November 13, 2014 2:15PM
Christmas came early for David Kuehn.
Kuehn, chair of the Department of Physics at Pittsburg State University, waited excitedly with other scientists around the world Wednesday until the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe Philae finally tweeted, “Touchdown! My new address: 67P!”
“I cannot tell you how exciting this event is!” Kuehn said from his office, Thursday.
A specialist in planetary astronomy, Kuehn has seen lots of comets through the optics of PSU’s observatory at Greenbush, west of Pittsburg. Today, along with the rest of the world, he’s seeing the first images from the actual surface of a comet.
Kuehn said the mission’s visit to the comet could answer lots of questions.
“Comets contain materials well-preserved from the initial formation of the solar system, including water and organic molecules that form the building blocks life, Kuehn said. “There is a hypothesis that the materials for life on Earth might have been transported by the bombardment of comets and meteors.”
Kuehn said that chemical analysis of samples taken by Philae can tell scientists what kind and how much organic material is present. The results could confirm or challenge what astronomers believe they know about comets.
“Most scientists are convinced that the majority of the volatile component of a comet is water ice, but the other ices and rocky components are also very interesting,” Kuehn said. “It would be wonderful to know the exact recipe of the comet.”
Whatever the results of the experiments on the comet reveal, Kuehn said, just the act of making a soft landing on a comet more than 310 million miles from Earth is a major accomplishment.
I have always been impressed with human beings’ cleverness,” Kuehn said.
Kuehn earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from PSU and a Ph.D. from New Mexico State University. In addition to planetary astronomy, his specialties include computational physics and scientific instrument development. His current research projects include the use of acousto-optic tunable filters to map the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. He is also working with PSU students to find and track recently discovered asteroids.
For more information, contact Kuehn in the PSU Department of Physics, 620-235-4391.