Joe Palca

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2020 could be a banner year for the U.S. space program. If all goes well, two commercial companies may be able to send astronauts into space. This country hasn't been able to do that since the shuttle program ended in 2011. Also next year, a new six-wheeled rover is supposed to head off to Mars. And hundreds of small satellites are scheduled to go into orbit. And that will provide global Internet coverage. Here to talk about the year ahead in space is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

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There are rare chemical elements, and then there is tennessine. Only a couple dozen atoms of the stuff have ever existed. For the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has the convoluted story of one of the latest elements to be added.

There's a mole on Mars that's making NASA engineers tear their hair out.

No, they haven't discovered a small, insectivorous mammal on the red planet.

The mole vexing engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is a scientific instrument known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 — or just "the mole" — carried on NASA's InSight probe that landed on Mars a year ago.

It's not easy to treat viral infections. Just ask anyone with a bad cold or a case of the flu.

But scientists in Massachusetts think they may have a new way to stop viruses from making people sick by using what amounts to a pair of molecular scissors, known as CRISPR.

It's a gene editing tool based on a molecule that occurs naturally in microorganisms.

Tiny satellites are taking on a big-time role in space exploration.

CubeSats are small, only about twice the size of a Rubik's Cube. As the name suggests, they're cube-shaped, 4 inches on each side, and weigh in at about 3 pounds. But with the miniaturization of electronics, it's become possible to pack a sophisticated mission into a tiny package.

Locusts are not just a biblical plague. They're swarming around the world. Still. Again.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the desert locust situation is serious in Yemen and at the Indo-Pakistan border.

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A telescope now under construction promises to revolutionize astronomy. It's being built atop a mountain in Chile, in the Andes. It's called the LSST. It is a survey telescope taking wide-angle views of the sky. And this telescope is expected to spot rare events that previously have been hard or impossible to find. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca toured the telescope's construction site.

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There's a telescope high up in the mountains of Chile that's looking for signals from the earliest moments of the universe. Finding these signals would be key to explaining how the universe began. NPR's Joe Palca has just returned from a visit to the telescope, and he has this report on a remarkable facility in a remarkable location.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The telescope is called CLASS. It's located on top of Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. And at 17,000 feet, it's one of the highest telescopes in the world.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago, it was an inspiring moment for people around the world.

But another kind of explorer is responsible for much of the modern enthusiasm for space exploration.

"Since the days of Apollo, the greatest adventures in space have been these robots that have gone all over the solar system," says Emily Lakdawalla, a self-described planetary evangelist at the Planetary Society.

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Much of South America experienced a solar eclipse this week. NPR's Joe Palca went to Chile to see it in its totality. And because half of the world's major telescopes are in Chile, he decided to stick around and see what researchers are studying. And Joe Palca is with us now from 17,000 feet.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: OK. So where are you right now, exactly?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The path of a total solar eclipse passed over a major observatory in Chile this afternoon. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca was there. He saw the eclipse from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory from where he joins us now live.

Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise. How are you doing?

KELLY: I'm well. Thank you. And I'm thinking, I have actually - I have seen a couple of total solar eclipses. I have never seen one from an observatory, which I'm guessing is a pretty darn good place to see one.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Later today, an eclipse will sweep across the Pacific Ocean and then pass over parts of Chile and Argentina. One thing that makes this eclipse special is that it's going to pass directly over a major observatory in Chile. And you know who is there right now at that observatory? Our own Joe Palca.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. I'm going to try to pronounce this - the observatory is called Cerro Tololo, correct?

PALCA: That's right. It's the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are human cancer genes in plants. Scientists didn't put them there. They were there to begin with. NPR's Joe Palca recently went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he spoke with a scientist who's exploring those genes.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a mole stuck in the ground on Mars - not the small, furry animal but a probe on NASA's Mars InSight lander called the mole. It's a probe that was supposed to go 15 feet beneath the Martian surface, but it got stuck after only going one.

NPR's Joe Palca has more.

Small drones can do big jobs: Firefighters can use them to find hot spots in blazes, environmental monitors can find the source of hazardous chemical leaks. One just delivered a human kidney for transplant surgery.

But it takes lots of power to spin four helicopter blades fast enough to keep a quadcopter-type drone in the air. Most can only stay aloft for about 30 minutes.

A team of astronomers led by an undergraduate student in Texas has discovered two planets orbiting stars more than 1,200 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers already knew of about 4,000 exoplanets, so finding two more might not seem like huge news. But it's who found them and how that's getting attention.

Is there an efficient way to tinker with the genes of plants? Being able to do that would make breeding new varieties of crop plants faster and easier, but figuring out exactly how to do it has stumped plant scientists for decades.

Now researchers may have cracked it.

Modifying the genetics of a plant requires getting DNA into its cells. That's fairly easy to do with animal cells, but with plants it's a different matter.

Opportunity lost.

NASA has officially declared an end to the mission of the six-wheeled rover on Mars. Opportunity lost power in a dust storm last June, and all efforts to make contact have failed.

"Our beloved Opportunity remained silent," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said Wednesday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "With a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude," he added, "I declare the Opportunity mission as complete."

Many vaccines and some medicines, such as insulin, have to be delivered by injection. That's a pain, both for patients and for health care providers. But two groups of researchers are trying to put some of these medications in pill form to avoid the needle.

Scientists have evidence that a mountain 3 miles tall, in the middle of a crater on Mars, may be made largely from dust and sand.

To get the data for that surprising conclusion, the researchers MacGyvered a navigation instrument on the NASA rover Curiosity, and turned it into a scientific instrument.

Big, important scientific breakthroughs are built of small, incremental experiments. And the partial government shutdown is already interfering with some of that research.

Scientists often depend on the government for grant funding, expertise and — in some cases — even regulatory approval. With the shutdown, some researchers are missing those key elements of scientific collaboration. Here's how some scientists say the shutdown is affecting their work.

Sometime early in 2019, the Chinese civilian space program plans to land a six-wheeled rover on the moon's far side — the side we never see from Earth.

The Chinese haven't released the exact date the landing is to occur, but they have announced the location. The probe, known as Chang'e 4, is targeted for Aitkin Basin, a giant impact crater near the Moon's south pole.

In addition to a variety of cameras, the rover carries ground-penetrating radar that can peer beneath the lunar surface.

In 2003, Jay Siegel was up for a new challenge. Siegel was a tenured professor of chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, but he took a job at the University of Zurich.

"When I first moved, people said, 'Oh, you're crazy to leave San Diego; it's a paradise. Why would you go to Europe? Blah, blah blah,' "recalls Siegel. "And after 10 years people were saying, 'Oh, man, that was the smartest thing you ever did. Zurich is wonderful.' "

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Updated Nov. 26 at 3:12 p.m. ET

NASA's InSight probe landed successfully on Mars Monday shortly before 3 p.m. ET.

Two tiny spacecraft that flew with the lander to Mars were able to relay telemetry from the probe as it descended to the surface. As a result, mission managers knew immediately that the landing had worked. Unsurprisingly, the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., erupted in cheers.

If you hold your nose and take a sip of coffee, mostly what you'll taste is a bitter liquid. Much of the gustatory pleasure we take from coffee comes from its aroma.

But a new study suggests people's sensitivity to that bitter taste plays a role in how much coffee they drink. And though it seems counterintuitive, the study shows that the more sensitive you are to the bitter taste of coffee, the more of it you tend to drink.

The European Space Agency is sending a mission to explore the mysteries of Mercury.

BepiColombo, named after the Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, launched at 9:45 p.m. ET Friday aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana.

Astronomers have found — way beyond the orbit of Pluto — an intriguing distant object orbiting the sun.

It's just a dwarf planet, about 200 miles across, but some researchers think finding it increases the likelihood that there is a heretofore undiscovered giant planet lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system. That would bring the number of true planets in our solar system back to nine, replacing Pluto which was demoted in 2006.

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