A Sightseeing Tour of the Solar System

If you're bored with the usual vacation spots, how about some of the top tourist attractions in our solar system? Andrew Fraknoi, director of Project ASTRO, an educational outreach effort of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, provides tips on futuristic travel.

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JOE PALCA, host:

From NPR News, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca.

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For the rest of this hour: some summertime travel tips. Now don't forget to pack your sunscreen and your towels, and your passport, and your oxygen mask, and your solid rocket booster. Because if you're bored with the regular trips to the lake, mountains or beach, can't stand the thought of another trip to that art museum and really need to get away from it all, why not plan a trip to some of the finest real estate in the solar system?

Think big. Joining me now is Andrew Fraknoi. He's the director of Project ASTRO, an educational outreach effort of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and he's chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Welcome back to Science Friday, Andy.

Mr. ANDREW FRAKNOI (Astronomy Department, Foothill College): Oh it's nice to be with you, Joe.

PALCA: How do you feel taking on the role of travel agent?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Well, it's not an entirely new role for me. This is a project I do with schoolteachers and with my own students at the college. So it's fun activity to try to get students and everyone thinking about what other places there are, what other worlds there are besides our own.

PALCA: Alright. Well, we don't have students with us today but we do have our TALK OF THE NATION audience. And we'd like to encourage them to call in with their questions: 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. Where would you like to go in the universe.

And so, Andy Fraknoi, let's get a couple - I mean, alright. So you've got the tools, you've got the spacecraft. If you were going to some place in the solar system - let's start there - what would be, you know, what are some of your top places to visit?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Well, this is great. We should set some ground rules for both ourselves and our listeners, which is that money is no object. I always tell my students this is, think of it as the honeymoon tour of Bill Gates' great-great-granddaughter.

PALCA: I got it. Okay.

Mr. FRAKNOI: And where could you go? And the other question is you don't need to worry about safety. We're going to build for you the best ship, which can survive planets that are not solid and heat and cold. What are the great places?

Among my favorites are, for example, on the planet Venus, there is a lava tube which is about a mile wide and 4,200 miles long. A single channel longer than any river on the planet Earth and it's called the Baltis Vallis. Now it's true that Venus is not a great vacationland because the temperatures are 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide.

PALCA: Quibbles, just strictly quibbles.

Mr. FRAKNOI: (Unintelligible) breathe out.

PALCA: Right.

Mr. FRAKNOI: Yeah. We are quibbles. Right. We are not worried about protection because we've got the best spacecraft and the best engineering, unlike the Big Dig, to get us where we need to go.

Another I love is Mt. Maxwell on Venus, a giant volcano about 40,000-feet high. The only feature on Venus named for a man after we discovered this (unintelligible) mountain, NASA changed the procedures and everything else on the planet Venus is now named after a woman, except, ironically, the tallest feature.

PALCA: Who is Maxwell? Should we start...

Mr. FRAKNOI: Maxwell was - we can't see Venus very well from earth because it is perpetually covered by clouds. It makes the fog in San Francisco seem like nothing in comparison. And so we have to start with radar. And the man who first came up with the idea, the theory behind radar and other kinds of ways was James Clerk Maxwell.

So when they probed Venus with the radar beams and figured out what was on its surface, they decided the most impressive feature would be named after Maxwell.

PALCA: Excellent. I was going to ask how you see to the surface, but I guess I should've known that it was radar. Okay. It seems to me that there's also a prime vacation spot just past Earth but Mars is always among the top 10 when people talk about visiting planets - I guess because there's only nine planets so they'd have to be in the top 10. What would be the feature on Mars you'd want to go to?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Well, my favorite is the giant volcano called Mount Olympus. It is so large at its base that if we were to put it down on Earth it would entirely cover the state of Washington. It's unbelievable. It's also about three times the height of Mt. Everest, and its caldera, which is the hole, the opening at the top of the volcano, is big enough to put the entire metropolitan Los Angeles area into it.

So this, I think, will be the test of people's manhood in the future. Have you climbed Mount Olympus and did you survive the climb?

PALCA: Well, it's got an appropriate name for an Olympian task like that.

Mr. FRAKNOI: There you go.

PALCA: There you go. All right. Well, let's ask some of our listeners to suggest their favorite spots, and first let's go to Brian(ph) in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller): How are you doing today?

PALCA: Good.

BRIAN: Interesting topic.

PALCA: Oh, I'm glad. What would you like to see if you could have the chance to see anything up close in the solar system.

BRIAN: I'd like to take a walk on the rings in Saturn.

PALCA: A walk in the rings in Saturn. Andy Fraknoi, could he actually take a walk or would he have to stand back and watch from a distance?

Mr. FRAKNOI: I think what he'd really need is a good bumper car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAKNOI: The rings of Saturn are made up of billions and billions of individual pieces of ice, all in an enormous traffic pattern around the crater of the giant planet. And so you could not walk on them. You could leap from piece to piece, but so many small chunks of ice would be coming around all the time. What you'd want is a completely surrounding kind of bumper car that would keep them off you while you navigated among the icy chucks.

BRIAN: Sounds like fun.

PALCA: And maybe, Brian, we can ask NASA if they're thinking about designing such a bumper car.

BRIAN: (Unintelligible) but we can always have fun with it.

PALCA: That's true. All right, thanks Brian. Let's try somebody else's wish list and go to Davey in Tallahassee, Florida. Davey, welcome to Science Friday.

DAVEY (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

PALCA: Okay, where do you want to go?

DAVEY: Pluto.

PALCA: Pluto. Why Pluto?

DAVEY: Pluto is kind of like the little planet that everyone just throws to the side, doesn't really talk about, you know, like the little ugly duckling that nobody wants to talk about or investigate to see what it is.

Mr. FRAKNOI: That's like...

DAVEY: It's far away...

PALCA: Hang on. Actually, Andy Fraknoi, you were saying about Pluto?

Mr. FRAKNOI: I'm agreeing that it's the odd planet out, the cousin you don't want to invite to Thanksgiving dinner.

PALCA: Yes, but is there any reason to think that there's - I mean apart from the odd - if you don't want to invite the cousin to Thanksgiving dinner, what do you want to go there for? Is there anything interesting about Pluto? It's just a rock, right?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Well, it's probably mostly made of ice, and the reason we want to go there is because we've never been. That's the only planet which human spacecraft have not gotten close-up pictures of. But we're on our way. The New Horizon spacecraft is going to be there in 2014. So put that on your social schedule.

DAVEY: I will.

PALCA: Davey, call us back in 2014 and we'll have you on the planet - have you on the show and see what you think of the pictures.

DAVEY: Well, I keep putting your number on speed dial, so I'll have it there.

PALCA: Excellent. Thanks very much. Let's try Tom(ph) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Tom, welcome to the program.

TOM (Caller): Hi.

PALCA: Where do you want to go?

TOM: Mars, of course.

PALCA: Mars, of course.

TOM: And my concern is instead of closing (unintelligible) proper insulation and (unintelligible) oxygen bottles in the back or whatever.

PALCA: Okay, well I think the question, if I've got it right, Tom - you were breaking up a little bit there - is what kind of a suit would you need to walk around safely on Mars? Andy Fraknoi?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Well, actually Mars is not bad. Of all the planets that are in the solar system, that's probably the one we're most likely to actually walk around on, because there is a surface to stand on, unlike Jupiter and Saturn, and there's sand, which you can crunch under your metallic spacesuit toes. The only need is to worry about air and pressure.

The pressure is very thin - on Earth, like being high above the Earth on an airplane, really. So you'd need pressure and you'd need air because it's mostly carbon dioxide there too. And the temperatures get quite a bit colder, so you'd need some insulation.

But we're imaging domes on Mars someday and actually people walking around much as we did on the Moon - having some kind of human presence there.

PALCA: Excellent. Okay, Douglas in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Where are you going if you had your chance?

DOUGLAS (Caller): I would love to go scuba diving, more precisely in a submarine, on Europa.

PALCA: On Europa. So get into a submarine and visit Europa, or Europa's oceans, I guess we mean.

Mr. FRAKNOI: Let's tell our listeners about that. Europa's probably the most intriguing world in some ways because it's a moon of Saturn - a moon of Jupiter's rather - which is ice-covered, but there's good evidence from the way the ice is breaking up that underneath it, there is a global ocean, perhaps warmed by pressures and heat from underneath where there might actually be the remote possibility of the beginnings of life, deep under the ice of Europa.

So it's a place where our submarines would have to be sterilized so we don't interfere with that life - we're good citizens - but it would certainly be high on the list of any astronomer to visit.

PALCA: Yes, and I actually, I gather that, you know, there has to be some kind of a heat source that's keeping the oceans liquid. So it may not be as frozen cold all the way down to the bottom, and that suggests, you know, that you've got at least - you don't have to build in too many radiators, as well, on your submarine.

Mr. FRAKNOI: Absolutely. Just like a pond in New England can stay warm, in a sense insulated by the ice over it, so we think that the ice on top of Europa may be shielding this warmer liquid layer underneath.

PALCA: And I guess if we're talking about oceans on Europa, we should at least mention to people that now Cassini, the NASA spacecraft that's orbiting Saturn, seems to have detected hydrocarbon methane lakes on Titan.

Mr. FRAKNOI: That's right. The problem with Titan is it's very cold. Just like on Earth, we have water playing three roles. We have liquid water, was have frozen water, and we have water vapor. It appears that in the cold environment of Saturn's moon Titan, methane swamp gas plays that same triple role where it can be in liquid form, ice form and vapor form.

And you are quite right that just recently papers have been confirming the idea that there is a drizzle of swamp gas, a drizzle of methane coming down and perhaps producing rivers and lake of liquid methane on this alien world.

PALCA: Sounds lovely. Let's take another call and go to Bob in - I'm sorry, I'm having - from Mansfield, Ohio. Go ahead.

BOB (Caller): Yes, thank you. I would like to be at the gravitational neutral between the Earth and the sun so with the sun to my back I could look at the Earth and see asteroids as they went by on orbits before a future impact. And that way we could set up a defense for these. And if you wished, you could send all the debris that we don't want coming down on the Earth from old satellites and fill that up and shade the Earth.

PALCA: Okay. You know, Bob, that idea - sounds like I've heard that before, something like Al Gore had an idea like that. But before you answer, Andy Fraknoi, let me ask other listeners to just tell people what we're doing here in case they're wondering why we're talking about this stuff.

We're taking a virtual tour, or an imaginary tour, of the solar system. Where would you like to go on your next vacation? So that's what this hour is all about. I'm Joe Palca and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay, Andy Fraknoi, what do you think about that? Did I get that right? That's the Lagrange Point, right?

Mr. FRAKNOI: That's right. And the idea of looking at the Earth both protectively and as a beautiful object is a wonderful idea. When we do this in our Project ASTRO seminars and workshops with students, very many students often say you're forgetting the Earth, you're forgetting the Earth. What about looking at the Earth from space? And it's just beautiful.

If you look at the Earth, no other planet we've seen either here or on other stars so far resembles the Earth - the protective air, the beautiful oceans, the vegetation - and so taking care of the Earth and seeing it as one will from space is certainly one of the most important tourist things that we can do.

PALCA: Okay. Let's go to Andris(ph) in Miami, Florida. Welcomes to the program.

ANDRIS (Caller): Good morning. Actually, good afternoon. Professor, my question is regarding your opinion about the possibility of any one of the recognized space agencies actually employing some type of photographer, a professional photographer, to actually go out there and document these unknown landscapes, similar to the way Ansel Adams was paid to document the West.

PALCA: Good question, Andris. What do you think, Andy Fraknoi?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Well, I think the first that's going to happen and that's already been happening is that they're going to train any astronauts who go up to take photographs. And many of the astronauts aboard the shuttle and now the International Space Station have been taking and have been trained to take remarkable pictures.

So if you have a chance to Google the NASA websites about either the space station or the shuttle program, take a look at some of those images. They're not Ansel Adams, perhaps, but they certainly rival some of the best pictures we have on Earth.

The other thing is that our robots, which are going to these planets, also have taken some amazing pictures and for those of our listeners who have not seen it, NASA has put together a website called Photo Journal. Just Google photo journal and NASA.

And on this photo journal website, you can see thousands of amazing images coming back from these worlds, and I think they are a remarkable legacy.

PALCA: Sure. I think the rovers have taken some pretty spectacular pieces with their cameras. But let's do - I think we have time for one more call, and go to Ted in Redwood City. Ted, welcome to the program.

TED (Caller): Hi. Professor Fraknoi, I'm looking forward to taking your class again (unintelligible) next fall. And I would recommend anyone in the Bay Area to take his class if you're interested in astronomy.

I would be interested in visiting Enceladus, the moon of Saturn where it looks like there is pretty good evidence there may be a reservoir of liquid water at the south pole. I think it'd be neat to scuba dive there, and I'd love to hear what the professor has to say about it.

PALCA: Cool. Andy Fraknoi, Enceladus?

Mr. FRAKNOI: Glad to hear from intelligent students. Absolutely. Not only is - Europa is not the only world where we now think there might be water. Enceladus, Saturn's moon is another possibility. Also some of the other moons of Jupiter. For example Ganymede may now turn out to have an internal core which is much warmer and ice in them.

So the possibilities seem to be unlimited, or at least much more varied than we thought before.

PALCA: Well, given the fact that it's 90 degrees here in Washington today and going to be 90 tomorrow and 90 the day after, a frozen moon sounds pretty good right about now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Andy Fraknoi, we've run out of time, I'm afraid, so thank you for joining us.

Mr. FRAKNOI: My pleasure. We hope your listeners can continue this on their own. It's a fun activity.

PALCA: Andrew Fraknoi is the director of Project ASTRO, an education outreach effort of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and he's chair of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California.

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