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Planets & Space News

Date: 05-29-10
Host: Ian Punnett
Guests: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Ian Punnett was joined by astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, for a discussion on the latest planetary and space science news.

Tyson began by correcting a common misconception that science is based on an ever-shifting consensus that changes as scientists learn more about the universe. Once there's enough empirical data, a scientific hypothesis is confirmed and goes into the books, he said. As an example, Tyson referenced the recent discovery of water on the Moon, something scientists believed did not exist due to extremely hot lunar conditions. We've since learned there are ice deposits in the cold permanently-shadowed basins of craters near the Moon's polar regions, he explained. "The previous folks weren't wrong [about no water where it's hot], they were just incomplete," he noted.

Tyson envisioned how lunar ice deposits could be utilized to aid in space travel. If you have water at your destination, it means you don't have to carry it with you, he explained. Water also contains the molecular building blocks of rocket fuel, so a Moon mission would potentially have fuel for the return trip, he added. There is considerable debate currently about whether NASA should return a man to the Moon or try for Mars, Tyson continued, pointing out that some taxpayers have questioned the purpose for the space program altogether.

Tyson believes the modest expense associated with NASA is well worth the cost, as the agency's work has provided a beneficial cosmic perspective for humanity and inspired countless people to enter careers in science-related fields -- where their innovations help drive the economy. NASA research has also led to many useful technological breakthroughs. "If I snuck into your house at night and took away everything that was enabled, or empowered, or accelerated by our efforts in space, you would not know how to live the next day," he said.

Tyson also spoke about the threat of large asteroids and solar flares, as well as the semiannual event known as "Manhattanhenge," a term he coined which describes when the setting sun aligns with the east–west street grid of Manhattan in New York City.

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