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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The European Space Agency’s comet lander Philae has successfully delivered a long-anticipated data stream to Earth after several nerve-wracking months of silence.

The dishwasher-sized lander, dispatched from the Rosetta spacecraft which now orbits comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, landed rather roughly on the surface back in 2014.Unfortunately, the machine unexpectedly settled in a shadowy crater and ran out of power after 60 hours without sunlight to charge its solar cells.

Because the comet has been moving nearer to the sun, the lander may have been able to harness the increased solar energy and recharge itself. The earthbound scientists at European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, held their breath and powered up the lander’s listening capabilities on March 12th.

A real-scale representation of the comet's size
compared to the city of Los Angeles.
On June 14th Philae’s message finally arrived, indicating that it is in fact receiving power.
Rosetta is the first man-made object to orbit a comet, and Philae the first to land on one. The mission promises to be rich with discoveries that will lend insight into many unanswered questions about the natural world. Comets and other such deep-space objects represent goldmines of information about the early universe and the physical history of the solar system, and by extension the Earth and her human inhabitants.

One such mystery that the mission hopes to investigate is the relative abundance of left-handed chemical isomers in the biological world. Many molecules come in mirror-image “versions” of one another. Despite being composed of the same atoms, and those atoms being connected in identical ways, they are physical reflections of each other and possess unique physical and chemical properties. For reasons poorly-understood, biological systems overwhelmingly favor the left- versions of molecules.

One theory proposed in 1983 posits that spiraling radiation generated during supernovae is responsible. The polarization of the radiation emitted during the collapse of primordial stars may have twisted those first molecules into left-handed orientations, resulting in a dominance that we still see today. If the preference for left- chirality is found to extend outside the Earth biosphere, a cosmic origin would be the most reasonable explanation.

The lander possesses an array of cutting-edge scientific instruments, including UV, visible and infrared spectrometers, remote imaging systems, and radar.

One of the first images received by the lander revealed what appeared to be
"sand dunes". The scale of this image is massive; the length of a human
being would be represented as a single pixel.
The mission has already uncovered an abundance of information about the comet. Although it is massive enough to have a gravitational field, the rock is only about ¼ to 1/8 the volume of the object that wiped out the dinosaurs. Its gravity, although strong enough to hold onto the Rosetta orbiter, is incredibly weak. The escape velocity of the comet is about 1/300,000th of Earth’s. In
simpler terms, if a person standing on its surface jumped with the amount of force needed to reach one centimeter from the ground on Earth, they would escape its gravity and float off into space, never to return. If you stepped off of a chair on this comet, it would take you a whole 1.3 minutes to eventually fall to the ground.

As it moves nearer the sun, the comet will heat up and begin expelling dust and gas. This stream of detritus, when comets such as Philae’s swing near enough to the sun, can become ionized by solar wind and produce the luminous glowing tail which is visible from Earth. These mysterious streaks of light have been objects of wonder since the dawn of human kind, and now through the culmination of our thousands of years of scientific inquiry, we will for the first time finally have the chance to reach across the vast gulf of the cosmos and touch one. 

Written by Aisling Williams


Claudia. "The Sound of Touchdown." Web log post. ESA Blog. European Space Agency, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 16 June 2015.

Doherty, Paul. “Rosetta Mission|Spring 2015 Update.” Online video. Youtube. Exploratorium, 15 May 2015. Web. Jun. 27 2015.

Wilson, Elizabeth K. “Comet Lander Philae Wakes Up.” Chemical & Engineering News: (2015) n. pag. 15 June 2015. Web. 17 June 2015.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

CSUCI students received national recognition this year at the ACS meeting in Denver. 

The American Chemical Society national meeting is one of the largest scientific conferences of the year, representing over 10,000 topics ranging from astronomy to zoology. 

Members of the Free Radicals with
Phil Hampton Ph.D, the faculty advisor for the group
The CSUCI student chapter of the ACS, called the Free Radicals, received an award in acknowledgement of their involvement in science outreach programs, such as the annual Science Carnival, as well as their high student participation.

Undergraduate involvement in research and in the scientific community is a high priority for faculty at CSUCI. In order for students to get a feel for how scientists work in the real world, it is imperative for them to get a first-hand experience. Trips to meetings such as these are one of many ways that this is accomplished.

The meeting mostly focuses on the original research of those scientists in attendance. Presented on posters, in slideshows and in presentations, attendees not only learn about the most cutting-edge research ongoing today, but are given a chance to network with those conducting it. 

Oscar Santillan, an undergraduate involved in research focused on electrochemical materials, was one of the eight CI students in attendance. “The topics I followed were chemistry of materials and electrochemistry. In particular, the overlap of the two was of the greatest interest to me. They not only covered topics I find deeply intriguing, but also did so with concision and clarity.”

Corie Hill and Amber Kramer, seniors at CI, presented their research on mercury concentrations in seafood.  

“It was an incredibly valuable experience,” said Corie, “being able to engage with chemistry from around the world, hear cutting edge chemistry lectures and meeting other students who are at my level as well.”

“I took away how diverse and vast the field of chemistry is. There are so many institutions that come together in the name of chemistry: Industry, government and academia and everything in-between. ... It’s incredible to see the level of detail put into the event.”

Besides serving as a window into the details of ongoing research, the ACS meeting serves to broaden the scientific horizons of those in attendance. Students may discover areas of study that they otherwise would never have known about, and perhaps most importantly, meet and talk to the people involved in those areas. Ultimately, science is a social undertaking, and events such as these facilitate the meeting of minds and ideas, which fosters the birth of insight so crucial to any scientific discipline.

Written by Aisling Williams