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The astronomy and space exploration podcast


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The astronomy and space exploration podcast





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Episode 185: Did a Supernova Cause a Mass Extinction?, with Brian Fields

Feature Guest: Brian Fields By now we are all familiar with the theory that an asteroid brought to an end the age of the dinosaurs, a period of domination that had lasted 167 million years. But asteroids are not the only harbingers of doom that lurk in the darkness of space. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by Brian Fields, whose research team has found evidence linking supernovae events in deep space to mass extinction events in deep time. Current in Space Tony reports on the mystery of the vanished star. Then Jeff describes electromagnetic flare from a gravitational wave event caused by two merging black holes. And Camilla brings news of two new super-Earths. Finally Amelia and Priyanka offer an explanation for radio waves caused by pulsars. About Our Guest Brian Fields is Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Illinois


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Episode 184: The Milky Way's First Fast Radio Burst, with Sandro Mereghetti

Feature Guest: Sandro Mereghetti Fast radio bursts are a new mystery in astronomy. These highly energetic events of unknown origin were first discovered in 2007 out in deep space. Now a team is reporting the first fast radio burst to emanate from our own Milky Way Galaxy. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by Sandro Mereghetti, whose team is on the hunt for the source of this unusual phenomenon. Current in Space Camilla shares the remarkable discovery, or rather re-discovery, of the heartbeat of a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy, found still alive and kicking ten years after being first observed. In addition to the supermassive black hole shaping the environment at the centre of our home galaxy, Amelia and Priyanka explain that something else there is also calling the shots (and no, it's definitely not like what we saw in Star Trek V). In other black hole news, Finally, Jeff brings us back down to Earth (though still above Earth), as SpaceX is launching ever more Starlink satellites into orbit to provide high-speed Internet coverage to citizens of our planet. There's only one problem: the future of ground-based astronomy may be at stake. About Our Guest Sandro Mereghetti is research staff member at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Milan.


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Episode 183: COVID-19 Meets the NASA Space Apps Challenge, with James Slifierz

Feature Guest: James Slifierz The NASA Space Apps Challenge is a feverish annual hackathon engaging teams of coders, scientists and storytellers around the world. Each year thousands of participants in over 75 countries compete to solve real-world problems in Earth and in space. As the Challenge celebrates its 10 year anniversary it faces one of the most demanding challenges of our generation: COVID-19. To discuss how NASA is turning the global pandemic from a challenge into an opportunity, today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by James Slifierz, Co-founder and CEO of Skywatch and a 2014 NASA Space Apps global winner. Current in Space Camille reports on the closest black hole to Earth. Then Jeff announces the Artemis Accords. Anshool shares a new high-resolution infrared image of Jupiter. Finally Amelia and Priyanka describe a planetary system with six planets that orbit in near-perfect rhythm. About Our Guest James Slifierz is Co-founder and CEO of Skywatch, a private company with a mission to make earth observation data accessible to developers for a wide variety of applications. He is also responsible for bringing the NASA Space Apps Challenge to Waterloo, Ontario, where each year it proves to be one of the top locations in the world.


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Episode 182: Planet Nine or Black Hole One, with Jakub Scholtz

Feature Guest: Jakub Scholtz We’ve long believed that membership in the solar system’s planetary family was limited to those eight planets we learned about in grade school. But then astronomers began to raise the possibility of a new super-Earth-sized planet, five to ten times the mass of Earth, orbiting far off in the outer solar system. Now if you thought the concept of Planet Nine was astonishing, consider if the mysterious body wasn’t a planet at all - but a black hole. That’s right, Planet Nine might be Black Hole One, our own solar system’s very first singularity. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by astrophysicist Jakub Scholtz, co-author of a new study making the case for this fascinating proposal. Current in Space Tony celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. Then Jeff reports on water loss from mysterious interstellar comet Borisov. About Our Guest Jakub Sholtz is Junior Research Fellow at the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology at Durham University in the UK. He earned his PhD at the University of Washington, where he was awarded the Hadley Fellowship, and performed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard University.


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Episode 181: Reports of Betelgeuse’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated, with Emily Levesque

Feature Guest: Emily Levesque In December 2019, amateur and professional astronomers held their breath as the red supergiant Betelgeuse started dimming beyond anything on record, a sign the behemoth might be preparing to go supernova. But over the ensuing few months, things seemed to be returning to normal for this fascinating star. To solve the mystery, a team set out to investigate this bizarre behaviour and to shed light on the fate of Betelgeuse. Today we’re joined here at the Star Spot by Emily Levesque to discuss their findings. Current in Space A supergiant haul of stories this week. First Camilla reports on the largest ozone hole ever seen over North Pole. Then Jeff shares evidence of an elusive mid-sized black hole. And Anshool brings news of many more satellite galaxies around the Milky Way. Followed by Amelia and Priyanka’s obituary on the passing of astronomer Margaret Burbidge. Finally Joseph updates us on the proposed mission to Enceladus. About Our Guest Emily Levesque is Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington. Previously she worked as a Post Doc at the University of Colorado, during which she held Einstein and Hubble Fellowships. She is a recipient of the Sloan Fellowship and the Annie Jump Cannon Award. Her work focuses on massive stars and galaxy formation.


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Episode 180: Wormholes through Space and Time, with John Cramer

Feature Guest: John G. Cramer They are the stuff of science fiction, but wormholes are also the subject of intense scientific debate. Can wormholes provide a mechanism for faster than light travel through space and, even more intriguing, do they open the door to travel through time? Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by one of the world’s foremost authorities on wormholes, Professor John G. Cramer, to share results from his thought experiments on wormholes and his laboratory experiments aimed at changing the past. Current in Space Jeff starts us off with a bang... the largest bang we've ever seen in the universe. Then Camilla unveils the name of the next generation Mars rover. And Anshool ponders the chances of finding life around a black hole. Finally Amelia and Priyanka pay tribute to pioneering mathematician Katherine Johnson. About Our Guest John G Cramer is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Washington. He has made contributions to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider project at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the particle accelerator at CERN. He is known for his experiments in quantum retrocausality, which explore the possibility of effects preceding causes. Cramer is a regular guest on the Science Channel and NPR, and he has authored multiple books of hard science fiction.


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Episode 179: Dreams of Floating Cities, with Geoffrey Landis

Feature Guest: Geoffrey A. Landis When we think of terraforming, we probably envision turning the Red Planet blue. But Mars isn’t the only world in our solar system that ambitious scientists have considered transforming. Imagine a network of floating cities in the clouds of Venus, or sailing ships plying the oceans of a newly thawed moon in the outer solar system. Today we’re going to dream here at The Star Spot with NASA scientist and award-winning science fiction author, Geoffrey Landis. Current in Space After NASA's InSight lander touched down on Mars in late 2018, it's already gathering fascinating data, but as Camilla explains, its latest discovery is literally groundshaking: Mars is officially a seismically active planet! Then Jeff reports on the launch of Solar Orbiter, a new Sun-exploring spacecraft that will enhance our knowledge of the Sun's influence on the entire Solar System. And while Pluto's heart made us fall in love with the famous dwarf planet all over again, Anshool describes an influence that goes far beyond its aesthetic qualities. Wrapping it up with a special double bill on our local star: The most detailed image so far of the Sun's surface has been captured, and Amelia and Priyanka provide the details. About Our Guest Geoffrey A. Landis is a scientist at the NASA John Glenn Research Centre where he works on Mars missions and on developing advanced concepts and technology for future space missions. He has expertise in photovoltaic device design, for which he holds four patents. Landis received bachelors degrees in physics and in electrical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in physics from Brown University. In addition to his pure science work, Landis has published over fifty science fiction short stories, including "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" which won the Nebula award for best short story and "A Walk in the Sun" which won the Hugo award.


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Episode 178 Sibling Rivalry at the Centre of the Galaxy, with Smadar Naoz

Feature Guest: Smadar Naoz We’ve long known that most galaxies contain at their core a supermassive black hole that can be millions of times the mass of the sun. But now researchers are discovering galaxies with more than one supermassive black hole at their centre. To understand the implications of this discovery and what it could mean about the history of the Milky Way, should our own galaxy be among this collection, today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by astrophysicist Smadar Naoz. Current in Space Stars like the Sun are a no-brainer when it comes to finding habitable planets, but Amelia and Priyanka say another star is even better; say hello to the orange dwarf. In other habitable planet news, Jeff reports on the discovery of two super-Earth exoplanets that just may be home to life. Finally, Anshool looks to the ancient history of our own planet with the finding of the oldest known asteroid impact, one which may have marked a major climate shift. About Our Guest Smadar Naoz is Howard and Astrid Preston Term Chair in Astrophysics and Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA. She is a member of the executive committee of the Bhaumik Institute for Theoretical Physics. She received her PhD from Tel Aviv University before working as an Einstein Fellow at Harvard University.


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Episode 177: The Case of the Missing Dark Matter, with Guo Chi

Feature Guest: Guo Qi Dark matter vastly overshadows ordinary matter in our universe. Wherever astronomers turn their telescopes they find galaxies dominated by dark matter. But all that changed recently with the first discoveries of dwarf galaxies suspiciously deficient in dark matter. To make sense of this baffling finding and how it relates to our Milky Way’s own local dwarf galaxies, today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by study lead Professor Guo Qi from the Chinese Academy of Science. Current in Space NASA's newest planet hunter has made its most remarkable discovery yet: an Earth-sized world in its star's habitable zone, and Anshool provides everything you need to know. Amelia and Priyanka explain a mystery surrounding a particle, and a strange halo around a pulsar may be the key to solving it. And in his debut, Jeff offers more pulsar news in that a new surface map of a particular pulsar may question everything we thought we knew about these lighthouses of the Galaxy. About Our Guest Guo Qi is Professor of Astronomy at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Science. She received her PhD from the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics and held a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the UK’s Durham University.


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Episode 176: Second Genesis, with Jay Melosh

Feature Guest: Jay Melosh If we should find creatures crawling around Titan or swimming under the ice sheets of Europa or Enceladus, they will almost certainly turn out to be the result of a second genesis, those creatures truly alien in the most profound sense. That startling conclusion follows from a series of groundbreaking simulation that found it exceedingly unlikely that life can be successfully transferred between the worlds of our solar system. To unpack the significance of this conclusion, today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by geophysicist Jay Melosh, who caused an uproar when he presented his findings at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Current in Space Tony does triple duty. He opens with his own 2019 retrospective, featuring a review of some of the impressive achievements made in space science, and to expect more of the same in 2020. Then he and Joseph excite with possible exploration methods for two ocean worlds in the outer Solar System. And for those of you who missed the spectacular "ring of fire" solar eclipse in the eastern hemisphere, Tony and Anshool have you covered, with a review of places impacted, and a preview of similar events in the near future. About Our Guest Jay Melosh is University Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science at Purdue University. He is the recipient of the Leon Blitzer Teaching Award, the Hess Medal of the American Geophysical Union, and the Humboldt Prize Fellowship, among many other honours.


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Episode 175: The Truth is Out There (at the University of Manitoba)

Feature Guest: Shelley Sweeney The University of Manitoba has just acquired the largest collection of UFO related material. Prominent Canadian ufologist Christ Rutkowski has made a donation of over 30,000 documents, photos, artifacts and government reports, including files relating to the famous 1967 Falcon Lake Incident, involving a purported physical contact with a mysterious craft. Whether you’re intrigued by the phenomenon of belief or you believe in the phenomenon, the extraordinary human effort to address the UFO question is worth our attention, argues Shelley Sweeney, Head of Archives & Special Collections at the University of Manitoba, who joins us here at The Star Spot. Current in Space In her final broadcast, Dunja literally goes out with a bang as bizarre eruptions of particles have been seen on the asteroid Bennu by orbiting spacecraft OSIRIS-REx. Then Joseph looks back at our own planet, with a remarkable discovery: a new map of Antarctica that could forecast the future impact of climate change. In his debut, Anshool describes a star careening through space, shot out by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way! In other supermassive black hole news, Amelia and Priyanka share a finding that shall surely change the way we understand how huge galaxies form: a galaxy with three supermassive black holes! Finally Tony breaks down two new images of the first interstellar comet ever observed by humanity! About Our Guest Shelley Sweeney is Head of Archives & Special Collections at the University of Manitoba. She is a former Secretary of the international Academy of Certified Archivists and co-authored the code of ethics for the Canadian archival profession.


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Episode 174: Fuzzy Dark Matter, with Lachlan Lancaster

Feature Guest: Lachlan Lancaster Quantum mechanics is strange. Until recently we could comfort ourselves with the belief that its odd properties were safely confined to the world of the microscopic. But what if quantum mechanical effects were suddenly magnified to cosmological scales. Imagine the quantum mechanical interference pattern spread across clusters of galaxies. That’s a possibility, according to a new theory of dark matter known as fuzzy dark matter, which imagines dark matter particles as being incredibly minuscule but with astrologically large wavelengths. How can we prove whether this fascinating new theory is correct? Do these ultra small particles give us clues to mysterious string theory? And what does all this mean about the past, present and future of the universe? Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by Lachlan Lancaster, co-author of a new paper that sheds light on these questions. Current in Space While NASA's New Horizons spacecraft transformed Pluto from a speck to a world before speeding past, Joseph gets us excited for a proposed second mission that would orbit the dwarf planet and more! Then Dunja asks if a certain particle may be changing the very fabric of the Universe itself! And Amelia and Tony take us back in time to the early Universe with a baffling discovery: the first stars may have formed faster than previously thought. About Our Guest Dr. Lachlan Lancaster is an astrophysics PhD student at Princeton University studying the intersection of Galactic Dynamics and Cosmology. He receiverd his Masters from Cambridge University after conducting research at the University of California Davis.


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Episode 173: Discovering an Ancient Oasis, with William Rapin

Feature Guest: William Rapin Welcome to Sutton Island, here in the middle of a beautiful and rugged landscape consisting of shallow lakes filled with salts and minerals. It’s a common vista on this world, and while the world in question is not our home, ancient Mars may well have been someone’s home. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by William Rapin, with reports from the latest discoveries of the Mars Curiosity rover and why one of the Principal Investigators of NASA’s Viking mission is now convinced we found life on Mars back in the 1970s, Current in Space Amelia and Tony share exciting news: the most powerful radio dish telescope in the world will soon be ready for widespread astronomical use! Then Joseph excites even more with a stunning discovery: the presence of water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, making it the most prominent target yet in the search for habitable worlds. And once again on the subject of habitable worlds, in her debut, Dunja wonders if the size of planets matters to their potential for being habitable. Finally, Amelia and Priyanka report on a remarkable new technique for estimating the mass of black holes! About Our Guest William Rapin is postdoctoral scholar in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech. His research investigates the surface geochemistry of planets to improve our understanding of their origin, evolution, and habitability. Previously he worked as Research Assistant at NASA Ames Research Centre and was Assistant System Engineer with the Centre National d'Études Spatiales


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Episode 172: The Hubble Not-So Constant

Feature Guest: Sherry Suyu The Hubble constant, which measures the expansion rate of the cosmos, may not be a constant after all, and if that’s true it means we’re missing something big in our understanding of the universe. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by Sherry Suyu, who leads the aptly named H0LiCOW project which uses the phenomenon of gravitationally lensed quasars to measure the expansion rate of the universe. Current in Space Tony reports on a fascinating yet circumstantial finding that suggests a world literally on fire is out there, and it may excite fans of the Star Wars franchise. Then Amelia and Tony break down a study hinting at the existence of exoplanets that may be even more habitable than Earth! About Our Guest Sherry Suyu is a Max Planck Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, an Assistant Professor at the Technical University of Munich, and a Visiting Scholar at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.


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Episode 171: Ploonets: When Moons Go Rogue, with Jorge Zuluaga

Feature Guest: Jorge Zuluaga Astronomers have yet to confirm a single detection of an exomoon, that is a moon orbiting a planet outside our solar system. Now it turns out at least part of the explanation is that we may have been looking in the wrong place all this time. Introducing ploonets. No, I did not just mispronounce the word planet. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by Jorge Zuluaga, whose team coined the name to describe a moon that has gone rogue, and while it may sound exotic, a speculative theory posits that ploonets could have played a key role in the evolution of our very own planet. Current in Space Tony is back with an exciting discovery made in fresh snow in Antarctica: an isotope that can only have been manufactured in one place – the infernal heart of a supernova. Then Joseph and Tony once again ask the cosmic question: what are fast radio bursts, or FRBs, as eight more repeating FRBs have been detected in deep space, and we just may be on the cusp of solving the mystery. Finally, Amelia and Tony talk about a glitch. A software glitch? No. A neutron star glitch! About Our Guest Jorge Zuluaga is Professor of Astronomy at the Institute of Physics at the University of Antioquia in Colombia. His research interests include astrophysics, planetary science and astrobiology. He also enjoys teaching and popularizing Astronomy and Physics in his hometown.


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Episode 170: The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts, with Vikram Ravi

Feature Guest: Vikram Ravi They come to us from deep space. They last a tiny fraction of a second. They contain as much energy as the sun’s total output in 80 years. Yet we still haven’t figured out what causes these so-called Fast Radio Bursts or FRBs. I don’t want to say it’s aliens, but... no, it’s probably not aliens. Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by Professor Vikram Ravi whose team is quickly zeroing in on the origin of these bizarre FRBs. Current in Space Amelia and Tony explain new research stating that worlds with completely frozen oceans, fittingly known as snowball planets, may actually be habitable . . . on the surface! And while the peak of the prolific Perseid meteor shower may have already passed, Simon reminds us that it's still not entirely over, and to get out there and take a look while you still can. Finally, robots are on the International Space Station! Joseph and Tony explain the purpose of three artificial helpers floating in the orbiting laboratory, one of which arrived only in late July. About Our Guest Vikram Ravi is Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. He received a PhD from the University of Melbourne, then worked as the Millikan Fellow in Astronomy at Caltech followed by the Clay Fellow at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian. He describes his interest as exploring the “ephemeral, unseen universe,” studying phenomena that “vary on time-scales of nanoseconds to years.”


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Episode 169: Science at the Limits (Part 2)

Feature Guest: Dan Falk Scientists are finding themselves increasingly squeezed between academics sounding the limits of science and a public increasingly taken in by pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Today we conclude our review of science under attack with science writer Dan Falk. Current in Space NASA is looking to make space exploration a little greener, and Joseph and Tony report on their latest invention: an environmentally-friendly spacecraft fuel that may eventually replace hydrazine, the toxic industry standard for decades. Then Simon terrifies us with the fact that mere days ago, an asteroid nearly hit Earth. Finally Amelia and Tony explain a strange feature found around lakes on Titan. About Our Guest Dan Falk is an award winning science journalist and broadcaster. He has been published very broadly, including Smithsonian, The Walrus, Cosmos magazine, Scientific American,, Slate and New Scientist. Dan Falk is also the author of three books, including In Search of Time: Journeys Along a Curious Dimension, Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything, and The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. He co-hosts the BookLab podcast. In spring 2019 he was the Science Communicator in Residence at York University in Toronto.


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Episode 168: Celebrating Apollo + Science at the Limits (Part 1)

Feature Guest: Dan Falk Today we’re joined here at The Star Spot by science writer Dan Falk. We’ll start today’s interview with a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the landing of humans on the moon and the internationalism of that critical moment. But then, 50 years after this triumph of science, we’re going to confront head on a set of old and new challenges to the scientific enterprise itself. All the fascinating research and discoveries we share at The Star Spot rests on basic assumptions about the primacy, scope and universality of science. In this two episode series, we take a step back and wrestle with some uncomfortable questions. What if the fundamental reality we probe is merely a simulation? Does science harbour blind spots that will forever limit its ability to build a theory of everything? And even if science is supreme, can it contend with conspiracy theories and pseudoscience - like the moon landing hoax belief - that undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public. Current in Space Tony explain a remarkable finding from the Curiosity rover on Mars: it's detected the biggest emission of methane on the red planet yet. Then Simon delves into the subject of a black hole so unusual that it shouldn't exist at all! And Amelia and Tony report on a new instrument that's being used to hunt for exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system. About Our Guest Dan Falk is an award winning science journalist and broadcaster. He has been published very broadly, including Smithsonian, The Walrus, Cosmos magazine, Scientific American,, Slate and New Scientist. Dan Falk is also the author of three books, including In Search of Time: Journeys Along a Curious Dimension, Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything, and The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. He co-hosts the BookLab podcast. In spring 2019 he was the Science Communicator in Residence at York University in Toronto.


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Episode 167: Current in Space + The Best of The Star Spot: Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt

Feature Guest: Brian Schmidt Today we offer a best of from our vault here at The Star Spot. We dug back to a fan favourite, our December 2014 interview with Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, who won the biggest prize in science for discovering the accelerating universe. The 1929 discovery of the expanding universe by Edwin Hubble forever changed our picture of the cosmos and our understanding of our place in the universe. In 1998 we learned that wasn’t the only surprise. That’s when two teams of astronomers announced that the expansion of our universe isn’t slowing down as everyone assumed. Its speeding up. Today we’re joined at The Star Spot by Distinguished Professor Brian Schmidt who won the Nobel Prize for discovering our accelerating universe. Current in Space Tony and Amelia discuss a new finding from the ALMA observatory: a cool ring of gas encircling the supermassive black hole at the center of the Galaxy. Then Simon pulls you in with the measurement of a tiny black hole at the center of a nearby dwarf galaxy. And finally Tony returns with breaking news from the Jovian satellite system: Sodium chloride, aka table salt, has been found on none other than the ice-covered ocean moon Europa! About Our Guest Dr. Brian Schmidt is Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University Mount Stromlo Observatory and holder of an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship. In 2011 Schmidt received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his co-discovery that the universe isn’t merely expanding, it’s actually accelerating in its expansion. Shmidt is Fellow of the Royal Society, a recipient of the Pawsey Model, the Dirac Medal and the Shaw Prize in Astronomy.


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Episode 166: Nanodiamonds are Forever, with Jane Greaves

Feature Guest: Jane Greaves Remember that nursery rhyme, “Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky?” Well they were on to something, because it turns out diamonds - albeit nanodiamonds - are ubiquitous across the Milky Way galaxy. So-called diamond dust is even here in our own solar system. Today we’re joined at The Star Spot by Professor Jane Greaves, whose team made the discovery that unexpectedly solved a long standing astronomical mystery. Current in Space Simon explains a tantalizing find: 30 binary stars that have somehow been ejected from their home galaxies! Then Amelia and Tony report on a bizarre discovery: a star that's apparently the merger between two white dwarfs! About Our Guest Jane Greaves is Professor of Astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales. She is the recipient of the 2017 Fred Hoyle Medal from the Institute of Physics of London. In 2008 her team took the first direct image of a proto-brown dwarf candidate. Greaves uses textile art to communicate her passion for astrophysics with the public.