Faculty Forum Online: Richard Binzel

Faculty Forum Online: Richard Binzel


Judy Cole: Welcome to the Faculty Forum Online,
a program of the MIT Alumni Association sponsored in part by MIT Professional Education. I’m your moderator, Judy Cole, execuvite vice
president and CEO of the MIT Alumni Association. We will be taking your questions today for
our professor guest and so please use the box below the live stream to enter them and
we’ll get as many as possible. Our guest is Proofessor Richard Binzel, professor
of planetary sciences and Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow for the department of earth,
atmospheric, and planetary sciences at MIT. He is also a joint professor of aerospace
engineering and a faculty affiliate with the MIT Kavli Institute. Professor Binzel has been co-investigator
on NASA’s first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, better known as the New Horizons Mission. He is also an expert on eclipses, and will
lead an MIT Alumni Travel Program to Idaho this August to observe the first total solar
eclipse visible from the United States in 26 years. Professor Binzel, welcome. Binzel: Thank you Judy. Cole: I hope you will start with some show
and tell, giving us an overview of some of the impressive highlights of this past year’s
work. Binzel: It’d be my pleasure to do that, and
I brought some slides as professors will do. And we’ll talk about four missions, cause
as it turns out I’m now working on four spacescraft missions for NASA, and sometimes they…
Cole: Simultaneously? Binzel: Simultaneously, so sometimes I get
a little whiplash as I go around the solar system. But to start off as we look at this first
slide, back when we were in July of 2015, we for the first time had a spacecraft go
by Pluto. As you said it’s the New Horizons mission,
and spectacular thing about Pluto, we know this amazing heart-shaped feature on its surface
that we call Tombaugh Regio, named after the discoverer. But what that is is a flat, nitrogen ice glacier,
it’s as if Pluto is alive. Who would know that the farthest planetary
world out there is actually alive? This is a flowing glacier of nitrogen ice
bubbling up from its inside. And we don’t see any craters on that surface. Craters happen all the time, impacts on planetary
surfaces all the time. And if you see a surface that’s empty of craters,
it means something has to be renewing it kind of like a zamboni finishing resurfacing the
ice at Boston Garden. And unlike that little piece of real estate
there’s a crater down there at the bottom center named Elliot crater after MIT professor
James Elliot, who was a mentor to many pseudo scientists, in fact two of the scientists
on the mission, Leslie Young and Cathy Olkin, were two MIT PhDs. And MIT has a big role in the New Horizons
Mission and even real estate on Pluto. So that’s Pluto. More recently, this is a more recent launch,
this is MIT and hardware fingerprints, though we see it before we launch it. MIT students actually built a shoebox sized
instrument on this NASA mission called Osiris Rex, it’s an asteroid sample return mission. And this shoebox sized regular x-ray imaging
spectrometer. What it will do is we will go to the asteroid
and we will look to see how that asteroid glows in x-ray light in response to x-rays
from the sun on that asteroid surface. So the picture there is some of our student
team as we got down to Cape Kennedy back in September, and there’s our launch on September
8, an Atlas-5 rocket. The Osiris Rex mission logo has MIT on it. Cause we’re partnering this mission with this
instrument. So I think it’s the largest MIT rocket ever
launched. I think the rocket club launches a few rockets
here and there but I don’t think we’ve ever launched anything quite this big. Anyways so MIT was on the side of the Osiris
Rex Mission Atlas rocket. We think that’s pretty neat. Cole: Excellent PR. Binzel: Great PR. Now in space. I’ve got two more missions, so those are things
that are now in space. I’ve got another one that will launch in 2021. This is a ridiculously complicated diagram,
it’s kind of a ridiculously complicated mission, but it’s specatular in that there are sets
of asteroids that have been tracked in this location in the outer solar system near Jupiter
called Trojan asteroids, and for the people who love this stuff there are la grange points,
L4 and L5 of Jupiter, that’d be a great thing to do a web search on. And these asteroids that are in these regions
we think have been there since the beginning of the solar system, 4.6 billion years ago. And we’re going to go launch in 2021, do a
loop around the earth, get out to Jupiter, go through that trojan cloud, come back, do
a second loop around Jupiter and go to the other trojan cloud, and that mission goes
into the 2030s, so that’s a cause for eating lots of vegetables and – Cole: Getting plenty of exercise. Binzel: Getting plenty of exercise and I’ve
got plenty of time for that too. And then finally the fourth mission I’m on
is called Psyche, which is a launch in 2023. It’s led by Lindy Elkins Tanton, another MIT
PhD, who is now in Arizona State University in Tempe. And we launch in 2023. Psyche is actually the name of the mission
and the name of the asteroid. It’s a metallic asteroid, we think it’s like
the metal core of a planet, a little planet that used to be in the asteroid belt, that
got broken up and all that’s left behind is an iron core. And this is our chance to look at what the
inside of a planet looks like. We’re very excited about looking at the inside
of a planet, which is the psyche mission. So those are the four missions I’m on, and
it keeps me busy. Cole: So some of those distances you’re talking
about are incredible. How do you ever explain something on that
scale to your students? Binzel: It’s really hard even when you do
this for a living to get it all in your head. Something I like to do is I like to challenge
my students with if you try to fit the solar system into the Infinite Corridor, and lobby
7 is the sun and at the other end of the corridor is Pluto, how big is the sun? So we could have a contest and let people
think about it. But the answer is right here. The sun in the infinite corridor on that scale
is as big as a softball. And Pluto, I’m sorry, so the sun is this side. The earth if this is an armspan, the earth
is about three armspans away. I’ll keep it on camera. And the earth I’m sure it doesn’t show up
on my little card here, is a 1-millimeter BB, about 5 meters away from the sun in the
infinite corridor. And so you can enter the infinite corridor
in a few steps, walk by the earth, and then Pluto’s all the way at the end of the infinite
corridor. Cole: And what size would Pluto be? Binzel: Pluto is an even tinier dot than the
earth. So I just love that idea. And every time I walk down the infinite corridor
I think oh my, we went from one end of the infinite corridor to the other, it’s mens
et manus, really amazing at work. And you know, then this whole segway into
another topic, it’s this whole scheme of things for the scale of this. The moon, which is about less than an inch
away, a few centimeters away from the earth if you draw it on my card. There are times when the moon lines up and
manages to block the sun. There’s the earth. Cole: Oh, I see. For viewers I’ll say he has a tiny BB scotch-taped
to this card. Binzel: Wouldn’t want to lose it. Cole: So that’s why he’s holding this up because
it is really tiny. Binzel: Just trust me, trust me it’s there. But there are times when the moon, which is
about two centimeters away towards the sun, will block the sun and you get a total solar
eclipse. And that’s something that will happen on August
21 as you mention in your intro. Cole: So thank you. A reminder to our viewers that we are taking
your questions this hour so use the box below the livestream to ask questions of Professor
Binzel. And speaking of the eclipse, we’re starting
with some video questions from alumni today. And the first one is about that very subject. It comes from Helen from Carlisle, MA. Helen: Are there specific things that researchers
are hoping to learn from this year’s – from observing this year’s eclipse – and also are
you personally going to be involved in any of the research? I know it’s slightly outside your current
areas of interest, but I was just wondering. Thanks a lot. Binzel: Well Helen, it’s great to see you. So for the total solar eclipse coming up I’m
more or less a tourist or a tour guide in the sense that trying to make sure a group
understands everything about the eclipse, eclipse safety, but really understanding the
details of what happens during the eclipse. So for me personally I’m not involved as a
scientist. I find these events just amazing to watch
and experience. It’s a full natural experience, almost unnatural
experience, when an eclipse happens. Cole: How many solar eclipses have you seen? Binzel: So in August of this year we numbered
6, the sixth total solar eclipse. Cole: Wow. So we have another video question coming from
Thomas, in Boston. Thomas: What has the New Horizons mission
taught us about ice and water in the solar system? Binzel: Wow, what a great question. I think what we found is among the many amazing
things we found a lot of Pluto is water ice. In an image I showed there are even mountains
on Pluto and those mountains are about 3000 to 4000 meters high or about 14,000 feet,
as high as the rockies, and they’re made of water ice. And I think what we’re finding is water is
very abundant everywhere in the solar system. Which is kind of what we knew or what we expected
but now as we explore we’re really seeing it almost literally in our faces. And hydrogen and oxygen are two of the most
abundant elements in the universe so maybe it’s not a surprise we see water everwhere. But it’s that abundance of water makes us
think that the ingredients for life are really everywhere we look. Cole: But it needs to be a little warmer,
I imagine. Binzel: Yes, anytime it’s cold in Cambridge
I just think of the temperatures on Pluto, about -400 degrees fahrenheit, and it makes
me feel a little warmer in Cambridge. Cole: So I have a few questions here, your
biography says you published your first paper when you were 15 years old. What was its title, and is it easier today
for 15 year-olds to publish than for you. Binzel: Well you’ve done some digging, I can
see. The title of that paper was the rotation of
asteroid 18-Melpomene. It’s all about how asteroids spin which is
interesting to know. But I think today it’s actually a little bit
easier to publish things because the state of equipment – the digital cameras we have
on our iphones are now available to be put on the back end of even small telescopes and
there’s…what amateur astronomers can do with modern digital camera equipment on modest
size telescopes eclipses – there’s that word again – eclipses what astronomers could do
even 10 or 20 years ago. So there really is a renaissance in the kind
of science that can be done with telescopes. Cole: Fascinating. Binzel: Many high school students are making
observations at their high school observatories. Cole: And of course there’s the capacity to
self-publish as well through the Internet. The digital publishing. Binzel: Of course. Cole: So Jane in Newton asks, can you talk
more specifically about MIT’s role in the Psyche mission? Binzel: Well MIT’s role in the Psyche mission. So as I said the PI is Dr. Lindy Elkins Tanton,
an MIT PhD out of Course 12. And we have also on board that mission Professor
Ben Weiss in my department, who’s helping to build a magentometer to study the magnetic
field of that asteroid. That metallic asteroid. And our vice president for research Maria
Zuber is on board that mission and she’s an expert in trying to decode the inside of planetary
bodies based on their gravity fields. So there are three MIT faculty involved in
the Psyche mission to try to get out there and really take a look at what the inside
of a planet looks like. Again it’s something we’ve never been able
to see before. We’re very excited about this chance to look
at this inside of a planet. Cole: Is the inside of that planet similar
to what you expect the inside of the earth would be if we had gotten inside an asteroid
belt and broke into bits? Binzel: That’s it. That’s exactly the motivation of this. This was a smaller planet than the earth ever
was that formed there but this is as close as we’re going to be able to get to looking
inside, what’s the structure of the inside of the earth by going into this asteroid. Fascinating idea. It’s been on my wish list for some time and
we finally got a NASA mission to go there. Cole: So Mark in New York City asks, the New
Horizons Mission was notable for being heavily populated by female scientists. What do you think made that worth noting? Why is this mission distinct among an otherwise
male-dominated profession? Binzel: So the New Horizons – the fact that
we had so many women on the New Horizons mission – was something the media caught onto. We were doing a lot of interviews and the
reporters were comparing notes and they said I just interviewed the deputy project scientist. It was a woman! And then I just interviewed the chief of mission
operations. It was a woman! And they’re kind of scratching their heads
and said wait a minute. And it turns out that 30-40% of the New Horizons
team were women. Which is about the percentage of women now
working in this field. I don’t think we were trying to be deliberate
and trying to do anything extra special other than be diligent in hiring the best people. And so to me it’s a nice outcome in this sense
that maybe the pipeline is getting a little bit better. I’d want to say we’re complacent in the least
but it looks like the pipeline is having some effect and we are making some progress. Cole: Are you seeing that same proportionality
reflected in the current student body and the way you admit your graduate students and
things like that? Binzel: Well in fact I think in planetary
science we’re women-dominated now in terms of being much greater than 50%. It’s just how it so happens to be right now
but so yeah, we are seeing a lot of progress being made. As I said we’re not complacent in the least,
but it is nice once in a while to see some confirmation that we must be doing a few things
right at this point. Cole: Tom in North Carolina wants to know
what the scale factor is of the infinite corridor model is of the solar system. Maybe 15 billion to one? Binzel: I haven’t thought about that number. Boy, I haven’t thought about that number,
so I’m not going to try to do the math live on air. Cole: Well just take Tom’s word for it. Binzel: Okay, that’s a good number. It’s about 5 meters per AU. Cole: Chuck in Sunnyvale, California, says,
I’m driving to the eclipse path in Idaho. What equipment best captures the event? Binzel: That’s great. So let’s go to a slide here. I’ll give you a little detailed information
on the eclipse. So this is the path of the total solar eclipse
on August 21, a Monday. And that ribbon that goes across the United
States is the place to be if you want to see the sun totally eclipsed by the sun. If you want to see the moon totally eclipsing
the sun, thank you. And everywhere else you’ll see a partial eclipse,
and I can’t emphasize enough the difference between what you see in a partial eclipse
and what you’d see if it’s a total eclipse. All of North America will see a partial eclipse. Everywhere you are in North America you will
see part of the sun blocked by the moon. If you get into that narrow shadow path you’ll
see the sun totally eclipsed by the moon. Let me just give us an example between a partial
eclipse and a total eclipse. This is effectively what you’ll see here in
Cambridge on August 21, in the late afternoon you’ll see the first bite taken out of the
sun there on the left and then at just before 3:00 about sixty percent of the sun will be
covered by the disc of the moon and then slowly that bite will reverse itself and we’ll see
the sun uncovered. That’s what you see when there’s a partial
eclipse, you see that there’s a bite taken out of the sun. Cole: It looks like an eyelash moon. Binzel: It does. Here’s what happens when you see a total solar
eclipse. If you’re in that path, just in that narrow
path, you see the moon completely blocking the sun, and you go from day to night in just
a few seconds, and the brightness around you changes by a factor of a million. And I’m not exaggerating. It’s a million times better to be in that
narrow total eclipse path than seeing a partial eclipse. So if you have friends, or you have relatives,
that live in that eclipse path, go there. Go there a few days in advance – there could
be eclipse jams – people trying to get there. Any if you don’t have friends or relatives
living in that eclipse path, make some. Find some. Invent that uncle that you’ve always missed. Getting in that eclipse path across the United
States since 1918 – that was an auspicious year for the Red Sox – and the last time an
eclipse even touched the United States was 1979. So this is an event worth going after. Cole: Worth making an effort to see. Binzel: Make an effort to get into the eclipse
path and plan ahead. Cole: So moving along with our questions from
alumni. Craig in Marlborough, MA asks if you can talk
more about the jockeying among researchers involved in getting equipment or research
onto a NASA mission. Have there been missions that your work has
been turned down for and if so, why? Binzel: I have a drawer, almost a file cabinet,
full of mission proposals that just didn’t make it. The New Horizons mission, for example, we
had five tries. We got go-ahead for NASA to start a design,
then we moved forward, moved forward, and they’d say thank you very much, we’re cancelled. Or sorry, the budget just isn’t there. Et cetera. Five different times we got, it’s like. Cole: And then they always restart? Binzel: Pretty much, it’s like Lucy holding
the football. Five times we ran up to kick the football,
and they yanked it away. And the sixth time it managed to stay put. And one of the reasons it managed to stay
put is the discovery of the Kuiper Belt. A discovery that Pluto is not alone out beyond
Neptune, it’s a whole zone of new bodies, leftover material from the beginning of the
solar system. We began to understand Pluto in a new light,
in a new context. It made the scientific motivation to go there
even stronger. And at the same time that the science motivation
increased, technology – the Motorola flip phone, the era of the flip phone, allowed
us enough sophistication into a small spacecraft that we could accomplish an enormous range
of scientific objectives in a spacecraft the size of a grand piano. And that’s what New Horizons is – a grand
piano that we launched at 30 kilometers a second to go past Pluto. Cole: I love the analogies they make. They’re so vivid. Adrienne in Washington asks where are alumni
of your lab from the last 30 years today? What roles have they gone on to hold and what
projects of theirs make you most proud? Binzel: Wow, what a great question. So I’m incredible proud of my mission PIs
on New Horizons, as I mentioned: Leslie Young, Cathy Olkin, and deputy PIs on the New Horizons
Mission are Lidia Fitzstanton, our PhD now leading the Psyche Mission. We have students from our department go through
all the earth sciences and atmospheric sciences and so they go to various other universities
and national laboratories. They kind of go all over, but in the space
business a lot of them have gone on to jobs at JPL, NASA Goddard, Lincoln Labs is a place
where many students go. And I’m just proud when they grow up into
these leadership roles. I think those are my proudest moments, seeing
this next generation of leaders come forward. and in fact on the New Horizons mission, the
youngest member of the team is my graduate student named Melissa Earl, who is I think
still the youngest member of the New Horizons team and there was a speech on the senate
floor by Senator Markee, commenting about the New Horizons mission and Melissa Earl
and MIT having the youngest member of the team. Cole: How old is she? Binzel: Well she’s in her early 20s as a graduate
student, and already publishing papers on the New Horizons mission. Cole: It sounds like we have a NASA mafia. Binzel: Well, we – I don’t have it in our
slides package but at the New Horizons mission we took a photo of all the assembled MIT grads
who were either working on the mission or had connections to the mission or connections
of Pluto science. And it was a very, very big group. Cole: That’s wonderful. Amy in Brooklyn asks, can you talk about your
relationship with Alan Stern. What do you admire most about him? Binzel: Alan Stern, so Alan, just to put it
into context. Alan is the principal investigator, the leader
of the New Horizons mission, and the most admirable quality of Alan is he never quits. He’s unstoppable, he’s an unstoppable force
of nature. As I said we went through these five different
cancellations. We worked for nearly twenty years to get a
mission to Pluto onto the launch pad, and then it was almost ten years of flight to
get across the solar system from one end of the infinite corridor to the other to get
to Pluto, and so many times along the way there just seemed to be these insurmountable
roadblocks. And a lot of us would start to say oh, this
is too hard, we’re never going to do it. And Alan would never let it go. Alan would never give up. All credit to Alan and his perseverance. Really it’s a very admirable quality and that’s
how we got – that’s how we have seen Pluto now. It is, it is. Cole: Elizabeth in Buffalo asks, are there
projects that US researchers envy – that the Chinese space agency or European space agency
are undertaking but that NASA can’t fund? Binzel: Wow. Boy, that’s a tough one. I think it’s just the energy, you know, we’re
still ahead, but I think it’s the rate of growth, I think if there’s something that
we envy it’s the rate of growth. And I use the word aggressive in a good way. The fact that they’re aggressively trying
to grow their space program, and we’re kind of where we are. Sometimes we go up, sometimes we go down. Sometimes we go up and down. And so the fact that there’s this aggressive
dedication to continually improving and advancing their space program. And we are too, we’re never complacent. But it’s just the rate of growth of their
space program, I think, is what is exciting. I wouldn’t say the word ‘envy,’ I’d say that
it is exciting to watch. Cole: Devon in Pasadena asks, what work remains
for New Horizons? What do you and your co-investigators hope
to learn about MU-69, for instance? Binzel: Oh, great question, alright. So New Horizons, because we wanted to get
to Pluto in the lifetime of a spacecraft, which is 10 or 20 years, eventually things
just don’t work anymore, and we’re selfish. As scientists we wanted to still be alive
when it got there too. So we had to go very fast, we had to put this
piano-sized spacecraft on the biggest NASA rocket and put all the velocity of the rocket
into a small spacecraft. So there was no way we could carry enough
fuel to slow down and stop, because then the rocket would be too much mass on the spacecraft,
a rocket couldn’t launch all that mass. So that’s a long way of saying the New Horizons
mission is a flyby. We will eventually leave the solar system,
and in the process of going past Pluto on into the Kuiper belt, we will go by an object
that is named MU, 2014 MU-69, it’s a household word. It’s just a designation for this object discovered
in 2014. It’s maybe 30, 40 miles across, that’s all
we know. It’s like a really big comet that just lives
in the outer solar system, and so it’s going to be pure exploration just to see what these
icy bodies are like. We think it’s just a leftover piece from the
beginning of our solar system. Cole: So interesting. Dennis from Arlington asks, Arlington Massachusetts,
could you please comment on the existence of Planet 9, which I heard might be massive
but not yet detected? Binzel: So Planet 9 is an idea that there
may be some, may be some unusual properties, some way these objects in the Kuiper belt
are positioned and oriented and where they reside in their orbits, and as if there’s
something else tugging on them. So this is the latest, the road of planetary
predictions is littered by burning hulks off to the side. And here’s the latest idea, which is really
very good, very interesting. So we’ve got to keep our fingers crossed on
this one. So it’s hard. The inferences are hard to read and pin down
with a lot of specificity. And the searches are underway, we kind of
know where we can be looking and what we, you know, what it might take to pick this
thing out if it’s there. We’ll just let the process unfold. The science will give, science will give us
the answer one way or another, sooner or later. So it’s a TBD, or a to be continued. It’s a work in progress, but very very interesting. Cole: Very interesting. PJ in West Hartford, Connecticut asks, NASA’s
Discovery program seems to be aimed at investing broadly in many lower-cost missions like Psyche. Do you approve of this budget strategy? Binzel: Well, if only I were king. So the Discovery program, to put that in some
context, is a NASA program where university researchers can design a mission. There’s a budget cap of about 650 million
dollars, that’s probably not exactly the right number. But there’s a budget cap, and then you try
to say what’s the best science we can fit into a mission in that budget cap. And it turns out that asteroids – these objects,
many of them are near the earth, near asteroids, sometimes they hit us and wipe out dinosaurs
so it’s kind of a good thing that we understand those. But there’s also this enormous abundance between
Mars and Jupiter in the main asteroid belt. And it turns out in that budget category,
missions that can go to the asteroid belt are very mature. In other words we know how to do this, the
technology is ready to execute these kind of missions. And so if we can make descriptions of them,
it will science – rational – going to see the metallic core, a way of looking at the
inside of the earth that we can’t do in any other way. And we can do it in this budget and we can
say technological capability is right in our wheelhouse. That makes a very compelling argument. And so in Discovery I’m very open to trying
to explore Venus, for example, the moon. We’ve explored the moon, comets in the Discovery
program. Anyway so I’m very open to any – almost any
science question myself – that would fit in. Even if it’s not my specialty. I think there’s a lot of research you can
do. And the beauty of the Discovery program and
then a larger program called New Frontiers – is that it’s all competitive. So you get a dozen or two dozen proposals
and the competition really helps make sure that the best proposals win. Cole: It forces you to. Binzel: Yeah, that’s right, competition is
good. Cole: Charlie in Cambridge says, I read that
over 50 students at MIT worked on the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft. How specifically did they contribute? Binzel: Wow, so this is the Rexus instrument
that we’re flying aboard the OSIRIS-Rex mission. Our shoebox sized x-ray spectrometer. And we germinated that idea in a class, 16.83,
space systems engineering, which I’m now teaching this semester with a different mission idea
for something we’ll do in 2029. And so it initiated in a class, 16.83, where
we said where we were, it was a competition actually, a competition among universities
to design an instrument for $8 million that could go on board and it had to be designed
and built by students. And so this is really a case where it’s MIT
at its best because it was the combination of the school of engineering, the school of
science, so aero astro and earth and planetary sicence, the Lincoln Lab, the Kavli Institute,
all working together in trying to bring this design together. So the design was initially done by students,
and this is also a collaboration with Harvard of all places. Great colleagues at Harvard that contributed
to this. So we had our initaitl design. We then let the students fine tune many aspects
of the design, test the thermal electronics, and they were literally building the thing,
designing and building the thing, with a little adult supervision around the edges. Cole: Wow that’s remarkable, what a fabulous
experience. Binzel: It is. We go to review and work with our NASA engineering
colleagues, and the students will be presenting and showing their ideas and their concepts. And they’ll be pulling me off to the side
and saying why didn’t I get to do that as a student? That’s how I knew we were doing something
really special. Cole: There you go. Pace in Cambridge asks, are there any useful
amateur observations alumni could make once we travel to a total eclipse site without
distracting too much from the experience of being there? Binzel: Wow, I think that probably the big
science is probably left to the people who are investing in a lot, pretty sophisticated
equipment. My best advice is just to experience it. Travel to the total solar eclipse and just
experience it. It is so overwhelming that you can’t take
it all in. The fact that how the brightness changes instantly
when that last little sliver of the sun is covered, you see the corona – the outer halo
of the sun – burst out, stars appear in the sky, the birds go to sleep, the temperature
drops, the wind picks up, people are screaming. It’s the most odd, amazing natural thrill-ride
that happens and millions of people can be on that ride at once, because that eclipse
path goes all the way across. Cole: And how long does it last? Binzel: In any given spot it’s about two and
a half minutes. So it’s this shared roller coaster experience
that will start first on the west coast. And that two and a half minute central path
of the moon will follow that ribbon across the United States, and so sometime in the
afternoon when it leaves the east coast. Cole: Fabulous. So Ann in San Mateo asks, how is New Horizons
still being powered today given how far it is away now from the earth and from the sun? Is it all gravity assist? Binzel: Well in space you keep going forever. There’s no friction, so in terms of what you
give it, velocity. But the spacecraft does have to have electrical
power to operate the instruments. It’s a trick question in the sense that how
do you power a spacecraft to Pluto in terms of giving it electrical power. Cole: Right, because aren’t you so far away? Binzel: Yeah, solar panels don’t work, so
the way you power a Pluto mission is with plutonium. And I was once asked this question in an airport
security line and I lived to tell the tale. Cole: That’s so funny. Who asked you? Binzel: The TSA agent. I was wearing my New Horizons lapel pin and
he recognized me and said is that the New Horizons mission? I said yeah. He said did you know about that? I said well I’ve been working on this a long
time. He said how do they operate that it’s so cold
and you don’t have solar power? Well, what do you use? I said radio isotopos. He eventually persisted and I had to say plutonium. And I lived to tell the tale. I was for sure the sirens would go off and
the net would drop and I would be taken to a special room. Cole: But did you have it on you? Or just the pin? Binzel: No, no, just the pin. Cole: Alright, back to our alumni questions. Jason, in New York. Are there ways in which other research at
MIT – I’m thinking TRAPPIST 1 and the gravitational waves – inform your research? Binzel: So my research is really about this
solar system and what’s in our own backyard. But as we learn about other planets around
other stars in other solar systems, it really helps inform how different or how similar
our solar system is to anywhere else. And so I think that finding planets around
other stars really helps to put our own solar system in context. So there’s not really one link in taking one
big datum here and putting it there but it’s really trying to understand one big context
of how do planetary systems form and evolve. So we try to step back and look at our solar
system as a system and far away we did discovering systems, so we know our system in detail,
and the faraway systems we’re just beginning to get detail. And eventually we’ll have this merger of the
detail we know about our system and the details we know about other systems. It’s just getting more exciting by the day. Cole: Why one system develops one way and
another one another way. Binzel: Absolutely. And why in some ways our solar system may
be a little bit odd in some ways. A lot of solar systems like to have a lot
of Jupiters, or a lot of big Jupiters and they like to be close to their stars and ours
is kind of comfortably parked away. And the more we learn the more we understand
how our solar system is similar or bizarre. Cole: KD in Portland – I don’t know if that’s
Maine or Oregon – your bio says an asteroid is named after you. Where is that asteroid now? Binzel: It’s halfway in the main belt between
Mars and Jupiter last time I checked. So it’s… Cole: Do you know where your asteroid is? Binzel: You’ve got to be careful with that
one. No, asteroids, they get discovered and you
don’t name them after yourself someone has to go to the trouble of saying that something
you’ve done has been a contribution to this field, so a colleague named Ted Bole did it
for me. Cole: So is this our last question? I think it is. Ted in Anchorage asks, can you give us an
outline of the eclipse tour itinerary you will be leading in August? Binzel: Well, I can give some details in that
we will be in central Idaho for some days before the eclipse. We will move into the eclipse path or very
close to the eclipse path just the night before so that on the morning of the eclipse we can
position ourselves very well. You can look at the eclipse path and we’re
trying to get to a place where it’s going to be relatively dry, the chances of not very
many clouds. And even if you’re someplace looking at the
eclipse and it’s cloudy you’ll still experience that nightfall. It’s really spectacular either way. Cole: On behalf of the MIT Alumni Association,
Rick, thank you for joining us today. And thanks to our MIT alumni tuning in and
for your wonderful questions. Alumni who wish to order special MIT glasses
for the viewing of the solar eclipse this summer, check out the final slide for instructions
on how to order a pair. You’ll be able to find the archive of this
conversation along with past faculty talks on the MIT Alumni Association website. Please join us next month for another session
of Faculty Forum Online. Have a great afternoon. Binzel: Bye.

Danny Hutson

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