Biggest Little Announcement in NASA History

Last week NASA issued a press release promising that on May 14th, they would "Announce the discovery of an object in our Galaxy astronomers have been hunting for more than 50 years." Alexis Madrigal, who live-blogged the announcement for Wired.com, will attempt to make you care.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Last week, NASA issued a press release which promised that on May 14th, yesterday, they would, quote, announce the discovery of an object in our galaxy astronomers have been hunting for more than 50 years. Sounds like a pretty big deal, right?

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Totally.

PESCA: Yeah. So big that the number one trend on Google Trends yesterday morning was NASA announcement. We figured folks in-the-know must be waiting with bated breath. So we contacted our NPR science correspondent, David Kestenbaum, in D.C. And we asked him what he thought NASA had discovered.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: You know how many unread emails I have? I have 4,614. A lot of them are from NASA. They're very good at sending out press releases. I don't know, you know, it could be some black hole thing, this story about some minor error in the balance sheets of matter in the universe. It could have to do with a supernova. A pink black hole, I remember doing some story about that that I don't even remember anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So that was only mildly helpful. So what did we do? We grabbed NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich, as he raced through our offices. This was his theory.

ROBERT KRULWICH: In the early days, man's space flight - they would have little garbage ejections, and I understood that, at one point, someone's glove was ejected from a capsule. The glove has been in orbit all this while. So you could imagine someone in NASA with a glove on her or his left hand, staring at their bare right hand, gazing celestially upward and thinking the other glove has finally been discovered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Compelling, well said, marginally helpful. So we figured experts, shmexperts. Let's ask our office manager Agnes whether she has a good theory. Here's what she came up with.

AGNES: Everybody thinks this discovery is probably a super massive black hole or dark matter, but I think it's Cupid.

MARTIN: She's so sweet. At that point, we figured we might as well just wait for NASA, and at precisely 1:02 p.m., Dr. Steven Reynolds from North Carolina State University joined the conference call and made the announcement we'd all been waiting for.

(Soundbite of song "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

Dr. STEVEN REYNOLDS (Physics, North Carolina State University): We're very excited to report the discovery of the remains of the most recent supernova in our Milky Way galaxy.

PESCA: (Shouting) Yes!

MARTIN: (Shouting) Woo hoo!

PESCA: (Shouting) The remains of the most recent supernova in our galaxy! Man, that is awesome!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: All right, it's not really that awesome. But if NASA considers it this really big deal, you know, press, contact worthy, press-release worthy...

MARTIN: We're the press.

PESCA: Yeah. I guess. Maybe we should at least try to figure out what the big hubbub was about. Luckily, the Bryant Park Project has a branded feature called Make Me Care, and the Bryant Park Project also has an expert on the other end of this line. His name is Alexis Madrigal. He was live-blogging the announcement for wired.com. So he's the perfect guy for this. Hi, Alexis.

Mr. ALEXIS MADRIGAL (Blogger, Wired.com): Hey. How's it going?

PESCA: Well, well, so, NASA's announcement, they found the remains of the most recent supernova in our galaxy. What we're doing now is putting 60 seconds on the clock. You might hear some ticking at the end. That tells you get to the point, and if you're ready, Alexis Madrigal, Make Me Care.

Mr. MADRIGAL: So, here's why you should care. So, what's a supernova? It's the explosive death of a star that basically allows all advanced life and civilization at NPR to exist. Supernovas take the most common elements of the universe, like hydrogen, and turn them into calcium in your bones and the iron in your blood. In short, that stardust that you're made of, it came from a supernova.

So these guys who study the deaths of stars, these supernovas, are a bit like David Caruso on "CSI." And the reason this discovery is super important is that the corpse of this star is still warm, and if you're "CSI," you want a fresh scene. In astronomical time scales, this is as fresh as it gets.

This star, which has the charming name at G1.9, exploded about 140 years ago, right around the Gettysburg Address. Before that, the most recent supernova that we know about happened back in the 1680s, when Newton was still publishing. So supernovae aren't common...

(Soundbite of ticking clock)

Mr. MADRIGAL: The vast majority of stars just don't go out guns blazing. They get old and they get bright. Oh, man, wow, is it that fast?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Are you almost there?

Mr. MADRIGAL: No. I'm not almost there.

PESCA: Wrap it. Wrap it.

(Soundbite of bell)

PESCA: All right. Go ahead. You get a second to wrap it.

Mr. MADRIGAL: I get a - so look, is this like finding a cure for HIV? No, but the discovery is a significant step towards understanding supernova, which are super important because without them there would be calcium, no milk, and no milk moustache ads.

PESCA: OK. So you convinced me that supernovae are important, but this particular recent supernova, weren't you even a little underwhelmed?

Mr. MADRIGAL: I have to say, I was a little bit underwhelmed. I mean, I care. I think it's important, but it's an incremental step. It's not something that's like breaking the world open. It's not like, hey, maybe there's black holes, right?

PESCA: Yeah, right.

Mr. MADRIGAL: I mean, this is an incremental step.

PESCA: As a live blogger, what kind of anticipation was there going in? Were people really thinking it was going to be that major? Or were they used to NASA's kind of bait and switch on these things?

Mr. MADRIGAL: No. People were really excited. I mean, NASA put out a press release, so, you know, we threw up the live blog and all these comments just start getting on saying, you know, after 50 years, NASA's finally found the public's interest in space exploration, you know, or you know, could it be that a black hole's not black or is it a wormhole? All these types of things.

But unfortunately, after the news came out, all of these other comments started coming in, like the one from Seth where he said, seriously, super lame, or Nothingness, he sounds kind of depressed, he said got me all excited over some dust. The future looks boring.

PESCA: And does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Mr. MADRIGAL: I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I mean, one of our commenters actually kind of summed it up nicely. J. M. said, maybe it seemed like a really big deal to the scientists, and they didn't realize that it wasn't that big a deal to us normal people.

PESCA: So what can be - you know, are there any types of advances, scientific advances, that this discovery could lead us to?

Mr. MADRIGAL: Well, you know, they're not actually sure yet, right? I mean, they're just getting on the scene. They haven't done all the investigations. I mean, the main thing is that it kind of helps confirm astronomers' theory about how many supernovae there should be in the universe, which Wait on the Line says, how many heavy elements and how much calcium should there be in the universe, right?

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. MADRIGAL: So that's good for them to confirm, I think. On the other hand, they still need to find, you know, dozens of others of these things before they truly have the confirmation they need.

PESCA: So, on a scale of one to ET-is-real, where does this thing fall?

Mr. MADRIGAL: A five.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: All right. Alexis Madrigal, staff writer for wired.com. Thanks a lot, Alexis.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Hey, thank you guys.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: So, you know, Alexis made me care, actually.

PESCA: Yeah. He had some good gambits there by mentioning NPR, so we were immediately riveted in his little spiel. Also, all he was trying to sell us on was a five out of one-to-ET.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: So, he made us care.

MARTIN: He did. Calcium, I didn't know there was any connection between supernovae and calcium, and I also didn't know that when there are multiple supernovas that you call them supernovae. Did you just make that up? Is that a Pesca-ism?

PESCA: I don't know if we, quote, unquote, know that now.

MARTIN: I believe you. I'm so naive. I should never believe anything you say.

PESCA: No, no, no - also, let's specially mention that, in David Kestenbaum's long list of what it could be, he did mention it could be a supernova.

MARTIN: He said the word "supernova," so we give some props and a little shout out to NPR science correspondent David Kestenbaum. You win, closest.

PESCA: I was rooting for Cupid.

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