UTA Professor's Invention Looks For Life Millions of Miles From Earth | KERA News

UTA Professor's Invention Looks For Life Millions of Miles From Earth

Nov 20, 2014

Zipping through the solar system, 310 million miles from Earth, a comet is carrying an invention by a North Texan. The goal: Analyze the building blocks of life.

It’s part of the “Rosetta mission” that landed last week on a comet nicknamed 67P. Here’s the deal: Because of a rough landing, the mission – and the device designed by UT-Arlington chemistry professor Daniel Armstrong – has gone dark.

Interview Highlights: Daniel Armstrong

… On the nature of his device …

“Well this is a special column - mine is what’s called a chiral column or handed column – it not only separates molecules, it separates special molecules known as right- and left-handed chiral molecules. They’re also known as the molecules of life – for example all living things on earth are composed of the L or left-handed amino acid – not the right-handed form - and they’re notoriously difficult to separate and we invented a column that does that separation.”

… On how his invention got on the mission …

“We actually developed the column probably late 1990 – it was commercialized rapidly and they probably picked it because it was a well-known commercial column that had a long track record and it also had the broadest selectivity – in other words it seemed to separate the most, the greatest number of compounds and so probably that’s why they picked it.”

… On other devices on space missions:

“I know we had a different column that was being considered on a mission to Venus, this was several years ago we were told of this and it was supposed to analyze atmosphere gases there – actually lost track of that – so I don’t know what’s come of that particular mission. I have an analogous column to the one that is going to the Philae mission on the Rosetta that is going to be on a Mars mission.”

On what happens next for the Rosetta mission:

“Well that’s interesting as you know they had a few problems but fortunately it had I think 64 hours of battery power in its primary batter and so it did some surface analysis and sent back a lot of data. We don’t know the results of that data yet, but I do know that one of the things that was released was the surface molecule detection included a handedness or chirality of molecules, which means they were using the columns that were mine and one of the two others.”

… On his device being used:

“Apparently it has been used – and hopefully when this thing wakes up again in April, May, or June when it closer to the sun and warms up - it can complete its mission and do a lot of further analysis.”

Listen - Philae touches down:

From NASA: "Sensors in the feet of Rosetta’s lander Philae have recorded the sound of touchdown as it first came into contact with Comet 67P"