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This Week: Dr. Angela Speck explains rover landing on comet

After a rough touchdown on comet 67-P this week, the Philea rover is now drilling beneath the surface to see what secrets the celestial body can reveal. Scientists hope to learn more about how our universe was formed.

Dr. Angela speck, the director of Mizzou’s Astronomy Department, is our guest for “This Week.” She starts off our conversation by telling us what a historic comic achievement this is.

Dr. Speck: Well, it’s the first time we’ve ever landed on a comet. Actually that’s not quite true. There was the Deep Impact probe and that was deliberately smashed into a comet. Its the first soft landing we’ve ever had on a comet. And from a technical point of view, its amazing. And from the point of view of advancing science we’re going to get more out of this than just about anything we’ve done so far.

Joey: Now, this comet is older than the earth, right?

Dr. Speck: Well, it’s probably about the same age. So this is one of the things we are trying to understand. Under the common understanding of the formation of the solar system, we think the comets formed first and then the earth is formed out of the same sort of stuff that all smashed together and formed into a bigger thing. So kind of a little bit newer, but its all about four million years old.

Joey: Now, we talk about this being three hundred plus, maybe three hundred ten, three hundred thirteen million miles away. Put that in perspective for us.

Dr. Speck: Okay, so the sun is ninety three million miles away. So we are talking about more than three times the distance between the earth and the sun. It’s more like the distance between Earth and say Jupiter at the closest point, like when they are both on the same side of the sun.

Joey: Amazing. Now, in fact I heard the first image took twenty eight minutes to get back to earth when it takes a little more than eight minutes for the light from the sun to get to the earth.

Dr. Speck: Exactly. Its all moving at the speed of light. So if it’s three of four times further away, it should take three or four times longer. So that means that you always have this terror that you don’t actually know what’s happening until twenty five minutes afterwards.

Joey: Okay, we’re all nerding out that we’ve landed on Comet 67P, I think, right? But what do we hope to gain out of this?

Dr. Speck: There’s lots of things we can gain. This project has been in the works for a long time. Some of the other projects that have gone to comets set off after this was already planned. So some of this is predicated on old ideas but now we can even check up on some new things that we didn’t expect to see. We don’t know what a comet’s really are made of. We have some hypotheses. We can see what boils off. A comet is basically some dirt and ice that’s hurdling toward the sun and as it gets closer, it heats up and the stuff boils off. But we don’t know what its like inside. And we can learn about what it’s like inside and that helps us understand the formation of the solar system, the formation of other planets, where life might start, theres lots of organic material. So we can investigate all of that. And then on the other side of things, we can look at well once we really know what this is made of, we can think more about how to move it if it’s heading towards us.

Joey: we’ve seen that in movies.

Dr. Speck: Exactly. And I guarantee that Bruce Willis won’t save us next time.

Joey: No, it’s going be scientists, I believe. Alright, now this thing, by the way, the size of about a washing machine they say? Of course it’s a three hundred plus million dollar washing machine as part of an about two hundred million dollar mission. It’s hard to get your brain around that. But there is a method behind the madness. There is a science and there is a lot to be learned by this.

Dr. Speck: Right, so the lander is about two hundred pounds, a little over. Yeah washing machine size and it ‘s got these feet that stick out and then it’s got about six or seven different instruments that are doing different experiments.

Joey: Have you heard the sound? I’ve heard a transmission of a sound of the comet. I’m curious what that is. Do you think it’s just a movement? But again that wouldn’t be because there is no sound in space, right?

Dr. Speck: right, so sometimes you can transfer data into sound so if you think about it as being you get noises and your transmitting things by radio and so you’re getting noises in that radio signal.

Joey: so it could be the ear to the shell concept. Maybe that’s what we are hearing.

Dr. Speck: Yeah.

Joey: Now, you have kind of a personal connection to this in a way.

Dr. Speck: I do. And this shows you how long these things are in production. So when I was starting graduate school twenty one years ago, I was originally working on a project that was developing one of the instruments. The instrument that is called talemay is designed to look at the isotopes. This is a different form of the same atom.

Joey: This is very special to you, isn’t it?

Dr. Speck: It is. It’s really exciting. It’s also interfaces with my own research and I’m excited about that too.

Joey: I could talk to you the rest of this newscast about it. Dr. Speck, we are out of time. Thank you for joining us and I hope to see you again soon.

Dr. Speck: Excellent. Thank you.

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