The Science of Sustainability

"Looking Up" – studying comets with the JUNO mission

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David Huppert from QUEST North Carolina also contributed to this story.

Herbert Mehnert a Cline Scholar at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute spent his summer researching Comet Photometry and Morphology. Herbert was introduced to PARI by one of his college professors and jumped at the opportunity to work at the former NASA research institute.

"People don't look up anymore," explains Herbert Mehnert.

Herbert spent the summer of 2011 working at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute as a Cline Scholar student comet photometry and morphology.

"I think it's partially because the exposure to space and astronomy is much less than it used to be, with government programs being cut and all. When you take someone out here to a dark sky sight and tell them you can see the milky way, they get excited."

When Herbert was introduced to PARI by his college professor, Don Smith, who took them on a field trip to the remote research institute in Rosman, NC, Herbert was excited to know there was a community and research institute full of people interested in the same topics as him, particularly optical astronomy.

Herbert studies Comet Photometry and Morphology. Comet Photometry uses telescopes and cameras to measure the brightness of a comet, which provides scientists with information about its surface, craters, pits, valleys and mountains. The brightness of comets are more difficult to map than stars because the data involves using the nuclear condensation, surrounding cloud or coma and one or more tails extending outward from the comet. Comet Morphology studies the projected velocity and direction of a comet, based on its orbit, trail and size.

What's the difference between a comet and a meteorite? A comet is a structure composed of ice, dust, and elements such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane, that orbits around the sun. As it comes close to the sun, the nucleus begins to melt and turn into gas, forming a coma, or cloud. The radiation from the sun pushes this cloud away from the center of the comet, forming a dust tail. The most famous comet, comet Halley, travels around the sun every 76 years, and will reappear in the year 2062. Meteorites on the other hand are solid rock formations found in space. When meteorites enter the earth's atmosphere they heat up and turn into a fire, and appear as a shooting star.

Visit the PARI Sky center for more information and up-to-date celestial news. Also recommended are NASA's page on comets or the Comet Photometry website.

Category: Astronomy, Chemistry

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Colleen Vasu

About the Author ()

Colleen Vasu joined UNC-TV as the Web Editor/Social Media Producer in early 2011. She develops photography, audio, video and other multimedia content for the UNC-TV website and is responsible for the station's social media promotions. Prior to joining UNC-TV, Colleen produced segments and multimedia for "The Story" on WUNC. Born and bred in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and a UNC-CH photojournalism grad, Colleen considers herself a Tar Heel tried and true.