The Star Spot

On this special first year anniversary edition of The Star Spot, NASA's preeminent astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay talks all things Mars: the possibility of past life, the hunt for current spots of habitability by the Curiosity rover, and the prospects for a human future on the Red Planet. In conversation with Justin Trottier the two discuss the ethics of terraforming and why Mars deserves a future rich with the biodiversity of life. 

Plus a behind the scenes look at The Star Spot, highlights of our first year, and a conversation with a familiar voice.

About Dr. Chris McKay

Dr. Chris McKay is a planetary scientist, with a PhD in Astrogeophysics from the University of Colorado.  As a NASA Research Scientist with the NASA Ames Research Centre since 1982, he studies planetary atmospheres, the evolution of the solar system, the origin of life, astrobiology and terraforming. He’s been co-investigator for the Huygens probe to Saturday’s Moon Titan, the Mars Phoenix lander and the Mars Science Laboratory whose Curiosity rover is now on the red planet.

Dr. McKay conducts research on extremophiles in Mars-like environments on Earth, including in the ice-covered lakes of antarctica, Siberia, Death Valley, the Canadian Arctic. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Planetary Society.

Current in Space

Confirmation of Marsian past habitability is one of two space-related headline news stories of the last few weeks. The other is the discovery by astronomer Mike Brown and colleague Kevin Hand that Europa's vast liquid water ocean deep below its icy crust might not be isolated from the surface after all. Mallory Warren and Julia Mazurchuk discuss this new discovery and its implications. 

Direct download: Ep25-ChrisMcKay.mp3
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Sara Seager, a world authority on the study of atmospheres of extrasolar planets joins Justin Trottier to share how cutting edge research is pushing the frontier not just in discovering planets beyond our solar system, but in starting to actually characterize their attributes like atmosphere and composition.

The two discuss the startlingly diverse zoo of objects out in our galaxy, Dr. Seager's excitement being part of the team that detected evidence of the first extrasolar planet atmosphere, and most tantalizingly, how we are now on the cusp of being able to identify biosignatures of life as we home in on other Earths out there in space. Dr. Seager also provides some insider information on the pseudoscientific History Channel program Ancient Aliens, on which she's appeared on several occasions.

On January 25th of this year, the Astronomy and Space Exploration Society based out of the University of Toronto hosted its 10th annual Expanding Canada’s Frontiers symposium, a series that has become a fixture in the city for celebrating achievements in astronomy and space sciences and engineering. This 10th event in the series was a real landmark, focused on the search for life beyond Earth. The Star Spot caught up with Dr. Seager following her presentation on campus, and on an upcoming episode of The Star Spot we will be joined by NASA's eminent astrobiologist, Dr. Chris McKay, another of the symposium's keynote speakers.

About Dr. Sara Seager

Dr. Sara Seager is currently professor of astronomy at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology and a world authority on the study of atmospheres on extrasolar planets, the subject of her Harvard University PhD. She's the recipient of the Helen B. Warner Prize from the American Astronomical Society, Harvard’s Bart J. Bok Prize in Astronomy, and named to Popular Science’s Fifth annual brilliant 10. Even more cool, NASA’s planetquest has described Dr. Seager as “an astronomical indiana jones.”


Current in Space

On Current in Space, we comment on the excitement and destruction generated by the recent meteor that shot across the Russian skies and crashed into Chebarkul Lake, followed by a quick update on the ongoing adventures of the Mars Curiosity rover.

Direct download: Ep24-SarahSeager.output.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00pm EDT

Keith Vanderlinde joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to share his Antarctica experience, studying the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation from the South Pole Telescope. He explains the ambiance, challenges and thrills of working in cold and darkness for nearly a year. The two then discuss how the origin and evolution of large scale structure in the universe can be read from imprints left on the first light released into space, and what we can learn about dark matter and dark energy from characterizing the universe’s earliest galaxy clusters.

Keith Vanderlinde is Global Scholar with the Canadian Institue for Advanced research and Assistant Professor in the University of Toronto's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Vanderlinde previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics in Chicago. He participated in crafting a number of science exhibits at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Museum of Science and Industry. More recently he was stationed for nearly a year in Antarctica working with the South Pole Telescope to study data from the universe's youngest days taken at one of the coldest locations on earth.

In Current in Space, we look at some notorious recent international examples of space adventures - or sometimes misandventures. 

Direct download: Ep23-KeithVanderlinde.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00pm EDT

Professor Sabine Stanley joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to discuss everything to do with magnetic fields: how they're created, where they can be found, and what they tell us about the composition and behaviour of planets. Why does Mercury have a magnetic field when we originally predicted it shouldn't? Why does Saturn's magnetic field line up so perfectly with its geographic poles? What makes the magnetic field of Mars so different in its northern and southern hemispheres?

The two then focus on Earth's magnetic field which is known to flip north and south poles throughout its history. Why do flips happen? Why do they occur at seemingly irregular intervals? Are they dangerous to life? Dr. Stanley shares her excitement for how using mangetic fields as another tool in searching for habitable exoplanets. Finally the two discuss upcoming missions to study the magnetic fields of objects in our solar system, such as the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) which will use mgnetic field information to tell us more about the oceans under Europa's ice sheets.

Sabine Stanley is Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto, having received a PhD in geophysics from Harvard University. She has been awarded a Canada Research Chair in Planetary Physics, a Sloan Research Fellowship, and the Early Researcher Award from the Ministry of Research and Innovation of the Province of Ontario. 

Direct download: Episode22-SabineStanley.output.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00pm EDT

Dr. Stuart Clark joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to share his unique work dramatizing the great stories of science. Clark combines his background in astrophysical research with his career in science journalism and writing to author a trilogy of novels that focus on the lives of the great minds of astronomy, from the Trials of Galileo to the personality conflicts between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, to the discovery of the Big Bang by Einstein, Lemaitre and others. Clark also discusses his blog for The Guardian called Across the Universe, and shares his insights into teaching critical thinking and how to use the history of discovery to deepen the public appreciation and understanding of science. Dr. Stuart Clark.

Stuart Clark, PhD in astrophysics, is fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, former Director of Public Astronomy Education at the University of Hertfordshire and a writer for New Scientist, The Guardian and BBC Science programmes. He is the author of over a dozen books, including a trilogy of novels that dramatize pivotal periods in the development of our understanding of the universe, incorporating as characters in the plot the scientists at the centre of discovery. These books include The Sky’s Dark Labrynth about Galileo and Kepler, The Sensorium of God focused on Isaac Newton and his contemporaries, and the forthcoming The Day Without Yesterday on Albert Einstead and George Lemaitre.

Direct download: Ep21-StuartClark-Complete.output.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00pm EDT

Lawrence Krauss joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to discuss nothing, and how a universe can arise from it. Covering Krauss' earlier book "The Physics of Star Trek," the two discuss warp drives, time travel and transporters, and then reflect on the likelihood of a space exploration future anywhere like that of the Star Trek universe. Arguing that not only matter, space and time, but the laws of physics themselves, can all be ultimately explained, Krauss defends his assertion that the ultimate question "Why is there something rather than nothing" properly belongs to the realm of science, responding to critiques from philosophers and some in the religious communities. The conversation also focuses on quantum gravity, the anthropic principle, and what it means about our place in the universe that in the very long run, our universe seems to be heading back in the direction of nothingness.

Professor Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He grew up in Toronto and studied at Carleton University, then received a PhD in physics at MIT. He served on President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign science policy committee, and has received awards from the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics. He is the author of a number of books, including Hiding in the Mirror, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe From Nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing.

Direct download: Ep20-LawrenceKrauss-FullEpisode.output.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00pm EDT

Luis Lehner joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to discuss his work in numerical relativity and his search for elusive gravity waves. Since they are not scattered by intervening objects but carrying pure information from their points of origin, gravity waves would be a revolutionary new way to study everything from the Big Bang to supermassive black holes. The two also discuss future missions to search for gravity waves, like the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna (LISA) and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). Finally Lehner explains his theoretical work on strongly gravitating systems in higher compactified dimensions where exotic objects called "black strings" may connect string theory, quantum gravity and black holes.

Luis Lehner completed his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh and then held Postdoctoral Fellowships at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Briitsh Columbia. He is currently Professor at the University of Guelph and Associate Faculty at Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. Lehner received the Nicholas Metropolis Award from the American Physical Society and a ellowship from the Sloan Foundation. He sits on the Editorial Board of the Journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, and he was named among the Top 40 Under 40 by the Baton Rouge Business Report. Lehner lives by advice his father once gave him, who said: "Anyone can get a university degree. It takes work and study for a few years, and then one ends up with a degree forever. But to a be a gentleman or a gentlewoman one must work on it forever."

 

Direct download: LuisLehner-CompleteEpisode.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00pm EDT

The Star Spot is excited to announce a new development: video. Today’s episode of The Star Spot also features a special video edition to be posted on our recently launched YouTube channel, "TheStarSpotTV." There you can watch a video recording of our interview with today’s guest, Bob McDonald, as well as coverage of the 50 year anniversary celebration of the launch of Alouette 1, Canada’s first space satellite, the event at which Bob’s interview was conducted. We invite you to check out the video and subscribe to our new channel. Older episodes of our program will also be posted there in the near future.


Bob McDonald is Canada’s best known science journalist. A long standing fixture on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks which draws half a million listeners each week, Bob Mcdonald is the author of the book Measuring the earth with a stick: science as I've seen it, which was short listed for the chadian science writers association book award. He is the the recipient of a variety of awards for science communication, including the 2005 McNeil Medal for the public awareness of science from the royal society of canada and the 2001 michael smith award for science promotion from NSERC. The university drop out who wound up with 6 honorary doctoral degrees - and counting - sits down with Justin Trottier to discuss how unique opportunities have shaped his life, the value of story telling in selling science, and his experiences on the CBC.

Direct download: Episode18_-_Bob_McDonald.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00pm EDT

Dr. Leo Meyer joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to discuss his UCLA research group's discovery of S0-102, a star 11.5 light years from the supermassive black hole at the core of our galaxy. The closest star yet discovered to the galactic centre, S0-102 could provide a unique opportunity to test Einstein's General Theory of Relativity in an extreme environment. The two also cover the technological revolutions at the Keck telescope that have made this and related discoveries possible and what other surprises have been made and may yet be in store in the dynamic and volatile region at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.

About Leo Meyer

Dr. Leo Meyer is Assistant Researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California Los Angeles. He obtained his PhD in physics from the university of cologne, Germany. He held a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the German Academic Exchange Service from 2008 to 2009 and a Graduate Fellowship of the Max-planck Society from 2005 to 2008. His research expertise lies in adaptive optics, general relativity, back holes and especially the Milky Way’s galactic centre.


Direct download: Ep17-LeoMeyer.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00pm EDT

On today’s episode Dr. Ralf Gellert, principal investigator of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectromer, or APXS, one of the primary instruments on the Mars Curiosity rover, joins Justin Trottier at The Star Spot to discuss how his instrument is currently assisting in the search for signs of Martian habitability. Dr. Gellert compares Curiosity to its predecessors, especially the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity on which he continues to work. He describes how Curiosity's ten instruments together contribute to the mission goals, ponders whether we'll ever know for sure if Mars was, or was not, habitable, and shares his hope that the next step in Martian exploration would be a sample return mission. Gellert gives a feel for the complexity and scale of planetary exploration missions, describing how government, research institutions and private industry collaborate, and how Curiosity has become and international project.

In Current in Space we report on the discovery of super-luminous supernovae out at edge of the observable universe, and provide an update on Voyager 1 and its mission to a different edge - that of our own solar system.

About Ralf Gellert

Dr. Ralf Gellert is a German-born physicist who in 2005 became an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Guelph in Canada. He previously worked as a research scientist at the University of Mainz and the Max-Plank Institute for Chemistry, also in Mainz, Germany. After leading the successful proposal to NASA, he became the principal investigator of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, or APXS instrument, one of the primary instruments currently on board NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover. The APXS is designed to analyze the elements of a Marsian sample through alpha particle and X-ray bombardment.

Direct download: Ep16-Ralf_Gellert.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00pm EDT