USask researcher and Nobel laureate Herzberg predicted source of comet’s green hue in 1939
“It’s important to pay attention to celestial events like this because they are often how we learn about our world,” said Dr. Daryl Janzen (PhD), an astronomy expert and instructor in the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics at USask’s College of Arts and Science. “Science itself was essentially invented because people noticed that the planets follow wandering paths through the stars and wanted to explain that.”
Janzen also co-ordinates public outreach activities for the USask Observatory, which is open for public viewing of celestial objects on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Like many other comets, Comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) gives off a distinct green colour from its bright head as it arcs across the sky. The puzzle of the exact cause of this green coloration has been solved in recent years, thanks in part to Herzberg.
Herzberg, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1971 and a groundbreaking researcher who conducted much of his foundational work at USask from 1935-1945, spent his career studying the structure and geometry of molecules using spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light and radiation by matter. His studies led to innovative understandings of how molecules and atoms function and interact, and formed the basis of many advancements in astronomy, health, chemistry, and physics.
Herzberg began studying the diatomic molecule, C2, as early as 1937 while he was at USask. C2 is formed because carbon (C) is a relatively unstable element and attempts to stabilize itself by bonding itself with a second carbon molecule. His work eventually evolved into an analysis of how C2 may be of interstellar importance. A prediction Herzberg made in analyzing the spectroscopy of C2 laid the foundations for our current understanding of why colours appear in comet comas—the cloud of dust and gas that surrounds a comet’s head.
According to work published in 1939 in The Astrophysical Journal, Herzberg speculated that the cause of a comet’s green hue could be due to sunlight causing C2 to reach a high level of vibration, which causes the two molecules to break their bond and disassociate. It was thought the ripping apart of these molecules released energy emitted as a green colour.
This prediction remained unconfirmed for almost a century due to the difficulty of testing such a scenario. In December 2021, a University of New South Wales team published a research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that tested Herzberg’s theory for the first time. Through a lab experiment, the research team showed that C2 molecules disassociate at high vibrational levels and cause a green light to emit from a comet’s coma. This discovery provided scientific proof of what Herzberg suspected back in 1939.
“Comet comas are typically green, and as Herzberg predicted, the colour comes from photo-dissociation of diatomic carbon, which is an abundant molecule in comets,” said Janzen. “This recent study confirmed that C2 has a lifetime of roughly two days until sunlight breaks the molecule apart and emits a green photon. It’s not just the colour, but this short timeframe that explains why the green light comes only from the coma and not the comet’s tail.”
Don’t Read Too Much into River Otters’ Return – Hakai Magazine
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Standing at the foot of a rocky sandstone cliff, biologist Michelle Wainstein inspected her essentials: latex gloves, two long cotton swabs, glass vials, and tubes filled with buffer solution. She placed them in a blue dry bag, rolled it up, and clipped it to a rope wrapped around her waist. It was late afternoon, and she was slick with dirt and sweat from navigating the dense terrain. Her destination lay across the frigid river: two small logs of otter fecal matter resting on a mossy boulder. In she plunged.
The river, the Green-Duwamish in Washington State, trickles out of the Cascade Range and empties 150 kilometers downstream into Puget Sound. The last eight kilometers of the run—known as the lower Duwamish—is so polluted the US Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site in 2001. For a century, Seattle’s aviation and manufacturing industries routinely dumped waste chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) into the water.
“A lot of the river is still really polluted,” says Jamie Hearn, the Superfund program manager at Duwamish River Community Coalition. “The mud is thick and black, and you can smell it.”
Despite the pollution, river otters are everywhere along the waterway, even in the most contaminated areas near the river’s mouth. “I would be walking the docks looking for scat,” remembers Wainstein, “and a couple of times we were lucky enough to see moms with their pups.”
For several weeks in the summer of 2016 and 2017, Wainstein surveyed otter poop she collected from a dozen sites along the river. Comparing contaminant concentrations in the otters’ poop between the river’s industrial and rural zones, Wainstein uncovered the lingering legacy of the region’s toxic past. The poop from otters in the lower Duwamish contained nearly 26 times more PCBs and 10 times more PAHs than poop from their cousins in cleaner water upstream. PCBs disrupt hormonal and neurological processes and affect reproduction in mammals. Both PCBs and PAHs are human carcinogens.
The discovery that otters along the lower Duwamish are living with such high levels of contamination upends a common narrative: that river otters’ return to a once-degraded landscape is a sign that nature is healing.
In Singapore, where smooth-coated otters have reappeared in canals and reservoirs, they have been embraced as new national mascots. “It plays into that rhetoric that government agencies want to project,” says environmental historian Ruizhi Choo, “that we’ve done such a good job that nature is coming back. That image of a city in nature is the new marketing branding.”
In Europe, the once-common Eurasian otter similarly began reappearing in the late 20th century following successful river cleanup campaigns. Conservationist Joe Gaydos at the SeaDoc Society thinks that this phenomenon has helped form the mental link between otters and ecosystem health.
“The number of animals is our first indicator,” Gaydos says. But few seem to ask the next question: are those animals healthy?
As Wainstein’s study suggests, perhaps not. The otters she analyzed in the lower Duwamish have some of the highest concentrations of PCBs and PAHs ever recorded in wild river otters. Previous research has found a correlation between PCB exposure and health risks in wild river otters, including increased bone pathologies, reproductive and immunological disorders, organ abnormalities, and hormonal changes.
Even so, the contamination is not manifesting in physically obvious ways. “They’re not washing up on shore with tumors all over their bodies,” Wainstein says, and neither is their population dwindling. “They’re not setting off this direct alarm with a big change in their ability to survive.”
The otters’ ability to bear such a heavy contaminant burden suggests that a population resurgence alone may not reflect the quality of an environment. They just become as toxic as the environments they inhabit.
However, their localized bathroom habits, mixed diet of fish, crustaceans, and mammals, and persistence in the face of pollution make them useful indicators of environmental contamination.
River otters have played this role before. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, river otters lingered in oil-drenched waterways, allowing scientists like Larry Duffy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to track the effectiveness of the oil cleanup. In 2014, scientists in Illinois discovered dieldrin in otter organ tissue even though the insecticide had already largely been banned for 30 years. In these cases, the collection of long-term pollution data was made possible by the creatures’ resilience in contaminated waterways. Wainstein wants to similarly use the Green-Duwamish River otters as biomonitors of the Superfund cleanup over the next decade.
Watching workers dismantle a portion of the river’s levied banks to make channels for salmon, Wainstein thinks about the seabirds, shorebirds, and small mammals, like beaver and mink, that were driven out by industrial contamination. She wonders if one day the rumbling machinery dredging up clawfuls of sediment from the riverbed will be taken over by the piercing cries of marbled murrelets, the croaks of tufted puffins, and the bubbling twittering of western snowy plovers.
“How long will it take? And will it actually work?” she says of the cleanup effort. The otters might hold the answer.
Planets align on March 28 – CTV News London
If you had your eyes to the sky Tuesday evening you may have noticed a special alignment.
Just after sunset, Jupiter and Mercury were close to the horizon, just above that was the brightest planet Venus, a dim, greenish looking star was Uranus and a reddish/orange looking star was Mars.
This information is according to Jan Cami, a Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Western University, and the Director of the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory.
There were some clouds on the western horizon so the planets may have been difficult to see from this region.
According to Cami, the alignment was visible because of the layout of our solar system.
“All planets orbit the Sun in approximately the same plane, so you could think of the solar system as a pancake with an egg yolk at the centre that represents the Sun perhaps. The Earth of course is in that pancake, so if we look at other planets, we are always looking in that plane of the pancake, which to us looks like a line in the sky,” she told CTV News.
While it would have been interesting to see, Cami said to see the five planets fairly close to each other in the sky, is actually not super rare.
“They happen every couple of years. In fact, last June there was an alignment where the planets were visible early in the morning, in order of increasing distance from the Sun. What changes is the position of the planets. Having all eight planets of the solar system align like this is much rarer.”
If you happened to catch the alignment on camera, send us your photos and videos to firstname.lastname@example.org
UBCO students look up—way up—to gather research data – UBC Okanagan News – University of British Columbia
When Lake Country’s Nolan Koblischke heard the American government was shooting down balloons suspected of spying, he was more than a little curious. The George Elliot Secondary graduate has sent one of those balloons into the atmosphere himself as a student at UBC Okanagan.
Atmospheric balloons are important tools for gathering information high above the earth in zones where people wouldn’t survive unless they wear pressurized suits. Most balloons collect climate data through radios, cameras and satellite navigation equipment—and are incapable of spying.
Koblischke, a fourth-year physics student, and Leonardo Caffarello are part of a UBCO physics and engineering team that launched a balloon to the stratosphere from a space centre in the Swedish Arctic last fall. The team, sponsored by School of Engineering Professor Jonathan Holzman, launched the balloon for a physics experiment to observe cosmic rays.
Koblischke said many people might be surprised at just how much you can learn from a balloon.
What are scientists learning from these atmospheric balloons?
These atmospheric balloons are a powerful and versatile tool for scientific research and exploration. Our balloon was launched in collaboration with Canadian and European agencies, so we were joined by other university and government agency teams from different countries.
Each team flying on the balloon had a different research objective and experiment. For instance, an Italian team was testing solar panels in the upper atmosphere to be used on satellites, a German space agency team was studying stratospheric chemistry and a Hungarian team was testing radiation sensors. We even saw an experiment to carry a telescope for atmosphere-free observations of space. Besides these applications, most balloons are used for weather purposes.
Is this the first time your project has left the ground?
No, the group was originally formed a few years ago by Caffarello and competed against other university teams in the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge. The UBCO student-led project was one of two experiments selected to fly onboard a high-altitude research balloon launched by the Canadian Space Agency in August 2019. The balloon was airborne at about 120,000 feet for 10 hours.
The project was working on a cosmic ray detection system and they were looking for different cosmic particles across the lower atmosphere. Caffarello has since graduated but led our team on the latest iteration of this experiment that took place in Sweden last fall.
Can you explain what you learned from the experiment last fall?
Our experiment was an innovative endeavour to detect cosmic rays in the stratosphere that Caffarello and I launched from the Esrange Space Center above the arctic circle in Sweden. We learned how to devise and construct an experiment that can withstand the severe conditions of near vacuum and extreme temperatures. We also gathered valuable data during the flight such as temperatures, pressure and images that proved that certain components of our experiment could work. Lastly, we realized that research requires perseverance and collaboration.
One of the most challenging moments was when we found an issue while preparing for the launch, a sudden failure during a pressure test. We worked until 4 am for three nights in a row, culminating in an all-nighter, to brainstorm solutions and design parts on the spot. Although we did not fully fix the problem, we remained resilient and worked diligently to resolve what we could and we were successfully approved for launch.
Cosmic rays sound dangerous
Cosmic rays can cause cancer by damaging DNA, but the chances are very small so you don’t need to lose sleep over it. Thankfully, our atmosphere blocks most of the highest energy cosmic rays, hence why we needed a balloon to get our experiment above much of the atmosphere, to try to detect more cosmic rays. You might have heard that you receive radiation when flying equivalent to a chest x-ray—cosmic rays are the reasons why.
What’s next for students at UBCO? Any more high-flying projects?
Yes, we have a student team called the UBCO StratoNeers who are currently participating in the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge. It’s the same competition Caffarello participated in back in 2019
The StratoNeers are testing hardware protective techniques to mitigate the occurrence of bit flips due to cosmic radiation in computer binary code. This experiment would provide new insights into protective techniques to safely store data onboard satellites, rovers and space telescopes.
Do you worry someone will shoot down your balloons?
We weren’t worried about our balloon being shot down. It did drift into Norway but thankfully the Norwegians didn’t mind.
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