somebody has a problem. When we started doing these flights a decade ago, or actually 14 years ago, it was interesting, because at that time, nobody had flown over oil and gas sites. And so in the beginning, we got a lot of pushback from the property owners, from the operators, saying that you're not allowed to fly over us. And the answer is we are allowed, it's part of the FAA rules. But that brought a level of transparency, because all of a sudden, one of these operators knew that this plane could show up at any time. But they knew the plane was there. That's the difference. With the satellite, you don't know it's there. You're not looking up at the sky and you see the satellite like you do with an airplane. So you've got an operation that's just going on. And the satellite goes over and takes this picture when you weren't even aware of it. Historically, we've had these environmental advocates that would go and they would cut the lock on the site, and they'd go on with their optical gas imaging camera. And then they would send a picture to the New York Times, right, they'd break the law. And so EPA was very clear that you cannot go on to someone's site without permission to get this data that we're going to use in enforcement. While that's not an option, now, if I'm an environmental advocate, all I have to do is start downloading this data from EDF and go match it up to sites, like I can now be just an ordinary citizen, and I can get this data and then go start reporting to the EPA. And so that's where I think that this is going to be so profound in its importance, because every time you have one of these emissions, you're going to be wondering, like, was someone looking?

O'NEILL: Dr. Stephen Conley is an atmospheric scientist and founder of Scientific Aviation. Thank you so much for joining us today.

CONLEY: It was great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Related links:
- Learn more about MethaneSAT
- The New York Times | “Tracking an Invisible Climate Menace From 360 Miles Above”
- Read more about methane and its relationship to the climate

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[MUSIC: David Bowie, “Starman – 2012 Remaster” on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (2012 Remaster), Jones/Tintoretto Entertainment Co, LLC]


Mark Seth Lender turns his camera skyward to capture a lunar eclipse. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

DOERING: If you look up at the sky on a clear night, you can see satellites zipping across a background of stars and planets. Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender is usually peering down a camera lens at wildlife but on occasion, he looks up.

© 2023 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

It was clear last night. Unusually clear for down here on the bight. It’s the job of the ocean to put moisture into the air, fog and mist, and clouds. Instead the sky was - blue-black! A color I expect in the mountains or far north. But not here. And it was late and not many lights on along the shoreline. Pristine. I could see the Milky Way. That’s rare, I catch it a few times a year at most. If I see it at all. Usually it’s North to South but it had turned. All the way round to nearly East-West and that I’ve never seen. Jupiter was yellow and huge and low. And many many stars…

I used to look up at those stars and it frightened me, when I was a little kid. I came from a family were knowledge was a valued thing. My father was working on his masters at MIT then, and I remember him coming home with slugs of alloy he’d tested on a hundred ton drop press and he’d show me how the grain, if it was fine, determined that the metal would be flexible and could bend and if the grain was coarse the alloy would crack. That was when I was four years old. When I was seven or eight I knew the stars were far away, that the universe was… Vast. When I thought about that and looked up what I felt was mortal fear.

For Mark Seth Lender, the night sky puts his life in perspective. He finds the vastness of the universe comforting. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Now, instead, the night sky is a comfort. It puts things in perspective. Calms me. I’m learning to name the constellations, something I’ve always wanted to do. I mean like everyone else I know where the Big Dipper is and Orion’s Belt and Cassiopeia (the big W in the sky). But I want, Cignus the Swan, and Camelopardalis and Lynx. And Draco, the Dragon.

Sometimes, the Universe lends encouragement. Two shooting stars right over my head! One left a trail… “WOW! look what I just saw!” Everyone feels that way. Then I thought, where did they come from? Fragments of a distant comet? An asteroid that started out hundreds of millions of miles from here or maybe, as a messenger from a distant star and instead of hundreds of millions of miles, hundreds of millions of years...

We have a place on all this. As much as any interstellar molecule, any distant galactic core.

What a comfort the vastness has become.

DOERING: That’s Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender.

Related link:
Mark Seth Lender’s website

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[MUSIC: Stevie Wonder, “Saturn” on The Complete Stevie Wonder, UMG Recordings]

O’NEILL: After the break, it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out just how humans can live on Mars. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Sailors for the Sea and Oceana. Helping boaters race clean, sail green and protect the seas they love. More information @sailorsforthesea.org.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Gustav Holst, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, “The Planets, Op. 32: 2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin]

A Mars Testing Ground

To simulate a Mars mission, crew members suit up while outside of the station structures. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

In 1976 the Viking I spacecraft landed on Mars and sent back the first high-resolution images of the red planet. And those pictures set off a frenzy of excitement about when humans might get to go there in person to look closer and maybe even discover signs of extraterrestrial life. Nearly 50 years later we’re still working on it. At an average distance of 140 million miles from Earth, it takes a lot of trial runs before we can safely send humans to Mars. So since 2001, the Mars Society has run over 270 simulated missions at a remote site in the high desert of Utah. There they carry out field research, to mimic studies they might run on Mars one day, such as looking for fossilized life. They also monitor the effect of extra-vehicular activity or EVA on the human body. Anyone from around the world can apply to be part of a crew that typically spends 2-3 weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station. Here to discuss is Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and author of several books on Mars and space exploration. Welcome to Living on Earth!

ZUBRIN: Thank you for inviting me.

O'NEILL: Let's set the scene. If I were to visit the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, what would I see there? What's it like?

The Mars Desert Research Station challenges crew members to complete a simulated Mars mission under as many Mars-like conditions as possible. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

ZUBRIN: The area itself is rather spectacular, red desert, sedimentary rocks, and really a vast area that is uninhabited and almost unvegetated and quite geologically interesting. And then set within this is our station. There's the primary station, which is a habitat craft, it's sort of like a very large tuna can, about eight meters in diameter and six meters tall. So it's got two decks, each with three meters of headroom. And it is modeled on the habitat craft that I designed for the Mars Direct mission. It's what astronauts could fly to Mars in, land on and use as their house on Mars. Then there's additional secondary buildings. There is a greenhouse for growing crops. There is a small science dome. And there's also another small module for doing repairs of equipment in, and then there's a large solar array. So initially, the desert station only included the primary module, and it represented a first landing on Mars. This station as it now is, might be by about mission three, when some additional facilities have been added.

The Greenhab houses both conventional and aquaponic growing systems. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: So what is the purpose of these research stations? You know, what kind of questions are the crews trying to answer?

ZUBRIN: What we're researching is the exploration process itself, okay. We are not researching isolation. There are other people doing missions where they just isolate a crew. Johnson Space Center is going to do a mission like that, the Russians have done missions like that. I think that those missions have a modest utility because the Mars mission is not about isolation. It's about exploration. In other words, what you're going to do when you're on the surface of Mars is field exploration. And what we do is we task our crews to try to do an effective program of field exploration. Most of the crews are just there for two weeks, some as long as three months, while operating under as many Mars mission type constraints as we can impose on them. Essentially, what we're doing in engineering lingo, is we are defining the requirements for the mission: How much water do you need? What is the right kind of exploration vehicle to build? Before you go ahead and spend a billion dollars building an actual Mars exploration vehicle, you want to know what's the right one to design? Okay. And the key thing, the most important step in any engineering process is defining the requirements. It's essential to design things, right, but it's even more important to be designing the right thing. And that's what we're attempting to do.

The Science Dome contains the solar system’s control center as well as a microbiological and geological laboratory. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: And so the goal is to sort of make this mission feel as real as possible as a Martian mission would. To what extent are you able to simulate the Martian environment? It's so different from Earth's, and you're out in this stark, uninhabited desert. But to what extent is it similar to what the Mars landscape itself would be like?

ZUBRIN: Well, first of all, in order to have an effective simulation, you really have to have the crew committed to it, okay, because we've had a couple of crews that did not take it seriously, and just went outside and went walking around, and they came back and said, this was all ***, we just went outside and went walking around. And I said, well, whose fault was that? So you do have to have the crew adopt the mindset, just like in a military field exercise, it's very different from normal war in that no one is actually trying to kill you. But you can get dedicated crews who, you know, act as if the environment was as dangerous as Mars. So for instance, they have to do their field work wearing these simulated spacesuits and communicating to each other by radio and with these thick, heavy gloves that impair your dexterity. And then they have to operate in a telescience collaboration with our mission support group, which is far away. You know, people have heard of telemedicine where the general practitioner Alaska has to do a heart transplant and he's being walked through it by the specialists in Mount Sinai in Manhattan. Well, Mars science is going to have to be done that way. You'll have a few generalists on Mars and they'll be backed up by large science teams on earth and we have to work out this art of telescience. Now, there are some things though, that you can't simulate: Mars gravity.

The vast, remote Utah landscape simulates the surface of Mars. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

And this bears on a number of things because a real spacesuit might weigh 150 pounds. Okay, now that's perfectly tenable on Mars because Mars has got 1/3 gravity, so you only feel it weighing 50 pounds. And since your 150 pounds only weighs 50 pounds. Walking around in a marsh spacesuit on Mars. The 300 pounds feels like 100 pounds and there's actually less load on your feet than if you were walking on Earth. But if we stuck the crew in the desert with 150 pound suit, very few of them could even stand up or walk. So We use 40 pound spacesuits to create a load on them that's comparable to what it would feel like on Mars. So there's a assortment of compromises you have to make. And of course, one things that you can't duplicate is the actual danger that you're in. You know, in a in a Mars mission, if your spacesuit was to fail, you would die, okay? Whereas in our mission, if our spacesuit air supply system was to fail, you could just take off the helmet. So there are some differences, but we deal with it as best we can, just as the military rehearses war under non lethal conditions.

O'NEILL: So what is day to day living like for the crews out there that is going to emulate what their lives would be like on this Mars mission?

The MDRS Habitat, or “Hab” is where crew members eat, sleep, and suit up for their daily explorations. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society) https://mdrs.marssociety.org)

ZUBRIN: So everybody wakes up maybe around seven o'clock in the morning. And the plan might be to send three members of the crew out on EVA, while three stay behind in the ham. So after breakfast, the crew goes downstairs and the people who are not going on EVA help the crew into, the EVA team into their spacesuits. And then they get in the airlock, they wait there for 10 minutes to simulate depressurization. And then they go out and they explore. One of the crew members who remains behind is on the radio and is checking in with the EVA team, perhaps every half hour. And then the others, well, they may be doing lab work. In other words, the previous day, they may have brought samples back from the field. And they may be testing them in the lab to try to verify that these are in fact fossils and not minerals, or too if they have found extremely file organisms and micro organisms to image them under the microscope or something. Or they may be engaged in repair of equipment, or someone may go and work a little bit in the greenhouse, something like that. Now the crew out there in the field, they're out roaming around on their all terrain vehicles. And then at a certain point, they get off and they go on foot. And they do direct field exploration, perhaps looking for fossils, or just simply characterizing the geology.

The crew works in the greenhouse. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

And then they come back at four o'clock in the afternoon, perhaps, and they're helped out of their suits. And then we always take dinner together. This is extremely useful for bonding the crew, and also talking over what happened that day. And then after dinner, people sit down and write reports and they send reports to mission support. There's a crew commanders report, which is usually very brief, and just outlines what happened that day. We get a science report where people go into more detail on any of the science that was found, engineering report, what systems are working, what are not. And then to me, the most interesting report is what we call the journalist report. And the journalist in this case, is not a person who, like a current newspaper reporter. He is a person more like an 18th century journalist. This is experiential in quality. And they also usually send you know, six or so photographs along with it. And then they send in these reports, and then the crew might sit down and watch a movie together or play a board game or, you know, charades. And then lights out at 11.

Crews generally have dinner together each night in the “Hab” upper deck. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: If I understand correctly, there have been nearly 300 of these simulated missions. And you've commended a number of them yourself. What are your sort of biggest lessons that you've learned over the course of these missions?

ZUBRIN: Okay, number of things. Number one: mission needs to be led from the front by the crew commander with a consultative command style and bringing the rest of the crew into it. Number two, in terms of crew composition, you can have almost any mixture, almost anything will work with the right people and almost anything will fail with the wrong people. And really the crew has to be tested as a team. We've had individuals who were absolute top level crew members in one crew and real problems in others because the chemistry was wrong. And based on studies of US Navy crews in Antarctica, the human factors literature is full of articles concluding that the primary problem is boredom. And that we have to come up with ways to keep the crew busy. In fact, if you take a highly motivated crew, and you send them to Mars, and they're given a chance to do world historic exploration, or even a simulated version of it, like we have in our stations, what you find is that they work themselves hard and the primary human factors problem we get is overwork. Okay, I commanded a number of missions and I had to repeatedly command my crews to stop work at 9pm in order to stop them from burning themselves out.

A crew member works in the lab. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: Wow, yeah.

ZUBRIN: There's various technical conclusions. Before we started this, I thought the best field mobility systems would be pressurized rovers about the size of SUVs. Now I'm convinced based on experience that it would be small, all terrain vehicles, single person vehicles that Mars will be explored in the saddle, you don't want to bring anything to Mars that you're going to take into to the field that you can't lift because it's going to get stuck. We were very interested in looking into how much water the crew would use.

Some crew members take a break to play chess while others work on troubleshooting a 3D printer. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

And this is actually a very important number to get because you're going to recycle your water. But how much water do you need to recycle depends on how much water the crew uses. Now what we have found is that you can get by with a sponge bath every other day and a navy shower once a week. If you do this, then your average water consumption, which is not what you drink, that's only a tiny fraction of your water, is about three gallons a day per person, and you can still have an effective crew. Now that's a really important number for designing a Mars mission.

Crew members spend their days in a variety of ways from repairing equipment to writing reports. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O’NEILL: I'm sure you've heard naysayers say, why are we thinking about this? We should focus on Earth. We've got problems here at home. From your perspective, why is it so crucial that we go to Mars?

ZUBRIN: All right, well there's three reasons to go to Mars. And they're for the science, for the challenge, and for the future. Mars was a twin of the early Earth, the early Mars was a twin of the early Earth. They were both warm and wet planets with CO2 dominated atmospheres and rocky surfaces. And we know life appeared on Earth almost soon as it cooled down enough for there to be liquid water. Did it also appear on Mars? If it did, if it happened in two out of two places, then it means it's a high probability event. And it means the universe is filled with life. Because we know from the Kepler space telescope that 20% of all stars in the Milky Way galaxy have an Earth sized planet in their habitable zone, which is the distance where you have the right temperatures for liquid water. So if life occurs naturally wherever you have appropriate physical conditions, life's everywhere, we're not alone in the universe. And these are questions that thinking men and women have wondered about for 1000s of years, and we can solve it by going to Mars.

Part of the crew ventures out into the Utah landscape for field exploration. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

Then there's the challenge. A humans to Mars initiative would be a tremendous positive challenge to society, especially the youth, we would get millions of young scientists out of it as we did out of Apollo. During the Apollo program, the United States doubled the number of science graduates, in every level, high school, college, PhD, and in some fields tripled it. And we would benefit from that for decades, okay, because those are the people that create new health cures, new industries, new defense technologies, you name it. The humans to Mars program would once again make science the great adventure.

Dr. Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society and author of “The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet.” (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Robert Zubrin)

And then finally, there's the future. And there's two parts to the future. There's the far future and then there's the near future. Now, if we go to Mars, I am convinced that for instance, 500 years from now, there will be many new branches of human civilization on Mars, but not only on Mars, but further out because Mars is not the final destination, it's the direction. But also you see, there's a near term aspect to this, because it's our vision of the far future that affects what happens in the near future. What's the main threat to humanity today? I think it's pretty clear right now that the threat is war. If we can show that it's not true that there's only so much to go around, okay, because the earth comes with an infinite sky. And by working together, you know, we can create new worlds, so there's no point killing each other fighting over provinces, and by working together, we can open planets. It's not foolproof, humanity can always engage in folly, but at least we can undermine the fundamental argument that supports these catastrophic developments.

O'NEILL: Dr. Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society and author of "The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet." Dr. Zubrin, thank you so much for taking the time with me today. You're most welcome.

Related link:
Read more about the Mars Desert Research Station

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[MUSIC: Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” on Remember Yesterday, by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Casablanca Records]

Life on Europa?

Europa, one of Jupiter’s 95 known moons, is around 90% the size of our Moon. With a water ice crust, scientists have long speculated that there might be a liquid water ocean underneath. (Photo: Juno Mission Photo, Kevin M. Gill, NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

DOERING: Mars isn’t the only promising place in the search for extraterrestrial life. Another big possibility is Europa, one of Jupiter’s many icy moons. Europa has captured the human imagination for centuries: it was first described independently by Simon Marius and Galileo in the 17th century. Nearly as big as our moon, its icy surface makes it a fairly bright object in the night sky, so much so that Galileo could spot it on just a 20-times magnifying telescope. And Aynsley, amateur telescopes these days are often much stronger.

O’NEILL: But Jenni, in the modern day, we’re not simply looking up through our telescopes. We’re sending spacecraft to get up close and personal in the hopes that Europa might show signs that we’re not alone in the universe. Astrobiologists consider liquid water to be an important factor for life, and under an icy crust Europa seems to have almost double the amount that Earth has in its oceans. Water helps sustain vital processes for life from dissolving nutrients to allowing cells to get rid of waste. Two more key ingredients for life are chemical nutrients and energy. Most organisms on Earth get our energy from plants and bacteria that use photosynthesis to harvest light energy from the Sun. But the thick icy crust on top of Europa’s oceans would block the liquid water from receiving the light from the Sun.

DOERING: Huh. So Aynsley, what does that mean for the chances of life on Europa?

O’NEILL: Well, luckily, there are a couple of ways life could still find energy on Europa. One of these actually happens right here on Earth, at the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of our oceans. Europa seems to have a rocky seafloor just like Earth, and if there’s hydrothermal activity there, then organisms could subsist on the chemical building blocks and energy created in that environment. Life might also arise even in a light-starved ocean thanks to Jupiter blasting its moons with energy in the form of radiation.

DOERING: Oh, that’s cool. No wonder we’re taking a closer look!

O’NEILL: Right! Drawn by the possibility that life could exist on Europa, space agencies around the world are turning their eyes and their funding towards further exploration of this icy moon. NASA’s Europa Clipper space probe is set to launch in October of this year. Once it settles into orbit around Jupiter, it will make a series of flybys over Europa’s surface with the goal of studying the moon’s geology and chemical composition and confirming the existence of the liquid water ocean. The Clipper mission lines up with the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, aka JUICE, launched by the European Space Agency in 2023 to look at Europa and two other large icy moons. These missions might one day yield some answers about the potential for life outside our planet. But we’ll just have to be patient since the Clipper mission isn’t expected to reach its orbit until 2030. The cargo includes scientific instruments and a poem dedicated to the mission and engraved on a plaque. Here’s U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón reading her poem “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.”

Ada Limón has been the United States poet laureate since 2022. Her poem “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa” will be engraved on NASA’s Europa Clipper space probe. (Photo: Shawn Miller, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Arching under the night sky inky
with black expansiveness, we point
to the planets we know, we

pin quick wishes on stars. From earth,
we read the sky as if it is an unerring book
of the universe, expert and evident.

Still, there are mysteries below our sky:
the whale song, the songbird singing
its call in the bough of a wind-shaken tree.

We are creatures of constant awe,
curious at beauty, at leaf and blossom,
at grief and pleasure, sun and shadow.

And it is not darkness that unites us,
not the cold distance of space, but
the offering of water, each drop of rain,

each rivulet, each pulse, each vein.
O second moon, we, too, are made
of water, of vast and beckoning seas.

We, too, are made of wonders, of great
and ordinary loves, of small invisible worlds,
of a need to call out through the dark.

DOERING: That’s U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón reading “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa,” which will blast off with the Clipper mission in October 2024.

Related links:
- Visit NASA’s website for the Europa Clipper mission
- Ada Limón’s “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa” at the Library of Congress website

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[MUSIC: Gustav Holst, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, “The Planets, Op. 32: 5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin]

DOERING: Coming up, a total solar eclipse is coming to a slice of North America this spring. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Friends of Smeagull the Seagull and Smeagull’s Guide to Wildlife. It’s all about the wildlife right next door to you! That’s Smeagull, S - M - E - A - G - U - L - L, SmeagullGuide.org.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Gustav Holst, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, “The Planets, Op. 32: 5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin]

Solar Eclipse Magic

In 2017, a total solar eclipse crossed across a narrow portion of the United States from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. A partial solar eclipse was visible across the entire North American continent, as well as parts of South America, Africa, and Europe. (Photo: Aubrey Gemignani, NASA, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

O’NEILL: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Aynsley O’Neill

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.

On April 8, 2024, millions across North America will have the rare opportunity to experience a total solar eclipse, when the moon briefly blocks out the sun. But in order to really take it in, you have to be in just the right place, within the path of totality. And even there, the total solar eclipse lasts just a few precious minutes. NASA has an Eclipse Explorer website where you can see its path. But we turn now to an expert who can tell us about how our ancestors reacted to this strange, otherworldly phenomenon. We’re joined by cosmologist Roberto Trotta, the author of “Starborn: How the Stars Made Us (And Who We Would Be Without Them)”. Welcome back to the show Roberto!

TROTTA: Great, it's fantastic to be back. Thank you.

DOERING: So let's start with a passage from your book that talks about your experience witnessing a total solar eclipse. Let's turn to page 34 And the section titled A Jolt of Awe.

TROTTA: Then it happens. The sun lights fully behind the dark disk. The stillness of the moment beyond time is broken by our our exclamations soon joined by the cheers and shouts of the crowds at the ranch down below us. It's impossible to keep it inn the one that has to be voiced! We yell, we scream, we ball we how we regress to a more primitive state. Through cracks in the sky, the stars appear as if eager to witness the impending doom. The corona, the outer part of the sun's atmosphere, hundreds of times hotter than its surface, yet normally invisible, radiates around the unnatural black hole in the sky. It's a ring of fire, where the sun used to be fierce, ominous. I know that the appearance of the corona doesn't change in the matter of minutes, yet, I find it hard to shake off the impression that it is vibrating with cold energy. I know that totality will last one minute and 58 seconds, yet, time feels expanded. What if the sun never reappears? I'm standing in the moon's shadow and the beam of darkness connects me to the stars. I touch my cheek and my hand comes away damp.

The 2017 total solar eclipse, shown in various stages before and after totality. (Photo: Don McCrady, Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0)

DOERING: Thank you. What you're describing sounds like such a profound experience.

TROTTA: It was, it was profoundly moving and primordial in a way that I did not expect. As a scientist, I knew exactly what I was witnessing but in the moment it is as if rationality almost flies out of the window. This black hole in the sky really feels so unnatural, so unlike anything I've ever witnessed before. And when you're actually in the moon shadow you feel, you know, transported into different time, into a different way of being almost. And all of these legends and myth, all of this ancestral fear of eclipses grips you again. So it's wonderful and terrifying at the same time.

DOERING: And it's sort of a coincidence, I understand it and you write in your book that, you know, we happen to be able to see total solar eclipses and it may not always be that way on the earth when we look really far into the future. So what is this coincidence that you write about?

TROTTA: Indeed, it's a strange cosmic coincidence that makes it so that while the sun is much bigger than the moon, it is also so much further away. In fact, about 400 times as further away as the moon, but the moon is almost exactly 400 times smaller than the sun. And so when they line up just right, the moon covers the sun fully and we're treated to this wonderful phenomenon, this total solar eclipse but this will not always be so because the moon is receding, is moving away from the Earth. And so there will be a day in a few hundreds of millions of years, where the moon will have moved further away than it is now and sufficiently so that the disk of the moon will not cover the disk of the sun anymore and total solar eclipses will become impossible. So we've got only a few 100 million years left to witness this amazing cosmic phenomenon before it's too late.

2017’s solar eclipse, photographed with the corona at the moment of totality. (Photo: Geoff Livingston, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DOERING: Well, we're lucky to be at this time in history when we can experience it and total solar eclipses have been occurring at least as long as humans have existed. How have past civilizations reacted to these phenomena?

TROTTA: In the past total solar eclipses were so feared because they were mostly impossible to predict and so the reaction was one of great terror. And oftentimes in past civilizations, people would engage in rituals and chants and dances in order to scare away whatever they thought was trying to eat up the sun or destroy the sun. Some civilizations saw dragons or monsters, trying to eat the sun from sky. Some others, like the Aztecs, for example, would throw fiery arrows towards the sun in an attempt to give it back it’s lifeforce and its fire to fight off this cosmic enemy. And so in general, people were absolutely scared to their death by this event, and they attempted everything they could rituals, magic prayers, invocation in order to get the life force of the sun back into its rightful place.

DOERING: And I think in your book, you talk about how this influenced who was in charge who was ruling at various times. Can you describe some of that for us?

TROTTA: Absolutely. Many of the kings and emperors of the past claim that their power was divinely inspired and oftentimes descended directly from a deity that was identified on the sun. There was, for example, the case for the pharaohs in Egypt and others even Louis XIV in France was named the "Sun King" for a reason because he felt that he was the representative of the force of the sun on earth, even in historical times. But perhaps no other civilization was more attentive to ward off the dangers that the disappearance of the sun could bring about for the empire than the Assyrians. And the Assyrians who lived in Mesopotamia over 3,000 years ago, they had a very special way of seeing off this cosmic danger to their king, because of course, when the sun disappeared from sky that was seen as ominous, as a bad omen for the king. And so what the Assyrians did when the solar eclipse was if not expected, but the least possible, they were able to predict when the solar eclipse could potentially happen even though they could not exactly predict when that would for certain happen. So when the solar eclipse was possible, they would instate enthrone, a substitute king, a puppet of sorts. Somebody taken from the populace or perhaps a prisoner, somebody who for a period of time become in all effects the king and they would swear a special oath that they will take upon themselves all the terrestrial and celestial portents in order to see off danger. And once the solar eclipse had passed and the substitute king was no longer needed, he will be executed and the old king re-instated. So in that respect, one could say that the solar eclipse was always a bad omen for the substitute king.

Roberto Trotta is a cosmologist at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, where he is a Professor of Theoretical Physics and the head of the newly established group in Theoretical and Scientific Data Science. He’s also a Visiting Professor of Astrostatistics at Imperial College London and author of “STARBORN: How the Stars Made Us—and Who We Would Be Without Them”. (Photo: Courtesy of Roberto Trotta)

DOERING: Yeah and that's so great to be that person who's instated it, even though it sounds great, right, instated as king for a while, doesn't end well.

TROTTA: No, no, it always ended badly for the substitute king.

DOERING: So humans have noticed and been awed by solar eclipses for thousands of years but more recently, how has science benefited from studying them?

TROTTA: Solar eclipses have been really important for many reasons but particularly because at the beginning of the 20th century a famous solar eclipse, the one in 1919, allowed astronomer Arthur Eddington to prove Albert Einstein right. Einstein had famously predicted using this newly discovered theory of general relativity, that the position of stars around the sun would appear shifted with respect to their usual position by the bending of space time. And he made a very specific prediction of the amount of bending the angle of displacement of the stars around the sun. But of course, that was impossible to measure during the day, because we don't see stars during the day around the sun so you need a solar eclipse. And when the solar eclipse in 1919, came around, Eddington and others sailed from the United Kingdom to various places in the world to measure the prediction that Einstein had made and they found him correct. And so that essentially propelled Einstein overnight into scientific stardom. So that was one of the ways in which solar eclipses have been used by science to test the fundamental nature of space time.

DOERING: Now, Roberto, we heard that passage from you. And I understand that you and your family were dead set on getting to that total solar eclipse a few years back. It was kind of a struggle, you were carrying a baby hiking up a hill to get to the perfect spot. Why was it so important to you as a cosmologist and as a human to witness a total solar eclipse?

TROTTA: Yes, it was a bit of a struggle and we travel thousands of miles and we, you know, we hired an RV to get to the perfect spot and then we hiked up that hill and in the end, we managed. It was all worth it because, you know, I never seen one before. I tried to see a total solar eclipse in 1999, in southern Germany but the sky had been clouded and it hadn't been success. I didn't feel much, it wasn't really impressive. And I kept hearing about all of these life changing experiences people were having experiencing a total solar eclipse. And to me, it was really important to have that experience the lived experience of the solar eclipse partially because I wanted to reconnect to what the sky meant for our ancestors. We talked earlier about how solar eclipses were really terrifying for people in the past. And I want you to understand how that cosmic connection of ours which is nowadays, largely lost, we experienced the sky through screens, most of the time, we look at pictures of the sky, which are wonderful, wonderful opportunities but we've lost the lived connection and I wanted to recapture some of that. And it was very important to me to do it with my family with my, my wife and my two young children because I felt this was a almost unique life time experience to have had that connection and to stand in the shadow of the moon and to feel what you feel is not just the shadows, also the cold air swirling around, the color changing, nature changing around you. It's a special moment, it's a special moment.

The RV Roberto Trotta’s family traveled in to reach Oregon and experience “the Great American Eclipse of 2017”. (Photo: Roberto Trotta)

DOERING: So that experience for you was back in 2017, which was when what was called "the Great American Eclipse" came to North America because I believe it went coast to coast, it covered much of the US and now there's another total solar eclipse coming up on April 8th that will cross much of Northern America. What recommendations do you have for people who want to view this eclipse?

TROTTA: Yes, this eclipse is going to be spectacular. And if you are close to the center of the path of totality you will be able to experience it for up to 4 minutes 30 seconds almost, which is far longer than I have experienced it. So that's a far longer lasting eclipse if you're in the right place. And so my top recommendation is try and get as close as you can to the central line of the path of totality, because that's where the experience will be the best and will last the longest. It's very, very important that you are within the path of totality, which is the region where the sun is completely covered by the disk of the moon. If you're even a little bit outside, even if the disk of the Sun is 99% covered, which seems like a lot, you're gonna miss out it's not going to be the same experience at all. There's still going to be enough light to ruin the best of the show. You won't be able to see the corona which is the flaring rings of fire if you like around the sun, you won't be able to see stars during the day which is incredible. And you won't get the full change of colors around you as the shadow of the moon travels over you at over 2,000 miles per hour, you won't get any of that. It will still be spectacular but really if you can make the effort of going the extra mile and get yourself inside because inside the actual shadow all of those things happen. The equally important piece of advice is never ever, ever look at the sun directly before it's covered by the moon without special eclipse glasses because your eyesight will be damaged very, very quickly if you try and do that. So never look directly at the sun until totality occurs until it's completely eclipsed by the moon. At which point rip off those glasses because the real spectacle is then you know with your naked eye, and the glasses are not only not needed, they are in the way. So take them off and look at this amazing spectacle while it lasts.

DOERING: Wow, okay. I will remember that for sure. Do not look directly at the sun until you're sure that it's completely covered. And this corona of the sun that you mentioned, so that must be safe to look at with your naked eye?

TROTTA: Yes, yes, once the sun is fully covered, then yes, and indeed that that's one of the most incredible sights because it's this flaring of rays all around the sun which extend quite a bit outside the sun. They're always there, we can't see them usually, because the light itself on the sun covers it up so we don't say under normal conditions. But this is the hotter part of the solar atmosphere flaring out. And it's very spectacular because there's this amazing contrast between the pitch blackness of the disk of the moon in the center, and the brilliant white of the corona, which is entirely safe to look at with your naked eyes. And that's something you really want to witness also look around, look at the stars you see in the sky, if there's any planets visible, they will show up as well. It's really amazing.

DOERING: Wow, I can't wait! So a total solar eclipse can last from just 10 seconds to around seven minutes and that sounds like a really short time for an event that happens only every 100 years or so from a given location.

Roberto Trotta with his telescope in his home in Italy. (Photo: Roberto Trotta)

TROTTA: But it's not actually my eclipse, the one that I witness only lasted a minute, fifty eight seconds. And that sounds even less certainly it is less than the one that's coming up, which will last up to 4 minutes and 27 seconds. But it's actually quite a long time because while you're in the shadow time plays tricks on you, time stretches, the flow is almost stopped and it feels like you're almost entering a different flow of time. So I experienced it for less than 3 minutes and felt much longer timeframe actually. So to experience it for anything around 4 minutes this time must be incredible because you know, when you look at this black hole in the sky and you start wondering- will it ever move on, will it ever give us back the sun? And it gets cold quite quickly as well, you know, the temperature drops quite sensibly while you are in the shadow. It's really an experience that changes your perception of time. So no, 4 minutes is plenty to enjoy it and to get really wonderful sense of what it feels like.

DOERING: Sounds like one of those experiences where all of your senses can be heightened and you can just feel really purely in that moment.

TROTTA: Yes, and my piece of advice is don't get obsessed with capturing the clips with your phone with your camera. Because the reality is there's plenty of great pictures of the eclipse everywhere online, you can download any number of them and chances are they're going to be better than yours. But your multi sensorial experience is not just the site there's also if you're in nature, you will hear nature, calm down, its the sensation of the shadow of the moon being cold. All of this you cannot capture on your camera. If you're fiddling with your phone, you're fiddling with your camera most of the time to try to capture the actual eclipse you're going to miss out on actually experiencing what is going on all around you. So my advice is to focus to be in the moment. So try to savor it and do not try to live it through screens because you will be missing some of the experience.

DOERING: Roberto Trotta is a cosmologist and author of “Starborn: How the Stars Made Us (And Who We Would Be Without Them)”. Thank you so much Roberto.

TROTTA: Thank you it's been a huge pleasure being with you.

Related links:
- Learn more about the 2024 total solar eclipse
- Try to get as close to the 2024 by tracking the path of totality
- Learn more about professor of Astrophysics and Data Science Roberto Trotta
- Purchase Starborn: How the Stars Made Us (And Who We Would be Without Them) from Bookshop.org to support both Living on Earth and local independent bookstores

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[MUSIC: Doug Smith, “Rocket Man” on Elton John – Instrumental Hits, Northquest]

O’NEILL: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Paloma Beltran, Josh Croom, Karen Elterman, Swayam Gagneja, Sommer Heyman, Mattie Hibbs, Mark Kausch, Mark Seth Lender, Don Lyman, Sarah Mahaney, Sophia Pandelidis, Jake Rego, Andrew Skerritt, El Wilson, and Jolanda Omari.

DOERING: Tom Tiger engineered our show. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can hear us anytime at L-O-E dot org, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, and like us, please, on our Facebook page - Living on Earth. We tweet from @livingonearth. And find us on Instagram at livingonearthradio. And you can write to us at comments at loe dot org. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. I’m Jenni Doering

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from you, our listeners, and from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, in association with its School for the Environment, developing the next generation of environmental leaders. And from the Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems.



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