Lunar Gateway and The End of Everything

Space scientist Katie Mack and space journalist Richard Hollingham talk space science with Chris Smith...
15 September 2020

Interview with 

Richard Hollingham, Boffin Media; Katie Mack, North Carolina State University


Sunrise over the rim of a planet seen from space.


Space scientist Katie Mack talks to Chris Smith about The End of Everything, and space journalist Richard Hollingham fills Chris in on the lunar gateway...

Chris - Richard, you've got a bit of a celebration, because you have become part of an exclusive club of people who've made it into their pod century. You've gone past a hundred episodes of the program [Space Boffins] now.

Richard - We've actually made way more than a hundred, but we're not quite sure how many, because we started making them. And then we started counting. So we know we've officially done a hundred podcasts, which I think is quite an achievement, but I think it's also testament to the fact that people are fascinated by space, and what is going on in space. And now is just the most exciting time for space exploration, for exploring the cosmos, but also for human space exploration and the return to the Moon. So I kind of feel we're on a wave here, of interest.

Chris - It's all going to kick off with the lunar gateway. Because you know, people are often saying, why have we not been back to the Moon? And now we're able to say, well, we are going back to the Moon, because that's due, or was due to be next year. This whole idea of creating a space station, orbiting the Moon.

Richard - Well, the Americans are sticking. NASA is sticking to the goal of putting a woman, the first woman, on the Moon by 2024. I mean, this will inevitably drift, because the spacecraft that's going to get them there, the rocket that's going to get them there, the space launch system, SLS, I mean the first launch of that won't be until probably next year. It was due a couple of years ago. And no one's tried out with a crew yet, the Orion capsule, which they'll travel in, but there is a momentum there. Absolutely. And this will happen. And Gateway is the space station around the Moon that they'll go to. And then they'll use that as the sort of base really, to get down to the lunar surface, although no one's built the lunar lander yet either. So I mean, there's quite a long way to go, but I think crucially for this, because we've heard a lot about going back to the Moon in the past, crucially for this, the money is in place. The money has been accounted for. The budget is there, the astronauts are being trained, so it will actually happen.

Chris - Katie. You're also kind of celebrating, because you got a book out. Tell us about what The End of Everything, which is its title, is all about.

Katie - So it's a book about the end of the universe. It has the subtitle, astrophysically speaking, just as a way of showing that we are being very literal. When we talk about the end of everything, it really is everything. And it goes through five different ways, what those would look like. And also just puts it into the context of what we know about the beginning of the universe, how we study the end of the universe, and how physicists and astronomers are figuring out the evolution of the cosmos.

Chris - I suppose people will say; well actually reading a book about the end of the universe is something of a welcome break from learning about the end of civilization as we know it from coronavirus.

Katie - A lot of people have told me that actually. That it is a very calming thing to contemplate these big questions of the universe, of cosmology, of this very broad perspective, when everybody's sort of huddled into their own little spaces, and you know, seeing all these difficult and stressful things happening around them, just being able to stop and think about this much, much bigger picture can be a sort of comforting thing.

Chris - How long do you think we've got left then, if you assume one of your scenarios, how long have we got left?

Katie - Yeah. Generally speaking, the universe is not going to end for a very, very, very long time. We know that our Earth has maybe a hundred million, maybe a billion years of habitability, and then the Sun will destroy the Earth or at least destroy the possibility of life on Earth, and then much, much longer than that is when the universe will start changing in any appreciable way. So probably so many trillions of years in the future, you can't even find words for it. There are a few possibilities that could happen sooner, which is interesting and exciting, but it's not an immediate threat.

Chris - That is a big relief. I'm sure you'll agree Richard. Tell us about what the Chinese are up to though. Because there was this mission, it was announced that they sent something into space. It was a very short lived mission, but they didn't say what it was, but they described it as a big success. What do we know?

Richard - Well, we don't know much more than we've got from the state run news agency. They said the successful flight marked the country's important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research, and it's expected to offer convenient and low cost round trip transport, for the peaceful use of space. So I mean, let's unpick that a little bit, because we haven't even got pictures of the launch. No one was even allowed to take pictures of the launch. There are pictures of the spacecraft itself. You can see those on social media and the BBC website, and it's got this huge casing at the top. So obviously what they launched is something quite substantial. Reusable space planes, I mean you think about something like the space shuttle, well that had a crew of seven, so a modern space plane's not really like that.

You had the Soviet space plane Buran, which flew, but without a crew. But that was more or less a copy of the Space Shuttle. Since then, though, there was a secret American X-plane that flies up into orbit, stays in orbit for quite a while. And normally delivers satellites or in inverted commas, payloads. So I mean, this is all secret and military. And so the Chinese one, well I'm imagining, and certainly reading about it. It looks like it's an uncrewed space plane, probably a robotic space plane, probably very similar to the American one that can go up into space, maybe deliver a satellite, or maybe take some pictures of other satellites, or take pictures of the Earth. And they can come back down to Earth, and can be turned around quickly and launched again. There are advantages of this. Reusability is the key thing. And that's the key thing with space now, is if you can send something up, you can bring it back. You can do a little bit of refurbishment and use it again. You're massively dropping the costs of that. So although this is military, there is also very much a commercial side to any reusability or reusable technology in space, which means you could launch satellites cheaper.


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