Surface Science from Philae – Finally!

A few weeks back, the Philae lander woke up and began transmitting the coveted science data it had been holding on to for the better part of 2015, waiting for the Sun to shine bright enough to wake it from its deep slumber.  As soon as it was able, it transmitted data back to the Rosetta orbiter, which then sent it on its long journey back home to Earth. Now that a few weeks have passed, we can finally see what the first science from the surface of 67P looks like, and determine its true fate.

Animation showing final descent to 67P. Credit: ESA/ Rosetta

We can clearly see a rock in the last image where the lander should have touched down after its seven hour descent.  This rock is potentially what caused the lander to ricochet and bounce a few times before coming to a complete stop.  The problem with this is that upon landing, Philae was pre-programmed to perform several intense science operations, many of which were carried out as it floated above the surface.  There is an upside to the bouncing, however, in that the first sets of data were taken at multiple sites and could be compared to give multiple results for the surface environment.

Mission scientists say some 80% of the initial data collection was completed by Philae during its first 64 hours of operation in November 2014, before it lost power and went into hibernation mode.  Until it awoke a few weeks ago, no contact with the lander was established and its fate was unknown.

Right after landing, instruments Ptolemy and COSAC measured chemical compositions or surface gases and dust, which are important tracers of the raw material present at the beginning of the solar system.  COSAC was placed on the bottom of the lander and measured surface dust that was kicked up, revealing 16 organic compounds made from many carbon and nitrogen-rich compounds, including four in particular that have never before been detected in comets – methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde, and acetamide.  Ptolemy was placed atop the lander and sampled ambient gases such as water vapour, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, along with smaller amounts of carbonaceous organic compounds such as formaldehyde.

The existence of such complex molecules in the early solar system means that comets like 67P could have delivered the basic building blocks for what would become prebiotic life on Earth some 4.5 Billion years ago.

I am ecstatic that after so much back and forth, we finally have the data we have waited 20 years to get from a comet, giving us new insights into the origin of our species. The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will reach perihelion on August 13th, 2015, its closest approach to the Sun, when the peak of outgassing and other surface processes should occur.  More great science is still to come!


Motivation Monday: If you Want to Be, Do.

The old saying goes ‘If you want something done right, do it yourself.’  Many a person filled with hubris about their own abilities takes this too far and often ends up never trusting others to help or take on any challenge, no matter how small or insignificant.  The real meaning behind this idea is that if you ‘have an idea in your mind about the way something should be done, do it yourself.’  This can lead to the founding of a successful business, if you take it along the lines of ‘if you found a better way to do something, do it yourself.’  But I see this phrase and the interpretation of it in a different light.

I would challenge this idea with a slight tweak, by removing two words. ‘If you want something, do it yourself.’  This is the essential idea for habit formation.  If we keep doing the same thing we will eventually make it part of our unconscious process.  But I want to take it to an ever higher level.  If we want to be a certain person, do a certain thing, have a certain job, the act of going out and doing it until everyone believes you enough to pay you for it is the essence of what I’m trying to capture.

So many people sit at home and wish they could be a model or an actor or a scientist or an engineer or own a restaurant or consult or sell a product they made, and these dreams take up significant daily energy.  If you ask them why they haven’t done it, their typical response is any one of several usual excuses:

‘I’m not in the right place financially’

‘It’s not the right time’

‘I’d have to give up everything I’ve worked so hard for’

‘What if I fail?’

I’ve asked myself these questions so many times over the years, and I find the truth is far from the lies we fill our own heads with.

1. Not in  the right place financially

Are we ever? We often overestimate the amount of money we really need in order to survive.  What we are truly afraid of is not having the money to enjoy the comforts we have enjoyed up to this point.  Maybe to live your dream you need to give up air conditioning, or sell your car, or even shop at more modestly priced stores for food and clothing.  But really, how much would we suffer? If we do the math, it really doesn’t end up so bad.  Sit down and work it out and see what you really need to survive, and eliminate what isn’t essential.

2. It’s not the right time

The ‘right time’ for most people, never actually comes.  For most, the right time is when everything is perfect, down to the most minute detail.  ‘That will be my sign from the universe’ we say, but the sad truth is that there is no divine sign that will show us the way.  We simply make our own luck, and there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.  But while most of us are waiting for the right time, the successful people are out trying, doing, failing, and restarting, moving forward while the rest of us umm and ahh about our perfect moment.

3. ‘I’d have to give up everything I’ve worked so hard for’

No question here.  This may be the only actual true story that we tell ourselves when contemplating our dreams.  It is scary to change your path, and it is terrifying to think that you have to let go of all you’ve built so far.  But you are bringing more with you than you think.  Every experience, skill, every bit of knowledge you’ve accumulated in your life, it’s all there for you to take with you.  The hard work you’ve put in made you the type of person who is strong enough to follow their dream and see it through to make it a reality.  So it’s more like a caterpillar shedding its cocoon to become a butterfly (If you want a sappy analogy).

4. ‘What if I fail?’

I’ve got news for you.  You will fail.  There is no doubt.  You will hit incredible roadblocks and people will tell you that you can’t do things.  You will be told ‘no,’ ‘don’t,’ and ‘you can’t.’  This is guaranteed.  Failure is part of the road to success.  If you find 1000 ways to not do something, eventually you’ll find a way to do it.  The secret is to not fear the failure, or if you still fear it, to do it anyway.  To forget about what people will say of you and just go for it.  You’ll be surprised how little most people care if you screw up over and over.  When you succeed they’ll be proud of you either way.

The truly successful people are the doers.  They are scared and shy and unsure like everyone else, but they do it anyway.  This is because you have to realize that at the end of the day, the only person you truly need to answer to is yourself. You still have to look yourself in the mirror and know if you didn’t do everything you possibly could. But if you go out and take action with the knowledge and skill you have, there is no reason you won’t get exactly where you want to go.

So get to work.


Saturnian Symmetry

With more than a decade of observations, the Cassini spacecraft has redefined our understanding of the ringed giant Saturn and its diverse moons.  Continually working and returning new data, it has achieved significant scientific milestones, along with it’s partner probe Huygens, which dropped down through the thick clouds of mighty moon Titan’s atmosphere in early 2005.  Along with a new scientific understanding comes views never-before-seen by human eyes, revealing the artful dance between the gas giant, its moons, and its incredible ring system.  One of my favourite photos shows the incredibly beautiful symmetry of the rings.

Symmetrical perfection revealed by Cassini. Credit: NASA-JPL / Cassini

The rotational symmetry in this overhead portrait looks like the work of a master artist, instead of a natural consequence of gravity.  But the artistry of nature and the perfection of the 1/r2 law of gravity shows the changing features as we move radially from the centre of the planet right out through the rings.

Cassini continues to study the giant world, and will be achieving new milestones in the nearby future, such as continuing fly-bys of the giant moons, and a dive through the rings where the craft will use it’s antenna as a shield from ring particles.

Milky Way Stars Interact Dynamically

Think about Earth and its population of over 7 Billion people. That’s 7 Billion people who wake up, breathe, live, think, experience, and interact with each other.  The sheer volume of interactions and variation in the human experience is staggering.  Every second you are alive these interactions are happening all around you, and far from you in any corner of the planet.  Millions of people right now feel sad, happy, ecstatic, broken, angry, tired, energetic, and everything in between.

Credit: Illustration by Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital, Inc.; SDSS collaboration

Now if we go beyond to the Milky Way, where there are more than 50 stars for each and every homo sapiens on the planet, shouldn’t we expect to see an even greater number of interactions and situations? Shouldn’t the sheer statistics mean millions of strange interactions and configurations? The difference is that stars live Billions of years longer than the average human, and they are much further apart, so the vast numbers of interactions do happen more slowly.  But even at the slower rate, with so many stars interacting, we should expect the face of the Milky Way to change quite quickly.  And now, astronomers from New Mexico State University have shown that it does.

Using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Explorer (APOGEE) spectrograph to observe 100,000 stars during a 4-year period, they were able to determine the origin and history of the stars, including where they formed and when.  This is all possible due to observations of the metallicity of a star, which is like a fingerprint of heavier elements that reside in the atmospheres of stars.

As stars live and die, they fuse lighter elements like hydrogen and helium into heavier elements like oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, and iron.  After a star dies, it seeds the cosmos with these heavier elements, which then help the formation of a new generation of stars, which will have a higher percentage of heavy elements to begin with.  This means that an understanding of metallicity tells us which generation a star belongs to.  The specific ratios of heavy elements can also tell us which stars formed together in the same birth cloud, and gives us the ability to track their movement across space.

Astronomers using APOGEE were able to create a map of relative amounts of 15 heavier elements, and they found that nearly 30% of stars in the study has compositions that indicated they had travelled a significant distance from where they were formed.  Looking at the map in detail, the team realized that the patterns could be explained with a model in which the stars continuously migrated closer to the galactic centre and back out again, carrying them away from their birthplace.  This migration is likely caused by irregularities in the disk of the Milky Way, such as the dense spiral arms.

More data will reveal precisely how the stars have migrated, and a larger population in the study will determine just how often this process occurs.  Either way it seems that the Milky Way has a continuously evolving character, and is a much more dynamic environment than previously thought.


Once in a Blue Moon, Twice in a Month

Hey hey! It’s a blue moon today!  For all those people who have used the phrase ‘Once in a blue moon,’ it finally happened.  Turns out that phrase means ‘about once every 2-3 years.’  A blue moon doesn’t mean the moon is changing colour anytime soon, just like a supermoon doesn’t mean the moon actually gains superpowers or gets noticeably bigger.  A blue moon is simply the second full moon in a calendar month.

A normal moon with a blue filter. Credit:

The moon orbits the Earth in approximately 29.5 days.  This was how months were originally formed.  But 12 months x 29.5 days means that we are a few days short of the 365 days of the year.  Wanting them to balance out, we altered the months a bit and made most of them a bit longer (wtf February?).  So the full moon can happen any time during the month.  With the 1.5-2.5 day gap between the length of the month and the lunar cycle, we end up with two full moons in a calendar month approximately once every three years.

The blue moon isn’t like clockwork though.  In 2018 we will see a blue moon in January and in March.  Two in a three month period? All due to that weird February being a short month.  Even though we can predict exactly when all of these weird lunar phenomenon will happen, there are very loose patterns to blue moons, supermoons (moon at perigee), and lunar eclipses.  At least now we understand what is really happening and we don’t let the moon predict our lives like ancient pagans.

Well most of us get it…..