Orbital Path


Astronomer Michelle Thaller takes a look at the big questions of the cosmos and what the answers can reveal about life here on Earth. From podcast powerhouse PRX, with support from the Sloan Foundation.

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space, stars, the universe and us
🇬🇧 English
last modified
2019-04-03 05:53
last episode published
2018-12-21 16:34
publication frequency
25.13 days
PRX author  
The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX owner  
Number of Episodes
Detail page
Science & Medicine Natural Sciences



Date Thumb Title & Description Contributors

Building 29

All things in the cosmos have a lifespan, from the smallest particles to the most ancient suns. Everything has its season. Every season must come to an end. And this episode marks the end of Orbital Path. So, for the last transit of our podcast, Dr. Mi...
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Hello, Asteroid!

Asteroids, as the dinosaurs found out, can have big effects on life on Earth.  Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the Yucatán. The impact caused apocalyptic tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Grit and ash blotted out the sun. It wiped...
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Black Holes from the Dawn of Light

To make a black hole, you need to think big. Really big. Start with a star much bigger than the sun — the bigger the better. Then settle in, and wait millions and millions and millions of years for your star to die. That should do the trick, if you wan...
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Space Lasers for the Home Planet

On September 15, 2018, the last Delta II rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force base, in California. It carried into orbit IceSat-2 — a satellite equipped with perhaps the most sophisticated space laser ever built.   NASA didn’t put it up there to...
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Brian Greene goes to 11 — again

We live our lives in three dimensions. But we also walk those three dimensions along a fourth dimension: time. 

Our world makes sense thanks to mathematics. Math lets us count our livestock, it lets us navigate our journeys. Mathematics has also prove...
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The Universe of Leonard Susskind

To hear Leonard Susskind tell it, we are living in a golden age of quantum physics. And he should know. Susskind is a grandee of theoretical physics. In the 1960s, he was one of the discoverers of String Theory. His friends and collaborators over the y...
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Mars Goes Organic

For a long time, probably as long as we have been gazing up at the night sky, people have been asking ourselves: Are we alone? Is there life out there, anywhere else in the universe? For modern Earthlings, our fascination with extraterrestrial life has...
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Earth, Desert Planet?

Zoe is in 8th-grade. She’s a student in Mr. Andersen’s Earth science class at a public school in Brooklyn. Lately, she’s been concerned about the future of the planet. Specifically, Zoe has been learning about the phenomenon of planetary dehydration — ...
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Our Darkening Universe

Secrets of the universe? A glimpse of the whiteboard in the office of Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Adam Riess. Adam Riess was only 41 when he was named a Nobel Prize winner. The Johns Hopkins distinguished professor of astronomy shared in the awa...
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Instead of grappling with the big, cosmic questions that preoccupy adults, this week on Orbital Path we’re doing something different. We’re grappling with the big, cosmic questions that preoccupy kids. It’s part of a new project called “Telescope,” whe...
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Star Death Tango

On August 17, 2017, an alert went out. Gravitational wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state had detected a disturbance from deep space. The effect was subtle — these detectors and a sister site in Italy measure disturbances smaller than a pro...
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Ozone Disaster Redux

Scientists in 1985 discovered something that threatened the world we live in: The ozone layer had a hole in it. A big one. And this hole was growing very quickly. If it continued to grow, the consequences would be dire. Presented with the science, worl...
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Fireside Physics: A Solstice on Saturn?

In this darkest season of the year, Dr. Michelle Thaller and NASA astronomer Andrew Booth curl up by the fire. Gazing into the embers, red wine in hand, they consider the meaning of the winter solstice — on other planets. Like Uranus, where parts of th...
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From Another Star

NASA’S office of planetary defense isn’t worried about Klingons or Amoeboid Zingatularians.  They worry about asteroids and comets.  Like the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. It was about 20 yards across. An asteroid 150 yards in dia...
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Winter’s Night Sky

These days, astrophysicists like Dr. Michelle Thaller use instruments to probe the distant reaches of our galaxy, and far beyond. They use interferometry, the Hubble space telescope, and other technology impossible to imagine when the constellations of...
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Aliens Again!

We’ve got some awkward news to share, folks: The producer of Orbital Path is claiming he’s been abducted by space aliens. So this week, we’re dusting off the theremin and returning to one of our favorite early episodes — “Must Be Aliens.” Dr. Michelle ...
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Time and Space in the Kingdom of Bhutan

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan avidly guards its traditional culture. Bhutan is a nation that — instead of looking to GDP or debt ratios — measures success by an index of “Gross National Happiness.” In this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thalle...
PRX author

The 11 Dimensions of Brian Greene

We live our lives in three dimensions. But we also walk those three dimensions along a fourth dimension: time.

 Our world makes sense thanks to mathematics. Math lets us count our livestock, it lets us navigate our journeys. Mathematics has also prove...
PRX author

Minisode 5: Scary Math

In a scary time, in a scary world, in a scary universe, NASA astronomer Andrew Booth says one of the things that frightens him most is math. Specifically, the power of mathematics to describe the universe. That’s because, beyond the comforting world of...
PRX author

Episode 22: Journey to the Sun

Locked up on the Greek island of Crete, Icarus and his dad made wings out of  beeswax and bird feathers. They soared to freedom — but Icarus got cocky, flew too close to the sun, and fell into the sea.  A few thousand years later, NASA is ready to do t...
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Minisode 4: Hot Tub Physics!

After a full day in a clean suit, there’s nothing like … a dip in the hot tub. NASA astronomer Andrew Booth spends his days working with lasers, developing some of the word’s most advanced telescopes. When he gets home from work, he loves to pour a gla...
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Episode 21: First Light

There was a time before planets and suns. A time before oxygen. You could say there was time, even, before what we think of as light. Back in 1989, the Big Bang theory was still in question. But that year, a NASA team led by cosmologist John Mather lau...
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Episode 20: Holy Sheet!

NASA is relying on hi-tech lasers — and some vintage U.S. Navy hand-me-downs — to learn about the polar regions of a remarkable, watery planet. It’s located in the Orion spur of our galaxy. NASA scientists have detected mountain ranges completely under...
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Mini-sode 3: Dr. Thaller Helps You Prep for The Eclipse

The big one is coming! That is, the total solar eclipse of Aug. 21. Dr. Thaller shares her wisdom on how best to view the eclipse and its larger implications for science.
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Mini-sode 2: What up, Jupiter?

Recently, we’ve started to get the first images back from Juno, which is on a mission to Jupiter. Host Dr. Michelle Thaller walks us through the results so far and how you can participate in what Juno discovers next. Image of Jupiter from the Juno spac...
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Episode 19: We Are Stardust

Dr. Michelle Thaller visits the NASA lab that discovered that meteorites contain some of the very same chemical elements that we contain. Then, Michelle talks to a Vatican planetary scientist about how science and religion can meet on the topic of life...
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Episode 18: Cassini Countdown

When the Cassini spacecraft blasted into space on October 15, 1997, even the most optimistic scientists would have had a hard time predicting the mission’s success. Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with the Cassini mission’s Project Scientist Linda Spilker,...
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Making (Gravitational) Waves

Nearly 100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves — huge undulations in the fabric of space-time itself — in 2015, detectors here on Earth finally picked up the signal of these massive disturbances. Dr. Michelle Thaller pul...
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Mini-sode 1: NASA’s NICER Mission

Listeners, we’ve heard you! You requested more episodes, so we present the first of our mini episodes. They’ll arrive two weeks after each monthly regular episode, and include Michelle Thaller’s insight on the latest space news. Enjoy episode one: NASA...
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Lessons in Landslides

Space science can help track what’s happening on Earth. In this podcast episode, Orbital Path talks landslides and the satellites that monitor them for the third anniversary of the deadliest landslide in US history. On March 22, 2014 a 650-foot hillsid...
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Space Robots to Europa!

Galileo discovered Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, in 1610. In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft buzzed past and we realized it was covered in ice. It took a few more years to understand that it also likely had unfrozen liquid water oceans. In this e...
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How the World Came Together to Avoid Ozone Disaster

In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey discovered something that shocked scientists around the world: the ozone layer had a hole in it. And the hole was growing very quickly. When they were presented with the problem, politicians and world leaders quick...
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Warning: Space May Wreak Havoc on Your Body

Going to Mars is hot right now, just ask Matt Damon. But would you go if you knew your bones would turn into something called “pee brittle”? Former astronaut Michael Massimino reveals the uncomfortable side of liftoff. And Dr. Jennifer Fogarty from NAS...
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In Search of Planet 9

Proposed mockup of our solar system (the sun is the tiny yellow dot in the middle), and the proposed orbit of Planet 9 (called Planet X here). (Courtesy of Scott Sheppard / Carnegie Institution of Washington) An Orbital Path episode all about…an orbita...
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Black Hole Breakthroughs

Scientific discovery can happen in two ways: “Eureka!” moments of sudden understanding, where researchers glean unexpected insight into new phenomena. Or, a slower, less glamorous hunt for truth that happens day-after-day, for years. But both methods c...
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Done in the Sun

Coronal mass ejection courtesy of NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory The sun can seem like a friendly celestial body. It is the source of summer, crops, and basically all life on Earth. But just as the sun decided when life on Earth could begin, it will a...
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Howdy, Neighbor

When Proxima b’s discovery appeared in Nature on August 24, the media breathlessly announced a new Earth-like planet just 4.2 light years away from Earth. Astronomers have, for years, anticipated a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Michelle Thaller tal...
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A Tale of Two Asteroids

The asteroid belt is portrayed in movies as a crowded place with massive rocks bouncing each other like pool balls, capable of sending a mile-wide missile hurtling toward Earth at any moment. The reality is much more fascinating. Host Dr. Michelle Thal...
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Chasing An Eclipse

Michael Kentrianakis loves eclipses and has seen them from all over the world. Host Michelle Thaller and Mike talk about the stages of the eclipse we can see in his video that went viral a few months ago after an Alaska Airlines flight. That flight was...
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A World Without Boundaries

From space, the view of earth has no boundaries for countries, no barriers to achievement. Michelle Thaller speaks with Aprille Ericcson, a senior engineer at NASA, about her career path and about current challenges recruiting more women and minorities...
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Michelle& Her Mom

Michelle (L), her mom and sister. In this special Mother’s Day episode, Michelle talks with her mom about what it was like raising a space-obsessed daughter in Wisconsin and watching her grow into a scientist. Big hair ’80s. Michelle’s sister, Michelle...
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In Praise of Volcanoes

Astronomer Michelle Thaller talks with Ashley Davies, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the importance of volcanoes in the creation of Earth and how the study of volcanos in space can help us understand life here. Davies has ...
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The Most Dramatic Sky

The most rare objects in the night sky are only visible in some extreme places. Dr. Michelle Thaller introduces us to Dr. Anna Moore, a scientist whose trips to Antarctica help us better understand the solar system.
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Mass Extinctions Get Personal

Host Dr. Michelle Thaller talks to Prof. Lisa Randall, a theoretical particle physicist at Harvard, about her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe. The scientists explore what caused the dinosaurs’ ...
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Must Be Aliens

Host Michelle Thaller talks with astronomer and author Phil Plait of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog about this conundrum: why are humans so quick to explain the unknowns of the cosmos as aliens? And why is this healthy imagination important in science? — T...
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