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From planets to black holes, we look at the oddities of space

Jets of gas being released from newly forming stars are captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.
NPR
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NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (NASA-JPL), Joel Green (STScI)
Jets of gas being released from newly forming stars are captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

If the fabric of the universe is a flat, rubbery sheet, Earth is a pothole that bends the fabric of spacetime into a funnel around it. But what would it be like to overcome Earth’s gravity, lift off from the blue marble we call home and explore the far reaches of the universe?

We explore just that in the Short Wave Space Camp series. It's a 10-part episodic journey through the changing universe with Short Wave hosts Regina Barber and Emily Kwong.

We start with how to get to outer space in the first place. From there, every Tuesday through Aug. 13, Short Wave will travel farther and earlier into spacetime.

Why we’re going to space

We’ve come a long way from Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to launch into space.

Scientists have moved far beyond the bounds of Earth's orbit. The James Webb Space Telescope is capturing the most detailed images yet of the infancy of the universe. NASA retrieved its first asteroid sample. Humans have not only gone to Earth's moon, but are now exploring both the sun, via the Parker Solar Probe, and the moons ringing other planets.

The science powering human curiosity is more sophisticated than ever. Meanwhile, private corporations are fundamentally changing who gets to go to space and how.

Over a decade ago, NASA retired the Space Shuttle program, while SpaceX and now Boeing carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are ferrying billionaires, like their owners, to space. Earlier this month, SpaceX successfully launched and returned the largest rocket ever built, intended to one day put boots on Mars.

As humans push outward into space, scientists are also thinking about planetary defense.

In 2022, NASA's DART mission successfully redirected the asteroid Dimorphous, demonstrating how we might one day divert a space rock on a collision course for earth. Plus, planetary defense experts run drills for how to fend off asteroids every couple of years. That's in spite of the fact that there isn't a substantially sized asteroid that would potentially impact Earth for the next hundred years, as Terik Daly, the planetary defense section supervisor at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory told NPR in a recent interview.

Technical advances like these were once unthinkable.

At the same time, lower Earth orbit is being crowded with space junk, some of which even falls back to Earth. Last year, a large battery pallet crash landed through the roof of a Florida home after detaching from the International Space Station. Events like this beg the question: Who does space belong to? And how do researchers responsibly advance science and space exploration when we still don’t fully understand the universe?

Every person has a role to play, and Short Wave wants listeners to be engaged in this evolving discourse. Which is why, all summer, we’re offering a primer on the basics of our universe – and weaving in the latest research, challenges, and opportunities for space exploration along the way.

How to mark your journey

Throughout the series, we'll meld basic physics with the latest research in astronomy, discussing everything from black holes and dark energy to dark matter and the life cycle of a star. We'll get into the human experience of living in space. Plus, we'll stretch Einstein’s thought experiment to its breaking point and ask the big questions: Did everything really begin with a bang? How is the universe going to end?

Subscribe to Short Wave on Spotify and Apple Podcasts to head back to camp with us! And be warned: At the end of the series, there will be a fun quiz based on scientific facts from each episode! When you pass the test, we’ll have a fun, customizable surprise.


More from Space Camp

This story is part of Short Wave's Space Camp series about all the weird, wonderful things happening in the universe. Check out more from the full series:


More from Short Wave

As we travel, email us your questions at shortwave@npr.org — we'd love to consider it for a future episode!

Listen to every episode of Short Wave sponsor-free and support our work at NPR by signing up for Short Wave+ at plus.npr.org/shortwave.

Special thanks to our friends at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Home of Space Camp®.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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