Astrophysicist Scott Sandford Discusses Stardust Preliminary Findings (Segment 3)

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Astrophysicist Scott Sandford Discusses Stardust Preliminary Findings (Segment 3)
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(Segment 3/Music begins)

Jesse Carpenter: Welcome to Part 3 of our podcast interview with Scott Sandford from the NASA Ames Research Center.

Tell us why you’re so focused on the organics found in the sample return.

Scott Sandford: Well, one of the reasons why we want to know about the organics in comets and why we think they might have a role to play in the origin of life is because we know from meteorites, which contain organics, that some of these organics are biologically interesting. They were probably made abiologically -- life didn’t make them -- but they contain components like amino acids and a class of compounds called amphiphiles which, if you dunk them in water, will spontaneously form little membrane structures and so on.

There are organics present in meteorites that actually look like they could play functional roles in getting life started. And we can recreate those same kinds of compounds in the laboratory if we do things like blast cometary analogue ices with radiation. So there’s some reason to believe that comets might in fact contain these same kinds of compounds, and so one of the things we want to do is look for these: do comets contain these biologically interesting compounds that could have played specific roles in getting life started?

Now, we haven’t quite answered those questions yet but we do know the organics are there and we now these new organics at least are consistent with the kinds of stuff we make when we irradiate the ices. So it may well be that future studies will demonstrate that these things are present, and that’s pretty exciting. I’m looking forward to delving into that one!

Jesse Carpenter: Scott, what future do you envision for the study of the sample return from the Stardust mission?

Scott Sandford: One of the things that’s exciting about a sample return is that I can’t even tell you now what we’re going to learn from this sample. Its value -- I can give you a lower limit to its value because I’ve already gained value from it scientifically, but I don’t know what’s coming next. You know, the fact of the matter is some of the techniques that we used in the preliminary examination to study this sample did not exist when -- or were certainly not well-calibrated -- when we launched the spacecraft.

So I can’t even tell you ten years from now what people will want to do with these samples. There will be analytical techniques available that I don’t even know about, haven’t even thought about. And so the things we can learn from these samples in the future -- who knows? I mean we can learn things to answer questions that we haven’t even known we can pose yet, to some extent. And so the fact that we’ve learned so much already just tells me that this is going to be great. We’re going to learn even more as time goes on. And, you know, after I’ve retired and I’m you know being pushed around in a wheelchair people will still be learning stuff from this sample. And hopefully I’ll still be able to read the results, you know, so I’ll learn more and more about comets as time goes on.

But I can’t predict for you right now everything we’re going to learn from this sample, because we’ll be learning stuff from this sample in the year 2030.

Jesse Carpenter: In closing, do you have any reflections that you’d like to share with us about your experience with this project overall?

Scott Sandford: Yeah, I have to say I consider myself to be a really fortunate person. I mean, it’s been a lot of work to do this mission and a lot of work by a lot of people -- not just me. But it has been a tremendous amount of fun to work with all these people. You know, there’s a real marching army that you have to get together and move in the same direction to get a mission to go. But the thought that we could launch a spacecraft, go all the way out to this comet, capture samples -- even though they’re moving at, you know, twenty times the speed of sound or whatever, relative to us -- bring them back to Earth, pry them out and study them is just amazing -- you know, to think that I’ve held a piece of a comet.

And I was on the recovery team so I was one of the folks who went out to Utah to collect it. And most of the time I was too busy to be very self-introspective about what was going on. We had a lot of things to do and we had to get them done right. But in the brief pauses, I have to admit to being sort of flabbergasted to think that here I am, participating with a group of people and in a larger organization that has done something sort of unique in the history of humankind, and that is to get a solid sample from outside the Earth/Moon system and bring it back to the Earth.

And so I think one thing that shouldn’t be totally lost sight of – I’m in this for the science but in fact this activity, like many NASA activities, involves a bit of history as well. And I think people should keep that in mind. I feel very fortunate to be part of that and I also just want to acknowledge the fact that I was only a little part of that. I mean there were a lot of people working on this to make it work. And I enjoyed working with them, and you know I just can’t wait to get onto the next sample return mission!

Jesse Carpenter: Thank you for joining us. I’m Jesse Carpenter and you’ve been listening to a podcast from the NASA Ames Research Center.

(Music out/End of Segment 3)
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