The Golden Thread: Episode 1, The Next Frontier

By | November 16, 2021
The Golden Thread: Episode 1, The Next Frontier

Humans have an irrepressible desire to explore. We are on an unending search
for what else is out there. We peer into far away galaxies. We walk in space. We send rovers to Mars. One element happens to be there
every step of the way. This is the story of gold
propelling us to the next frontier. We've all looked up in awe and wonder at the sky,
at the vastness of the cosmos. We've all wondered what it must have been like
to be one of those astronauts In the early days of space flight. But one thing you might notice
when you look back at those photographs Of the middle of the last century,
something a bit unexpected perhaps about space, Is that there's quite a lot of gold. In 1965, Colonel Ed White brought gold to space. When he made history
with America's first space walk, He used a gold-coated visor
to protect his eyes from harmful solar radiation, And he was tethered to NASA's Gemini IV With an umbilical cord
wrapped in a protective layer of gold. Since then, hundreds of missions have helped
advance our knowledge of the unknown, And a whole lot of them used gold. It was an important element
of the space shuttle orbiter, The space plane frame
which has been called the brains and heart Of NASA's space transportation system. Gold coated the orbiter's large fuel cells,
providing a reliable source of electrical power. Gold was even entrusted
with carrying information about life on Earth, Should anything out there be curious. In 1977, aboard the space probe Voyager 1, Scientists sent a time capsule out into the galaxy In the form of a 12-inch gold-plated record. The idea being that if the record was ever found
by an intelligent extra-terrestrial life form, They could use it to get a sense of our planet. On it they included sounds of life,
greetings in 55 different languages, Musical compositions,
and even images of the human experience, Encoded into audio waveforms.

Gold was selected for the coating Because it protects
against radiation and extreme heat. The record and its twin, aboard the Voyager 2,
are sealed in aluminium cases And now floating out
in the inert environment of space, Which might just make them the longest-surviving
human-made objects ever. So when it comes to space,
why is gold such an important material? When you send a spacecraft off
to the outer planets, you cannot repair it. You need durable materials,
and that's why you use gold. My two main missions are,
you can see one on the left side, It's Cassini, which went to Saturn, And on my right side,
you can see the JUICE Mission. JUICE is an acronym.
It stands for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, And we launch next year in August 2022. Cassini was actually launched in 1997. It took seven years to go to Saturn,
where it arrived in 2004, And then it spent 13 years in Saturn's orbit. I have three big areas of expertise. The first one I would say is planetary lightning. The second one is magnetospheric
and planetary radio emissions, And the third one is calibrating the antennas. I was the first person
to detect lightning on Saturn, So I was called the "weatherman of Saturn"
for a long time. To study these radio emissions,
those antennas need to be calibrated. To do this, we take a model, And this is these gold models you see here,
in different scales. Cassini is 1:30 and the JUICE is 1:40, And these we build, gold-plate them,
and put them into a tank of water. And then on both ends, we put two plates.
So we create an electric field To find out the reception properties
of the antenna system. Usually spacecrafts have a conductive surface,
and that's why we model with gold. We use it to simulate the situation in space, To find out the reception properties
of the antenna system, Because without that
your measurement values would be wrong. We also use gold because it has
very good physical characteristics.

It is highly conductive, it is very durable,
it cannot rust, and that's very good Because if you would use a not-nobal metal After some time it would get
a thin oxidised layer, And then our measurement will not work anymore.
It's an interesting job. There's still lots to investigate And when you look at the new field of exoplanets, You can say we have just started
to explore our backyard. We have come very far of course,
but compared to the size of the universe, We have not come very far. One space mission which will allow us
to explore further than ever before Is the James Webb Space Telescope. It's a collaboration between space
agencies in Europe, the US, and Canada, And it features a 21.3ft mirror, plated in gold. Now, this is a revolutionary
new piece of technology, And scientists hope that it will allow us
to peer through dust clouds, To see stars as they form planetary systems, And maybe look at some
of the earliest galaxies in the universe. Then of course, there's that next frontier: Exploring parts of space
previously reserved for science fiction. I have a temperament
to understand how things work. I was always a kid who wanted to take things
apart and put them back together again. What better place to satisfy that craving
to understand than in the final frontier? What fascinates me about Mars
is that it is almost like Earth, But different in fundamental ways
that we take for granted. A perfect example is, in fact, oxygen. We are surrounded by a thick soup of oxygen. You take that away and everything is different. Whether it's controlling your body temperature,
or whether it's lighting a rocket. The single thing you need
the most of when we send astronauts, When we send our grandchildren to Mars,
is going to be a very, very large tank of oxygen. I'm fortunate enough
to be the Principal Investigator For the MOXIE Instrument,
the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, That is on the Perseverance Rover, even now,
as a demonstrator For how we will one day make oxygen
to support a human mission to Mars.

On Mars we are not surrounded by oxygen, But we're surrounded by
a reasonable amount of carbon dioxide. Now here on Earth,
we would be surrounded also by carbon dioxide If the ecosystem we live in
didn't serve to convert that to oxygen for us. That's what trees do, that's what plants do,
that's what plankton does. So our mission, should we chose to accept it, Is to make an instrument
that breathes in CO2 and breathes out oxygen. What MOXIE does to make oxygen is–
conceptually it's very simple. You start with a CO2 molecule,
one carbon atom, two oxygen atoms. And our task is to pull oxygen atoms
off of that molecule. The best, most reliable technology to do that
is what's called solid oxide electrolysis. Meaning we have a thin slab of hot,
hot ceramic, about 800 degrees centigrade, Which selectively allows the oxygen ion
to pass through, and nothing else. Gold is critically important to make MOXIE work
for a number of reasons. It's ridiculously stable,
it doesn't oxidise or corrode easily, It's an excellent heat conductor. That's why the MOXIE box
is all gold on the outside. There are times of the day
where it just gets too warm to run MOXIE, So controlling temperature is critical.
So what can we do today? Well we can make
up to ten grams an hour of oxygen. You and I would breathe
maybe 20 to 30 grams an hour. We're not far from where we would need to be If we were just providing
breathing oxygen for astronauts. We're further away From a system that can put out
two to three kilograms of oxygen an hour, And that's what we'll need to fill up a tank
over the course of about a year, That would hold 25 tonnes of oxygen To allow that rocket to launch
that's going to take our astronauts home. The beauty of space exploration
is in its vastness. There is always more to discover. And the same could be said
about the relationship between gold and space, Because while gold can be used
for exploring the cosmos, The cosmos is also the source
of all of the gold here on Earth. In 2017, we got a glimpse of something
billions of years and light years in the making.

For the first time in history,
scientists observed the creation of gold. Two neutron stars have been drawing
toward one another for millennia. One moment they were 200 miles apart. A hundred seconds later, and they had collided, Generating fabled gravitational waves: Perhaps the most anticipated event
in modern astronomy. This triggered astronomers all over To try to capture the event with telescopes,
and they did. What scientists saw that day
was gold being created in space As part of one of the most dramatic
and extraordinary events the universe undergoes. The gold created in this collision
will cycle through the cosmos, And perhaps one day
will form part of another planet, Just as all the gold we've ever known Became embedded in the infant Earth
billions of years ago. And as we've seen in this episode,
that same gold from the depths of outer space, Is what helps us to get back into space
to explore the unknown. From ancient origins, gold continues
to be at the forefront of our exploration. It is crucial to the story
of humans and space travel, But that is just one part of the story of gold.