The Catholic University of America

Oct. 14, 2008

CUA Physicist and Other Scientists Awarded $203,640 to Study Comets

Boncho Bonev, Catholic University research assistant professor of physics at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Erika Gibb, assistant professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Missouri - St. Louis, have been awarded a $203,640 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the composition and origin of comets.

The grant, which started in September, will cover three years of research by Bonev and Gibb, who will study the composition of comets, using one of the twin 10-meter telescopes in the W.M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

As part of the project, Bonev and Gibb will work with several scientists from the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Goddard Center for Astrobiology as well as a Rowan University professor.

Bonev, who is also a member of CUA's Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences, notes that astronomers regard comets as fossils from the early solar system. Their composition preserves a record from the times before and during the formation of planets more than four billion years ago.

When a comet approaches the inner solar system, heat from the Sun causes various molecules to be released from the ices contained in its nucleus - a fragile conglomerate of ice and dust with irregular shape, typically a few miles in size. These molecules of water, methane, acetylene, formaldehyde, alcohols, etc., can be revealed through spectroscopy, a method that identifies different molecules from the radiation they emit in space.

The scientific team will conduct several measurements that are thought to serve as "thermometers" for the conditions in the early solar system, Bonev says. One such thermometer is the ratio of deuterium (also known as heavy hydrogen) to normal hydrogen in molecules like water and methane.

Comparison of the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio in cometary water to that found in the Earth's oceans would provide a valuable test for the widely-debated hypothesis of the cometary origin of the terrestrial biosphere, Bonev says. According to this hypothesis, the water contained in the Earth's oceans and most carbon contained in organic matter on Earth were delivered by intense cometary bombardment within roughly the first billion years of the planet's history, he adds.

As part of the project, Bonev and Gibb also will collaborate with Thomas Long, professor of education at Catholic University, to design a 40-hour workshop course to promote comet science and its related fundamental fields (astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology) among secondary-school teachers in the Washington, D.C., area.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in CUA's Office of Public Affairs, at 202-319-5600.