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

This mosaic comprises four individual images taken from from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 17 November 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"

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.