SGU Episode 637

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SGU Episode 637
September 23rd 2017
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 636                      SGU 638

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.

James Madison

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

What's the Word ()[edit]

  • Polymorphism

News Items[edit]

Pirates and the Metric System ()[edit]

New Global Warming Estimate ()[edit]

Buying Quackademic Medicine ()[edit]

Conspiracy Theories are for Losers ()[edit]

Asteroid Mining ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week - the human genome

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Gravity Train ()[edit]

Correction on gravity train segment

Question #2: Space Junk ()[edit]

Hey guys, your NASA friend here. I wanted to give you some context to why dealing with orbital debris is more complex than you made it out to be on the show this week. First, there actually ARE guidelines for preventing new debris. The UN COPUOS has guidelines that they recommend, though by definition they have no enforcement power and so it's up to nations to enforce it themselves. The United States has gotten better about enforcing the rules, but we make exceptions, as do other countries. But second, orbital debris mitigation is a far tougher issue than orbital debris prevention. Something like the water technique or space laser you guys mentioned would actually be illegal, and that's because space debris all belongs to the nation that put it there. Unlike on open oceans, there is no international rule allowing salvage in space. So even if a single bolt falls off a Russian satellite, that bolt will forever be Russian property, and it would be illegal for the United States to touch it unless we get specific permission from Russia for that specific bolt. There is a recognized need in the space community to reform those rules, but it is yet to happen. In addition, as you alluded to briefly, any technology that can remove orbital debris is a small step away from being a military weapon. Autonomous proximity operations, remote inspection, and grappling/capture are three extremely important technologies for national space security, and those are the three key technologies behind orbital debris mitigation as well. The United States, Russia, and China all already have these sorts of weapons in space, though obviously the details of that are all classified. So this is why each country will balk at anything that helps an opposing country test out orbital debris mitigation technology. And it's why the idea of having the UN hire a company to do it will be a non-starter - why would China allow the UN to give money to Boeing or Lockheed to develop such technology when they will immediately turn around and sell that same technology to the US military? And we would forbid the UN from giving such a contract to a Chinese company for the same reason. These issues aren't exhaustive either, by the way. For example, there's the issue of liability - what happens if a country tries to grapple onto a dead satellite but accidentally crashes and creates ten thousand new pieces of debris - what are the international liability rules there? There are certainly a lot of people thinking about these issues. For now at NASA our goal is simply to stop making new clutter, but actually getting rid of clutter is going to require a lot of international negotiating, and I don't think there's going to be an easy answer.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have engineered a hyper-accurate CRISPR-Cas9 system that make far fewer off target errors. Item #2: Researchers find in a new analysis that gun shot victims transported to the trauma center by a private vehicle had significantly lower mortality than those transported by ambulance. Item #3: A new study finds that motivation to do work steadily decreases throughout the day, despite the number or type of tasks undertaken.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” ― James Madison

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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