NASA’s new podcast series takes you to Mars

Follow along as the InSight spacecraft crosses millions of miles to the red planet.

  • NASA's new 8-episode podcast series, On a Mission, is a ride-along for its InSight mission to Mars.
  • InSight will look beneath the Martian surface for a deeper understanding of its composition and history.
  • Each episode makes for a compelling half hour of listening.

It's called "InSight," and it's NASA's latest spacecraft headed to Mars, scheduled to arrive there on November 29. As always, it's a dicey affair, with less than half of previous missions having safely reached their destinations. "When things go beautifully it looks easy, but it's really not easy," Sue Smrekar, deputy principal investigator for mission, warns. "Any kind of exploration is just not easy or guaranteed — ever." That's also what makes a mission exciting.

To share the thrill, NASA has just launched an eight-episode podcast series, On a Mission, that allows anyone to tag along with InSight and the people behind it. You can listen to the podcasts on NASA's own site, the InSight mission site, Soundcloud, and through Apple Podcasts. On October 29, NASA posted the first two episodes.

There's even a trailer.

About InSight

Insight is an anagram for "Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport." Where previous Mar missions have explored the Martian surface, InSight is designed to go deeper, giving Mars "its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago." Launching from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5th, the plan is for the mission to last a little over a year, that is, 708 Martian days, or "sols." (That's 728 Earth days.) The craft carries the usual wealth of instrumentation, chief among them SEIS, HP3, and RISE.

(www.nasa.gov)

SEIS

The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure is a seismograph with accompanying wind, pressure, temperature, and magnetic field sensors to fine-tune its performance, contained in a dome-shaped housing. It sits on the ground measuring surface vibrations as a means of discerning what's deep down below, possibly including water and even active subterranean volcanoes.

(mars.nasa.gov)

HP3

The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe is essentially a thermometer in the form of a mole-like mechanical probe that burrows into the ground to take the planet's temperature. It can go nearly 16 feet down, farther than previous missions have been able to go.

(Astronika)

RISE

The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment precisely measures the position of InSight to detect planetary wobbling that could indicate the presence of additional materials in Mars' iron-rich core, such as water or other elements.

(www.nasa.gov)

RISE antennas (middle) and InSight's solar array.

What the podcasts are like

In addition to presenting InSight's science, NASA is revealing the human side of the Mars story, inviting the listener in on its exhilarating successes and heartbreaking failures. You'll hear what it's all meant, and means, to the many hard-working, brilliant people that labor to shoot these spaceships 300 million miles into space toward Mars, in the case of InSight, traveling about 13,000 miles an hour.

The first episode is called simply, 'Getting to Mars is Hard' and after listening to it, you'll know what they mean. It begins with the recollections of science journalist Leslie Mullen arriving at JPL, "a jumble of buildings at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, and just down the road from Hollywood," two years back. Along with Bruce Banerdt, lead InSight scientist, and Rob Grover, in charge of InSight Entry, Descent and Landing — in the middle of the Martian dust-storm season, no less — they reminisce about previous missions and the obstacles ahead.

The second episode, 'Music of the Spheres', explains what can be learned about Mars through seismology—about as much as we've learned about our own world. It's about sound. Earth rings, and Mars does, too. Really, they ring? As the podcast explains, "We don't hear the Earth ringing because these rock vibrations, called seismic waves, have a frequency spectrum below one hertz. The lowest frequency human ears typically can hear is 20 hertz."

New episodes will arrive weekly leading up to the final installment as InSight arrives at Mars and attempts to land, fingers crossed. All of the episodes are 20-30 minutes long and promise a great ride.

What's it like to work at NASA?

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.