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Area scientists speak out on issues of cosmic importance

All of them work at respected Washington area institutions, and each of them has in recent weeks made a forceful statement on matters that are of interest far beyond local boundaries and assume cosmic significance.

The powerful assertions made recently by these scientists involve the presence of water in the atmospheres of remote planets, the fate of a widely followed comet and the birth of a new means of studying the far reaches of space.

In announcing the arrival of an additional means of probing the depths of the universe, Gregory Sullivan of the University of Maryland said, “The era of neutrino astronomy has begun.”

The statement was made as scientists announced findings made by a device embedded in Antarctic ice. The device was designed to detect the arrival from outer space of mysterious particles called neutrinos. The National Science Foundation characterized the findings as the first indication of high-energy neutrinos from outside the solar system.

These particles, which have almost no mass, fly toward the Earth at the speed of light.

Sullivan, a professor of physics, headed the team of specialists from Maryland who are taking part in the collaborative effort. Scientists from 12 nations built and operate the detector, known as IceCube. Made of a cubic kilometer of ice, it was intended to detect what had heretofore been all but undetectable.

Conventional telescopes gather light from far-off objects to provide information about the structure and behavior of the universe. But scientists think that neutrinos can provide their own information, as well as answer questions that are not easily addressed by optical telescopes.

“The sources of neutrinos, and the question of what could accelerate these particles, has been a mystery for more than 100 years. Now we have an instrument that can detect astrophysical neutrinos,” Sullivan said in a statement released by the university.

“It’s working beautifully,” he said in the statement, “and we expect it to run for another 20 years.”

Another statement, made this month by another College Park faculty member, touches on a finding about the characteristics of planets that circle suns other than our own. L. Drake Deming headed a study of the atmospheres of some of these planets. That study found something in those atmospheres that is similar to Earth’s atmosphere and congenial to life: “It is water,” Deming said.

That conclusion came from signals arriving from beyond the solar system. Signs of water have previously been seen on a few planets that far away. But these recent findings are said to be a step beyond in their detail and conclusiveness.

Evidence of the atmospheres of the remote planets is extremely difficult to gather. If signals are detected at all, they can be faint, degraded, ambiguous or otherwise uninformative.

But through work on the atmospheres of five far-off planets, described in recent issues of the Astrophysical Journal, Deming said “we were able to pull out a very clear signal and it is water.”

The lead author of one of the papers was Avi Mandell, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

“We’re very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets,” Mandell said. The technique involves watching the planets as they pass in front of their suns. Scientists study the light from those suns that shines through the planets’ atmospheres.

They compare that with the light that is seen directly through telescopes, and from that the scientists infer the nature of the gases in the planetary atmospheres.

Another Washington area scientist spoke forcefully this month about a matter far from our world but nevertheless in our solar system: comet ISON.

Many in the astronomical world watched eagerly as it neared the sun for an expected flyby on Thanksgiving.

“Comet ISON fell apart,” said Karl Battams of NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign, in comments quoted on a NASA Web site. “The fading remains are now invisible to the human eye.”

Battams, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory here, expanded on this on his blog.

“As we all know,” he said, “comet ISON is no more.”

“It clearly fell apart in the hours surrounding its close brush with the Sun,” Battams wrote on his blog. It became, he suggested, something as mundane and ephemeral as “a dusty cloud and some warm fuzzy memories.”

But he indicated that the comet was memorable.

In fact, he said, it has “ unquestionably been the most extraordinary comet” that he and probably many other followers of comets “have ever witnessed.”

“The universe is an amazing place,” he said, “and it has just amazed us again.”

He also addressed the cloud of debris left behind by the disintegration of ISON.

“Is Earth going to pass through ISON’s remains?” he asked, and would that be dangerous?

In a word, Battams said, writing in capital letters: “NO.”

He cited a variety of factors, including the sparseness of the dust particles in the vastness of space.

“We are safe,” he wrote. “ I promise! I just paid all my bills for the month.”


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