There is a St. Louis-area connection to the mission that recently landed a spacecraft on a comet for the first time.
Paul Friz is wrapping up an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
His interest in space started as a teenager looking at the stars at his family’s home in Creve Coeur, Missouri.
When he was 14, Friz saved money from a summer of mowing lawns to buy his first telescope.
Now, armed with degrees from Truman State University in Kirksville and the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Friz has spent the past few weeks as the assistant to the Rosetta project manager.
“I do whatever he tells me to do.”
Friz is being modest.
He is part of the Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter, or MIRO, science team. The microwave antenna measures the comet’s temperature and gas emissions.
Specifically, he is looking for carbon monoxide or methanol signals from the massive comet.
“It’s emitting about a glassful of material every second,” said Friz.
“If you spread that out over the entire surface of the comet and look for a few tiny molecules that are giving off a microwave signal that we pick up with our antenna, that’s what I’m doing.”
The mission centers on the Rosetta space probe.
It was launched in March 2004 by the European Space Agency to study comets and their relationship the origins of the Solar System.
After a decade-long journey, the orbiter arrived at its destination this year - comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
Last month, the spacecraft placed its Philae lander on the surface of the comet. It is the first time a mission has recorded such an accomplishment.
The research mission is slated to wrap up in about a year.
Friz also has a role in educating what could become the next generation of NASA engineers.
He ran a 10-week, high school outreach program for about 60 students.
“I challenged them to make a lander, similar to the Philae lander that just landed on the comet,” said Friz.
“They would launch their lander from about two stories and hit a target that was about 33 feet away.”
The lander had to stay intact when it hit the ground and then had to do something robotic.
The results ranged from taking the temperature and displaying it on an LCD screen, to a rover that can be driven remotely and take images wirelessly.
“I was really impressed with that group. They really exceeded my expectations there.”
He believes it’s vital to move beyond classroom theory to help generate more interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, careers among today’s youth.
“A better way to teach high school students would be to have them construct something that they are actually trying to launch and hit a target,” said Friz.
“That way they see the application of the projectile motion equations and they understand exactly the significance of the angle at which they launch it and the speed at which they launch it.”
Friz is also continuing his education.
In January, he will start pursing pursuing a PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, while doing research at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia.
After completing the PhD, Friz is hoping to stick with NASA and its continuing missions to explore the Solar System.
He is hoping cuts to the space program do not affect what he considers to be the next big thing in space research – the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would put humans on an asteroid for the first time.
“They are going to send out a robotic spacecraft and grab hold of an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the moon.”
Astronauts would then perform research on the surface of the asteroid.
“It seems to me like the most exciting mission since we sent astronauts to the moon. That’s why I want to work on it.”