Planetary Radio • Aug 10, 2022

Comets Stink! The Chemical Zoo Found at Comet Chury

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On This Episode

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Nora Hänni

Chemist in the Physics Institute of the University of Bern, Department of Space Research and Planetary Sciences

Kathrin altwegg portrait

Kathrin Altwegg

Astrophysicist at the University of Bern and Principal Investigator of the ROSINA Instrument on Rosetta

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Susanne Wampfler

Astrophysicist and Deputy Director of the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern

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Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Scientists have used data collected by an exquisitely sensitive instrument on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe to find a stunning collection of complex organic molecules at the comet known as Chury. The findings are an important step toward understanding the origin of our solar system and life on Earth. Bruce Betts will continue the cometary commentary with this week’s Random Space Fact.

Comet Silhouette
Comet Silhouette ESA’s Rosetta mission accompanied comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in its orbit around the Sun from August 2014 until its landing on the comet in September 2016. The comet was most active just after perihelion in August and September 2015, its jets carrying streams of primordial dust into space.Image: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Jacint Roger Pérez/Emily Lakdawalla
Comet landscape: Seth region
Comet landscape: Seth region Rosetta took the photos for this view of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 September 2014, only one and a half months after the spacecraft had made its rendezvous with the comet. At the time, the spacecraft was 28.2 km from the comet center (around 26.2 km from the surface). In the center and left of the frame is Seth, one of the geological regions on the larger of the two comet lobes, which declines towards the smoother Hapi region on the comet’s ‘neck’ that connects the two lobes. The landscape in the background reveals hints of the Babi and Aker regions, both located on the large lobe of 67P/C-G. The sharp profile in the lower part of the image shows the Aswan cliff, a 134 m-high scarp separating the Seth and Hapi regions.Image: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; J. Roger – CC BY SA 4.0

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The Comet, by Christian Stangl "The Comet" is a short film created using images from the Rosetta spacecraft's mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.Video: Christian Stangl

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Mat Kaplan: Comets stink this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Matt Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond.

Mat Kaplan: Okay, we only know that one comet stinks, but that's probably because we haven't sniffed others. As the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe sniffed comet 67/P Churyumov Gerasimenko, hereafter referred to as Chury. To be precise it was an exquisitely precise instrument on Rosetta that did the smelling. Today we'll meet three members of the team that have spent years analyzing the data from that instrument called ROSINA to identify a surprisingly diverse collection of complex compounds. Their findings have just been published in Nature Communications. They may tell us something about the origin of our solar system and of life itself. Bruce Betts has also caught the scent. He'll add to the cometary commentary when we reach this week's What's Up segment. The August 5 edition of The Down Link, our free weekly newsletter celebrated the 10th anniversary of Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover on Mars. That nice selfie was taken last November. I was standing in a room with thousands of screaming fans when we got word a decade ago that she had safely touched down. That Planetfest celebration was one of the greatest days of my life.

Mat Kaplan: Curiosity is still rolling, still exploring, still doing great science. NASA and ESA chose this anniversary to announce that samples of Mars now being collected by Curiosity's sister Perseverance will reach Earth by 2033. You can read the details at As you may have heard from Casey Dreier during last week's Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition, our monthly companion podcast, the US Senate's 2023 NASA budget looks good for explorers like you and me. Among other things, it restores full funding for the NEO Surveyor mission. And the JWS team may have already broken its own record for detection of the oldest galaxy found so far, this one is 13 and a half billion light years from us. That's less than a quarter of a billion years after the big bang. Pausing for effect here.

Mat Kaplan: Nora Hänni is a chemist and post-doctoral researcher at the Physics Institute of the University of Bern in Switzerland. She is lead author of the Nature Communications paper, titled Identification and Characterization of a New Ensemble of Cometary Organic Molecules. Ensemble, that's putting it mildly as you'll hear Nora and her team have painstakingly identified more than 70 eye-raising compounds in the coma or atmosphere that surrounded Chury. The data came from that instrument called ROSINA more about it later, but joining our conversation a little late was its principal investigator, University of Bern professor Kathrin Altwegg is an astrophysicist and the former director of the university's Center for Space and Habitability or CSH. Professor Susanne Wampfler is another member of the team. Also an astrophysicist, Suzanne was just made interim director of the CSH. All three scientists joined me online a few hours ago.

Mat Kaplan: Nora and Susanne, thank you so much for joining me on Planetary Radio. I am thrilled to be able to talk to you about this paper that you and the rest of your team recently published in Nature Communications. So once again, welcome to Planetary Radio.

Nora Hänni: Thank you.

Susanne Wampfler: Well, thank you for having us.

Mat Kaplan: My pleasure, indeed. Nora, I'm going to start with you. Let's start by going back nearly 40 years and missions that set out for Comet Halley back in the mid 1980s, including the European Space Agency's Giotto spacecraft. Did that mission and the others, did they help sort of set the stage or prepare us for this more recent research based on the work by this instrument on the Rosetta spacecraft?

Nora Hänni: Yeah, I think very much so. This was actually the first time that fleet of spacecrafts was flying by a comet. And it uncovered basically that this coma, so the atmosphere of this comet, was much more complex than expected. So people were expecting water maybe and CO2, but apparently especially the mass spectrometers on board, they would detect also more complex species, so heavier ones. Unfortunately, there was not the resolution. So these instruments did not have the resolution to unambiguously characterize what actually is the chemical composition of this coma. So this is where everything started. And now with Rosetta, as you said, 40 years later there actually was the opportunity to go back and send a high-resolution instrument that could do the job eventually and really characterize from a chemical perspective what this coma, and also the dust, so all the cometary matter is made of.

Mat Kaplan: And we'll go into a good deal of detail about how this work was accomplished by Rosetta and specifically the instrument called ROSINA. We were hoping to include your colleague at the University of Bern, Kathrin Altwegg, but unfortunately she is somewhere up in the Alps, I assume on holiday. And her bandwidth is just not adequate to be able to join us. So, Kathrin, we're sorry that you aren't able to be part of the conversation, but she is the principal investigator for ROSINA, which is ... This is a mouthful, Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis Doubled Focusing Mass Spectrometer. Thank goodness we can just say ROSINA. Tell us how ROSINA is able to do a much better job of telling us what it's finding at a comet than could be done 40 years ago by those missions to Comet Halley?

Nora Hänni: This instrument was the first high resolution mass spectrometer that was on a spacecraft and to a comet. Before mass spectrometers to used to have more or less unit resolution. So this means actually that it's not possible to distinguish between, say, a pure hydrocarbon species that has the same mass as species with hydrocarbons, but also other atoms in it. This improvement actually made it possible to now separate all these different species and know the composition of the matter that is in this coma far more accurately. This mass spectrometer actually sniffs more or less this cometary gas that is sublimating when the comet gets closer to the Sun. So the icy volatiles of the comet, they start to sublimate. This ROSINA instrument on the orbiter, which was in orbit around the comet for two years.

Nora Hänni: So this is also a very different and new thing that actually was made possible by this Rosetta mission. That the evolution of a comet when it approaches the Sun passes its closest point and then goes back out into the far solar system. So how this changes and how it changes while the comet rotates. So this was really the first time that it was possible to really study this in great and unprecedented detail.

Mat Kaplan: My understanding is that even with this enormously more powerful instrument, ROSINA, there was still an enormous amount of work that had to go into sort of teasing out the signatures of all these individual chemicals that the team was able to identify. Susanne, I see you nodding your head.

Susanne Wampfler: I have not done any of the data analysis because I'm not an expert on mass spectrometry, but as Nora mentioned, the peaks are often overlapping. They're not totally overlapping so that you cannot distinguish between the peaks, but the shoulders are often still overlapping. One has to go through great detail of calibrating first, the mass scale, and then also disentangling the different peaks to really go into detail of species that are not as abundant. So the abundant ones have big peaks and they're relatively easy to figure out. But then as soon as you are interested in more complex, less abundant species, you have to sort of first remove the contribution from the more abundant ones. And then you can sort of go to smaller and smaller peaks.

Nora Hänni: So the inherent problem with mass spectrometry is that the molecules, the parent molecules, that come from the comet, they break up. Or they may break up while they are being ionized in the instrument and then transferred through the instrument and collected on the detector. And this is why a lot of calibration work is actually needed. So we have to know the fragmentation patterns. We can extract some of the information from databases, like from the National Institute for Standards and Technology. But on the other hand, not all data is there.

Nora Hänni: So there are molecules that may not be so stable so people did not produce reference spectra in the labs already. Actually many people have been working in the past 10 to 15 years to generate such calibration data and prepare the fundament necessary then to look at this complex sum spectra that we get from a comet where many molecules contribute and they're fragments. So we had to, we could build on this fundament and try to disentangle these sum spectra.

Nora Hänni: And this is actually what we have been doing for this paper. Now for the first time we took a data set from a time when the comet was close to the Sun. So there was a lot of sublimation going on. Also, this would drag dust from the cometary surface to leave the come and heat up while this dust was on the outbound trajectory, so away from the comet. So these small particles then could heat up to temperatures that were way beyond those they usually experience on the cometary surface. So this actually led to sublimation of also more complex species. This was favorable conditions to actually go into greater details and take the opportunity to really see if there was heavy species too. There was, quite many. So it took us maybe a year, really, of data analysis and putting things together. But eventually it was possible to find a likely solution. So a likely disentanglement and identifying many individual molecules that contributed to this coma, to this atmosphere at that very moment. So when the comet was close to the Sun and the conditions were dusty.

Mat Kaplan: Quite a feat of detective work.

Nora Hänni: Very much so.

Mat Kaplan: Well, it certainly helps explain why it has taken a good deal of time to be able to make this happen. It looks like Kathrin is trying to rejoin us. Dr. Altwegg, can you hear?

Kathrin Altwegg: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

Mat Kaplan: Yes. I'm glad you were able to drop in. Good. We just got a great explanation from Nora of how difficult it was to tease out these chemical compounds from the data that your instrument, ROSINA. You must be very pleased with the performance of this instrument.

Kathrin Altwegg: Yes, I am. Was very pleased all along since we got the first data, it's really behaving beautifully. I'm really grateful for all the engineers who worked on it.

Mat Kaplan: And for a mission that ended six years ago to see such a rich data and conclusions still being delivered by this spacecraft. Because, of course, it was 2016 when it was intentionally crashed into the comet. It truly is a great testament to the value of doing this kind of planetary science. I want to talk a little bit more about what was actually found. Nora, I'll start with you again. Do you have an idea? I mean, have you actually counted how many separate chemical compounds have been detected? I mean identified as part of this work?

Nora Hänni: Yeah, I think Kathrin is the more adequate person to respond here because she has been there from the beginning. And I think I will just pass this question to her for now.

Mat Kaplan: Go for it, Kathrin.

Kathrin Altwegg: I actually lost count by now, but at one time I had 72 compounds. Probably there are more now because we are still finding new compounds all the time. So I have to recount that one time. Yes.

Mat Kaplan: So out of that more than 72 now, I'll be unfair here and ask you to play favorites. Would any of you like to talk about any of the specific compounds? I mean, there were some mentioned in the media release, the press release that I got, which were quite interesting. And some of them maybe familiar at least in terms of their characteristics to we mere earthlings.

Kathrin Altwegg: Well, it started out with the smell of the comet. First it stunk. By now, it smells a little bit better, but still quite a weird mixture of compounds if you could smell it.

Mat Kaplan: I was going to ask you if we brought the comet down to earth slowly, I hope, what would it smell like? I mean, I guess it would be kind of a pretty rich assortment of aromas, right?

Kathrin Altwegg: One of our colleagues made this mixture once, not with all compounds, but with the most smelly ones and I can tell you, it smells horrible.

Susanne Wampfler: We kept those carts in the Institute in a box. And we would bring them out for outreach purposes and people like the office mates were complaining about the smell of those carts. So we had to buy plastic bags to put them in because it really smells pretty bad, mostly like sulfur type of compound. So like eggs that have gone bad and horse stables, something like that were sort of the more dominant smells.

Mat Kaplan: What is the chemical that gives mothballs their characteristic smell?

Kathrin Altwegg: Napthalene.

Mat Kaplan: Napthalene.

Kathrin Altwegg: Napthalene. Yes. Taurine compound, so that was our first taurine compound.

Mat Kaplan: I've heard it described as a chemical zoo. I tend to think of it more as a menagerie. Does that fit your thinking about this? And, and were you surprised to find such a vast assortment of chemical compounds?

Kathrin Altwegg: Yes, we certainly were. The zoo was my idea because I'm not the chemist. I think Nora can remember all the structures and compounds. I cannot, that's why I had to associate the compounds to animals. I can remember animals, that's much easier. It's really surprising because comets are so primitive, pristine, that you think they would contain very small molecules like water and CO2, but not much else. So the surprise was quite big.

Mat Kaplan: Susanna, let me ask you there, there is a phrase used, "shared pre-stellar history," and it seems to establish a connection between what has been found in Comet Chury and what we are finding elsewhere around the solar system, like in the rings of Saturn. Am I on the right track there?

Susanne Wampfler: Yes, indeed. That's one of the main conclusions from this work, essentially that all these reservoirs seem to have similar organic compounds. Some of them are actually the same as what we find in interstellar environments, meaning other regions where stars are forming or where stars might be forming. And so that's why we think that it points towards a sort of common origin of this material. Maybe even from pre-solar times, meaning that a part of the material may have been inherited from the phases before the Sun started to form.

Mat Kaplan: We're talking about four and a half, at least four and a half, billion years ago.

Susanne Wampfler: Indeed.

Mat Kaplan: Isn't this one of ... I mean, there are several holy grails in astrophysics understanding the origin of our solar system, but this is one of them, right? I mean, determining what was around as the Sun and the worlds that we know today started to form. Doesn't it also give us a clue as to ... Or take us a little bit closer to understanding how life may have originated here on earth, and we don't know yet, perhaps elsewhere in the solar system?

Susanne Wampfler: Yes. This is obviously one of the big questions, where the ingredients for life came from. And sort of what levels of molecular complexity were reached in different stages of star formation, whether already in sort of ... We refer to it as the pre-stellar core phase. So when there's just a condensation in a molecular cloud, but not an actual star yet. There seem to be more and more indications that some complex molecules are already formed at that stage. And so that some of it, the material may actually be older than we think.

Susanne Wampfler: There was also a paper, a different paper, that looked at the ratio of the deuterium to hydrogen and whether that could originate in a protoplanetary disc or whether that would also be sort of from pre-solar times. And they concluded that maybe about 50% of the water actually predates the formation of the solar system. And maybe this is now an indication that also some of the organic material may be older than we think.

Mat Kaplan: Absolutely fascinating to imagine that much of the water in our solar system actually existing before there was a solar system here. Nora, as the lead for this paper, for these findings, can you give me an idea of where you hope to go from here?

Nora Hänni: Well, I feel the more we go into the details, the more we dig in these data, the more interesting leads we find that seem worth pursuing in the next few years. On the one hand, this work now gave us an idea. It sort of demonstrated that it's possible to really disentangle specific data species that include oxygen atoms or sulfur atoms. And for those it's more complex to actually disentangle full data sets because certain things are not unambiguous anymore, not even for a spectrometer like the ROSINA instrument. And these are also actually interesting regarding the origin of life. So because some species that are thought to be important during the synthesis of biomolecules like sugar or amino acids, they include exactly these heteroatoms. So this is certainly one thing we would like to look at.

Nora Hänni: But also regarding comparative work, we found in the framework of this past work now published in Nature Communications that also a Cassini instrument ... So the INMS instrument onboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft which had unit resolution actually came to very similar results. So they also looked at what is the organic fraction of the inflowing materials, so the material that is flowing in from Saturn's rings into the upper atmosphere of Saturn, what is the organics composed there? And we found that it's pretty similar to our cometary organic material as we see it with ROSINA-DFMS. There could be a lot of comparative work done, and this is actually what I'm planning to do at some point to really try to figure out what and if we can learn something from the higher resolution cometary data if we compare to the lower resolution Cassini data because certainly it's not only about that. The solar system, so how does solar system evolve, but also how did Saturn evolve? This question is still not fully clear.

Nora Hänni: So there is one hypothesis that the ring system of Saturn, for instance, it evolved while a comet was captured and then sort of fragmented. So this is one hypothesis, or if the rings could be older and formed during the formation of the solar system. And maybe if we can figure out details there, extract more information, then maybe we can support or favor one or the other hypothesis.

Nora Hänni: This is very fascinating to me, basically, what can you do with cometary data if you compare it to others, compare it to, as we did, to meteorites, compare it to other solar system bodies? And I think really this high resolution mass spectrometric data is really unique. I mean, there is no other such data there and there won't be such data in the next few tens of years to come.

Mat Kaplan: Sadly. Kathrin, as the principal investigator for the ROSINA instrument, can you now imagine an instrument that would be even more powerful, be able to tell us more as Nora seems to be hinting at?

Kathrin Altwegg: Comet mission you mean?

Mat Kaplan: Yes.

Kathrin Altwegg: My preferred cometary mission would be landing on a comet having at least an instrument as good as DFMS because we should actually study the compounds at the comet and then drill. Drill into the interior of the comet and see what we find. Because we see only the gas, which comes out. The real heavy molecules, they probably want to sublimate. A land that could really drill and look at the interior of the comet, then I expect even more complex molecules, yes.

Mat Kaplan: And sadly, there is no mission like that planned right now, but let's hope that somebody comes up with that as a concept.

Kathrin Altwegg: You know, Rosetta, that's 40 years. So in another 40 years, we talk again.

Mat Kaplan: Yes. We often say on this program, that anybody who wants to do exploration of this solar system, especially the outer reaches of the solar system, has to be very patient. It is playing the long game. Susanna. I want to come back to you as we get toward the end of our conversation here, because you are now, I learned just before our conversation, the interim director of the Center for Space and Habitability, which Kathrin used to lead. I'd love to hear a little bit more about what the CSH is all about, what the mission is at the University of Bern?

Susanne Wampfler: The Center for Space and Habitability, CSH, is a center of excellence from the University of Bern. The mission is essentially to do interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research at the sort of boundaries of different research fields. So we have researchers, a lot of researchers, working on sort of topics around exoplanets, but then also other things. Like me, for instance, I'm an astrochemist, but then we also have people working in geosciences, and we even have a philosopher of science, and we have collaborations with medicine and so on.

Susanne Wampfler: So the idea is really that we leverage the potential of interdisciplinary research. For instance, in using similar methods in other fields, there have been collaborations now, for instance, with people working on data for COVID infections. There are people who use, for instance, polymetric techniques that are used in astronomy for detection of cancer cells in brain tumors and things like that. And so the idea is really to sort of use this, the power of interdisciplinary research, essentially, to drive new things and new, in the end, innovations in a way that may be useful for different fields, not just astrophysics.

Mat Kaplan: That is another regular theme expressed on this program, the interdisciplinary nature of planetary science. Kathrin is the former director of the CSH. If you would you like to add anything?

Kathrin Altwegg: No, I think Susan was very precise in what the CSH has to do. One other point maybe is that we also have to do public outreach. So we work with schools. We have a telescope on the Gornergrat, that's high up in the Alps at 3,000 meters. That's a robotic telescope just for schools to interest young people for astronomy, astrophysics, and science in general. We also have a lot of visits from kids, but also give a lot of talks to the public.

Mat Kaplan: As you are doing right now.

Kathrin Altwegg: Exactly.

Mat Kaplan: This is exactly certainly a form of outreach that we greatly appreciate. Let me just ask one other question and bring up the University of Bern, very distinguished legacy in planetary science, space exploration. I did not know that Buzz Aldrin, when he and Neil Armstrong arrived [inaudible 00:27:48] in 1969 set up an experiment from the University of Bern even before they put up the America flag, which I have to think was probably a high priority. And that this was a project to catch particles of the solar wind. I just read this morning, before we began this conversation, about a proposal for an improved exoplanet detection technology called Project RACE-GO just got a two and a half million Euro grant. So congratulations to your colleague, Jonas Kühn, for that. It sounds like you are part of a very, very busy university.

Kathrin Altwegg: Yeah, it has a very long tradition. It really started out with Apollo, or even before we were launching instruments on rockets. Then we had Apollo. That was the idea of professor Johannes Geiss. And since then we have worked on many, many missions. I think we were part of most of the important missions and this goes on. You know, you need a good network, partners, from all over the world. We collaborated a lot with Americans also in ROSINA. A big part of the FMS is from the US and with this network, we really have a very good collaboration.

Mat Kaplan: Very, very impressive. It is certainly something to be proud of, this affiliation with the university. But also I hope that you're taking great pride in this work, Nora, that you led, which has identified this chemical zoo at Comet Chury. I look forward to hearing about the work as it continues, as you continue to delve into the composition of our solar system and the bodies that make it up. And maybe, let's hope, take us closer to understanding how we got here as well, the origin of life in our solar system. Thank you all three of you.

Susanne Wampfler: Thank you.

Nora Hänni: Thank you for invitation and this nice talk.

Mat Kaplan: I enjoyed it as well. University of Bern researchers, Kathrin Altwegg, Nora Hänni, and Susanne Wampfler are members of the team that continues to tease out the most amazing molecules from the gas surrounding Comet Chury. Bruce will join me right after this special message from John de Lancie. Many of you know him as Star Trek's Q.

John de Lancie: Star Trek has always represented the hope for a better future. I don't think you can have that without pushing boundaries. And in the case of space, that is all that we're doing is pushing those boundaries and finding out more, always finding out more. And I think it's really important as a human being, as a society, to be able to do something like that and this is where we do it. 200, 300 years ago, we did it on sailing ships across the ocean. Space is important to me because it's kind of a metaphor for risk taking, tremendous rewards, possible rewards, being more expansive in one's thinking and opening oneself up to the infinite possibilities. Probably the biggest thing that differentiates Star Trek from almost everything else is the community in which you enter. Well, The Planetary Society is that type of a community. If you share like me the need to expand into infinite possibilities, as my character does in Star Trek, and as I have said to Picard on more than one occasion, then certainly joining The Planetary Society is a good way to go. Join The Planetary Society.

Mat Kaplan: It is time for what's up on Planetary Radio. Here's the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, the program manager for LightSail as well. And I don't know, he has several other jobs. I've seen him cleaning up the office as well. It's Bruce Betts.

Bruce Betts: People have seen that a lot less than they wish, but mostly I just clutter my own office. How are you doing, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: I'm doing well. I continue to get these lovely messages from, well, you folks out there about my plans. Remember, I still have three and a half months before the big change here, before someone else takes this chair.

Bruce Betts: The big change, hmm. We're sad. Let's move out of that and talk happy. Happy night sky, I got a ton of stuff in the night sky. We don't have time to talk about your unfortunateness. August 11th, 12th, the moon is near Saturn. Saturn's rising in the east and the moon is nearby, but let's move forward. Jupiter also ... I'm sorry. I'm so excited to go ... Let me not get ahead of myself. We've got Saturn rising the early evening, a couple hours later, Jupiter. Hey, I saw Jupiter. It turns out it is still very, very bright over in the east, in the evening sky. Mars coming up in the middle of the night, looking reddish. Venus, getting tougher and tougher to see, but super bright low in the east in the pre-dawn.

Bruce Betts: August 12th, 13th, there's a full moon, which normally I wouldn't bother to mention. But it's also a super moon, which frankly I probably wouldn't mention, but it's at a closer part of its elliptical orbit than usual when it's full. So it's all bigger and brighter, which is kind of drag. It's great if you study the moon. It's terrible if you study anything else in the sky, including August 12th, 13th, the Perseid meteor shower peaks. I don't know that you notice that's the same exact night that the full moon occurs.

Bruce Betts: So the moonlight will wash out the dimmer meteors, but you'll still be able to see bright ones, particularly from a dark site. Perseids are usually the second best per year, 60 to a hundred meteors from a dark site. Again, we're going to lose a lot of those through the full moon. You'll lose more in light pollution, but hey, worse that happens is you go stare at the sky and you don't see a bunch of meteors, but maybe you will. So it's also a broad peak, so a few days before, a few days after you can still check out increased meteors.

Bruce Betts: I feel obligated to mention on Saturn's behalf, it is in opposition on August 14th, opposite side of the earth from the sun. It'll rise around sunset, set around sunrise as things will do when they're at opposition. And the moon's near Jupiter on the 14th and 15th, and then that's good enough. Okay, it's exciting. Stare at sky. Do it.

Bruce Betts: Okay, onto this week in space history, we had a couple very significant launches of spacecraft that are still working. 2005, 2005, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter still taking the highest resolution images of the surface and doing a mineralogy and all sorts of good stuff. Parker Solar Probe launched four years ago now, and it continues to move, gradually move, in its orbit and get closer and closer to the Sun.

Mat Kaplan: MRO, please, please keep working.

Bruce Betts: And with that plea, we move on Random Space Fact.

Mat Kaplan: Don't be sad. It's not gone yet.

Bruce Betts: It was about you, man. You're not gone yet. I know, I got it.

Mat Kaplan: MRO and me, man.

Bruce Betts: Our contest will be more of the similarities between Matt and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I don't have an answer to that, so that's not actually the contest. Let me get to the Random Space Fact. 24 regions on the surface of Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko are named after Egyptian gods, deities, and the like. Actually got a continuation of the Egyptian theme used in the Rosetta, Rosetta Stone, and Philae, the lander, a obelisk that been used similar to the Rosetta Stone to do translation of hieroglyphs. And then they decided to break the surface into 24 different regions named after Egyptian deities and the like.

Mat Kaplan: Well, that was appropriate considering we just talked to three scientists about the amazing chemical zoo as they called it, they found on Comet Chury 67/P. So thank you for that.

Bruce Betts: You're welcome. I'm sorry, it wasn't truly random as things are not. I knew that was happening. They may have even mentioned them for all I know. So I'll give you a bonus detail, which is Maat is one of the regions. It's also the highest volcano on Venus. Wow, totally unrelated. All right, I asked you what locations on the JPL main campus are on the list of National Historic Landmarks. How'd we do, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: I'm going to let the poet laureate answer this, that's Dave Fairchild in Kansas, our poet laureate. I'm afraid it has to be sung to the tune of the Beverly Hillbilly's theme.

Bruce Betts: So, oh my gosh. I'm so looking forward to this.

Mat Kaplan: You ready?

Bruce Betts: Yeah.

Mat Kaplan: The 25-Foot Simulator, Space is in the name, is one of two historic landmarks JPL can claim. Space Flight Operations is the other, you can see, so have a heaping helping of this cool facility.

Bruce Betts: Space that is, planetary science.

Mat Kaplan: Mars Yards.

Bruce Betts: Wow. That was brilliant.

Mat Kaplan: More important, was he right?

Bruce Betts: I don't know. I was trying to keep from laughing too hard to even know, but I'm pretty sure. Yes. I heard Space Flight Operations facility, 25-Foot Space Simulator. Those are the two facilities. One is the ... Well, you'll probably tell us more. Why don't you tell us more and I'll fill in the details?

Mat Kaplan: I don't know much more, except that I think Cory Schroyer is going to be very happy. Cory Schroyer in Missouri, a first-time winner for us. He said, "Yeah, the Space Flight Operations Command facility, Building 230, and the Space Simulator Facility at Building 150." He added though, "I guess it's worth mentioning the JPO built the Pioneer Station antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex." But since it's not at the JPL location in the Arroyo in Pasadena, or actually near Pasadena as you'll hear, it is not part of this week's answer or is it?

Bruce Betts: Nope, it's actually got other things that muddle it anyway, but that's why I was very specific of JPL main campus because you know, people think I'm sneaky. I was trying to be up front in a sneaky kind of way.

Mat Kaplan: Cory, our winner, congratulations. Cory, you're getting a copy of The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars, a very impressive book. And it's by Simon Morden, Dr. Simon Morden, planetary scientist out of Pegasus Books. Timothy Myers, who's another citizen of California. He says that both of these things, the whole JPL headquarters, not actually in Pasadena. Well, that's why I always say near Pasadena because, Bruce, it is really where?

Bruce Betts: Bermuda.

Mat Kaplan: No, close.

Bruce Betts: La Cañada Flintridge.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you.

Bruce Betts: It's complicated. They've been fighting over it for a long time. Uses a Pasadena address, nonetheless, as its main address. But yeah, it's confusing.

Mat Kaplan: Kent Merley in Washington. He wanted to add Building 167. The cafe there known for their two egg BLTs held together with a Mars Rover antenna. I don't think that's real.

Bruce Betts: Its just while they had spare parts, once they used them up ...

Mat Kaplan: I want one of those BLTs, I guess.

Bruce Betts: Well, now I do. Thank you very much. Let me just quickly fill in the Space Flight Operations facility is ... Basically, it's Mission Control for all the planetary robotics spacecraft flown by the US. So that's quite historical and the 25-Foot Space Simulator, which isn't in metric, but we're going to move past that. It was the first large thermal vacuum chamber where you could do testing of a whole assembled spacecraft that was built in the US. Others were built, of course, afterwards at various places.

Mat Kaplan: Wonderful. Thank you. I think we're ready to go on.

Bruce Betts: Here's your question. What spacecraft first lifted off the surface of another world beyond Earth? Go to contest.

Mat Kaplan: Wow. My brain, the wheels are turning, but I probably should just pay attention and tell people that you have until the 17th. That's August 17th at 8:00 AM Pacific Time to get us this answer. Here's the prize. This is terrific. We had another copy of Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey Into Space. Yuri Gagarin, of course. It's by Steven Walker, and it is published by HarperCollins or their imprint that is simply Harper that started in 1817. That's what the logo says. Anyway, it is quite a book. It is lavishly illustrated and no less than Yuri deserved. That's it. Good luck, everybody.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody go out there, look up in the night sky, and think about Mat dressed up as Jed from the Beverly Hillbillies. Oh, Buddy Ebsen. I don't know, I think you could do it. Thank you and good night.

Mat Kaplan: You know Buddy Ebsen? I knew him.

Bruce Betts: Dude, you're awesome. You knew Barnaby Jones?

Mat Kaplan: Actually was at his house a couple of times in Newport Beach.

Bruce Betts: What?

Mat Kaplan: Yes. And I interviewed him once for my college radio show. Yeah, his wife at the time, Nancy Ebsen, had a community theater group and I was tricked into being a couple of her productions. Actually, yeah, was a couple of times at the house and Buddy was puttering around. And he was still wearing that floppy hat. No, no, he actually wasn't.

Bruce Betts: Well, you've just gone up in my sense of esteem. I mean, I didn't think it could get any higher, but wow.

Mat Kaplan: And that's Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society who joins us every week here for What's Up? Ye dogs, Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. And it's made possible by its comet sniffing members, let that rich aroma lead you to Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.