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Scientists share new observations from comet-chasing Rosetta Mission

Scientists share new observations from comet-chasing Rosetta Mission

Scientists working on the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta Mission provided an update on the comet-chaser and its lander, Philae, at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly last week, as well as sharing new science gained from the duo so far. These new results from Rosetta were announced at a press conference on Tuesday 14 April, with additional research presented at the Rosetta scientific session on Monday and Tuesday. Nikita Marwaha reports on some of these new developments revealed in Vienna.

The team started by reporting on the flightpath of the Rosetta spacecraft: it is currently keeping its distance from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in an attempt to avoid streams of dust from interfering with its systems. The spacecraft is currently flying in a new orbital trajectory around the comet, following problems that arose when it made a Valentine’s Day flyby. Soaring just 6 km above the comet’s surface, the spacecraft’s star trackers, which enable it to navigate, “were getting confused” by dust close to the comet, said Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist at ESA.

Last month, Rosetta was forced into safe mode following another flyby which resulted in its navigation systems being compromised once more. As a result, the spacecraft had to rapidly retreat to a distance of 200 km. Taylor commented, “It turns out, it’s actually quite difficult to fly a spacecraft around a comet”.

His team are trying to calculate a safe approach distance for Rosetta to fly around the comet, with the craft currently alternating between pyramid orbits and terminator orbits. These new trajectories fly at a distance of 140 km and then 100 km and will allow the scientists to monitor how the spacecraft behaves before moving closer.

As the comet approaches perihelion – the orbital point closest to the sun – during the summer months, even more dust will stream out from it as it warms up and grows its characteristic tail. Meanwhile, the Rosetta spacecraft is slowly inching closer to its comet companion as scientists keep a watchful eye on it to ensure that its navigation systems are coping well.

Mission scientists also revealed their assessment on the potential existence of a magnetic field in the comet. Sensitive magnetometers on board both Rosetta and its lander Philae, which was dropped on to the surface last November, have collected measurements of their local environment. These instruments could sense not only the magnetic field carried in the solar wind flowing off the Sun, but also their interactions with it as they moved.

Such data from Rosetta and Philae suggests that Comet 67/P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko does not possess a magnetic field of its own. This finding is significant because it answers one of the major questions of the mission – did magnetic fields play a role in pulling together the material that makes up comets like 67P? This evidence suggests it did not.

An artist's impression of Philae detaching from the Rosetta spacecraft. Scientists are currently trying to work out a safe distance from which Rosetta can orbit the comet, whilst waiting for Philae to wake up from hibernation. (Credits: ESA)

An artist’s impression of Philae detaching from the Rosetta spacecraft. Scientists are currently trying to work out a safe distance from which Rosetta can orbit the comet, whilst waiting for Philae to wake up from hibernation. (Credits: ESA)

Other formation processes may have played a significant role in the birth of the early Solar System. Combined measurements from both orbiter and lander such as these provide us with a key insight into the primordial Solar System, and will produce further fruitful results once Philae wakes up from hibernation.

Locating the sleeping lander is a task in progress. It touched down very close to its target point last November, however then bounced to where it lies today. Rosetta scientists explained in the press conference that they have a good understanding of where the lander is but cannot identify it clearly from Rosetta’s imaging system, OSIRIS. They know that Philae is currently surrounded by walls and is sitting in a very dark area, riddled with shadows.

Questions still remain on the lander’s current orientation, why its footprints do not fit the landing gear geometry, why it bounced in a sharp angle and whether its feet hit rock or soft material when landing. Unfortunately, the illumination in the final landing site is very poor, with 1 hour and 20 minutes of sunlight per comet day. As a result, Philae is still in hibernation but scientists are optimistic that it will wake up within the next few weeks.

Stephen Ulamec, Philae Project Manager at German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) said, “In order to wake up, Philae’s solar panels should be sufficient to reboot the lander in the coming weeks”.

He also explained that a series of wake-up campaigns were already being launched, with the last attempt two days prior to the press conference. These campaigns involve periodically switching on Rosetta’s communication unit around the clock, so that once Philae gathers enough energy, its signal will be heard by the orbiter overhead. So far, there has been no contact made with the lander but as the comet approaches the sun, the scientists displayed hope for better news in time.

When asked what Philae waking up would mean to him, Matt Taylor said “Philae waking up is a fundamental part of the story. I see the Rosetta Mission as a kind of a soap opera and Philae is currently the cliffhanger. This can’t be the end.”

Rosetta has gripped the world with its fascinating story. This next stage of the mission is vital to unlocking the secrets of the primordial Solar System, yet for now we must wait patiently for Philae to wake up and join Rosetta in their quest to explore their new rocky world.

By Nikita Marwaha, EGU Press Assistant and EJR-Quartz Editor

Communicate your Science Video Competition finalists: time to get voting!

For the second year in a row we’re running the EGU Communicate Your Science Video Competition – the aim being for young scientists to communicate their research in a short, sweet and public-friendly video. Our judges have now selected 3 fantastic finalists from the excellent entries we received this year and it’s time to find the best geoscience communication clip!

The shortlisted videos will be open to a public vote from now until midnight on 16 Apri; – just ‘like’ the video on YouTube to give it your seal of approval. The video with the most likes when voting closes will be awarded a free registration to the EGU General Assembly 2016.

The finalists are shown below, but you can also catch them in this finalist playlist and even take a seat in GeoCinema – the home of geoscience films at the General Assembly – to see the shortlist and select your favourite.

Please note that only positive votes will be taken into account.

The finalists:

Inside Himalayan Lakes by Zakaria Ghazoui. Like this video to vote for it!

 

Glacial Mystery by Guillaume Jouvet. Like this video to vote for it!

 

Floods by Chiara Arrighi. Like this video to vote for it!

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The winning entry will be announced during the lunch break on the last day of the General Assembly (Friday 17 April).

Science bloggers – join the 2015 General Assembly blogroll!

Science bloggers – join the 2015 General Assembly blogroll!

Will you be blogging at the 2015 General Assembly? If so, sign up here and we’ll add you to our official blogroll. We will be compiling a list of blogs that feature posts about the EGU General Assembly and making it available on GeoLog, the official blog of the European Geosciences Union.

We’d ask you to write posts that relate directly to the Assembly during the conference in Vienna (12 – 17 April). The content of each blog on this list is the responsibility of the authors and is not sanctioned by the EGU, but we will make details of all the blogs on the General Assembly blogroll available online.

If you would like your blog to feature on our list, please submit your blog details to us.

In addition to the wealth of interesting new research that will be presented at the scientific sessions, the Media and Communications team have organised press conferences to highlight some of this research to the press and media participants at the conference. The press conference programme will be available a few weeks before the start of the General Assembly. Should you spot something there that might inspire you to blog, it might be useful to know that there are limited spots available upon request for scientists who are bloggers or science writers who may wish to attend press conferences. Please email EGU Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira at media@egu.eu before 10 April if you are interested.

With free (and open!) wireless internet and plugin points available throughout the building and great science throughout the week; we’ve got everything you need to get blogging! International plug adapters can even be borrowed from the Austria Center Information Desk!

GeoLog will also be updated regularly during the General Assembly, featuring posts about scientific sessions, conference highlights and interviews with scientists at the meeting. Please contact the Communications Officer, Laura Roberts Artal, for any questions you might have about the blogroll.

 

GeoEd: A risky business

In this month’s GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth explores the pitfalls of being a scientist in the public eye. Following the recent acquittal of 6 geoscientists on manslaughter charges after ‘failing’ to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, is it time we thought about improving how risk is communicated to the wider public?

At the beginning of November of this year, six Italian scientists were acquitted of manslaughter; an appeals court in L’Aquila (a medieval Italian city on the edge of the Aterno river) overturning the 2012 guilty verdicts that were originally cast against the researchers.

In their initial trial, the scientists were convicted of multiple manslaughter charges, by failing to predict the devastating earthquake, which struck at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009, and which was responsible for the deaths of 309 people. It has taken the past two years to acquit these six scientists, and the initial ramifications of the convictions were far reaching, with other researchers from across the globe wondering if a precedent had now been set, regarding liability for the conveyance of information.

Aerial view of the city of L'Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Aerial view of the city of L’Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Sadly, scientists are far from unaccustomed with judicial proceedings, from Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, to more recent examples of scientists being sued by a gym regarding injury rate statistics, or NASA being sued for trespassing on MARS. However, the recent allegations against the L’Aquila six (actually there were seven experts in total; more on this later), calls into question the fundamental belief system of accountability. If a building surveyor were to tell you that the foundations of your house were sound, yet you were later to find evidence of subsidence you would expect compensation from the surveyor. So why not also from the scientists, after all are they not too experts in their own field?

Well, for one thing, finding evidence for subsidence is far more of a precise art than trying to predict earthquakes. On the one hand you are looking for something that already exists, and on the other you are searching for something that may or may not be. In addition to this, surveyors are usually protected by professional indemnity insurance.

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the case of scientists communicating risk, is not being able to accurately predict an earthquake or a volcanic eruption really professional negligence, or is it simply to be expected given the impossibility of fully accurate predictions?

What is potentially worrying to scientists is that the line between professional negligence and unforeseen circumstance would appear to be very blurred indeed. Although, in some instances the distinction is far more clear-cut, for example the behaviour of the seventh member of the panel of experts in the L’Aquila case, Bernardo De Bernardinis. The then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency had, prior to the earthquake, advised locals to “sit back and enjoy a nice glass of Montepulciano” wine. Bernandinis was not acquitted, although his prison sentence was cut, from six to two years.

Although many might view Bernandinis as being guilty of nothing more than pompous over confidence, it is important to remember that as scientists we still have a role to inform the public as to the seriousness of any potential dangers, even if we are not ultimately to be held accountable for our inability to predict them. In other words, failing to predict a natural hazard (or other such incident) should not be seen as professional negligence, but failing to adequately inform the general public of the consequences of any potential threats, probably should be.

Of course, communicating risk goes well beyond natural disasters, and is something that many of us do when we talk about the effects of both current and predicted climate change. In these situations, scientists also regularly put themselves in the firing line, although this time often with regards to the media and pressure groups with an anti-climate change agenda.

One of the most well known examples of this was when a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) analyst made the following, frankly horrific statement, about Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann:

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Mann has subsequently sued the CEI, but such legal proceedings are both incredibly expensive and time consuming, and often represent a completely alien world to many scientists who are simply just doing their job.

In the US, scientists working for government or federal labs are now offered free legal counsel and support by the organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER). In addition to this, some scientific professions are now requiring their researchers to have professional indemnity insurance, for example in the UK, legislation was recently introduced that requires all health care scientists to have a professional indemnity arrangement in place, as a condition of their registration with the health & care professions council.

According to Jeff Ruch, the director of PEER, threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.” Whilst the work of PEER and their contemporaries is admirable, is this a position that scientists should ever be finding themselves in? And is there anything that they could be doing to avoid such potential pitfalls?

In some cases, these pitfalls could be avoided by a more careful consideration of how to communicate risk, by explaining to the general public that there are many uncertainties associated with the calculations and predictions that are being made. However, I think that this is something that many scientists are already reasonably adept at, and if scientists are guilty of anything it is sometimes of being overcautious with their predictions, or of waiting to comment until they are absolutely 99.9% sure (with the obligatory 0.1% margin of error).

Media and science communication training can help scientists prepare for how to deliver their research and advice in potentially alien and hostile arenas, but there will always be instances where people have a set agenda to follow at any cost.

There may well be a public perception that scientists failing to predict natural disasters, or underdetermining a certain problem, are like the proverbial bad workmen who blame their tools. However, in trying to communicate risk I think that it might well be a case of “don’t shoot the messenger,” even if it turns out that they have no message to convey.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

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