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Greek scientist leads a space mission

18 February 2011 / 15:02:41  GRReporter
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On the Valentine's Day eve 340 million kilometers above our heads a historic meeting happened between the NASA’ Stardust space station and the comet Tempel 1 which is in the shape of a potato and is half as large as Manhattan.
"The brain" in charge of the entire operation is a Greek scientist named Thanassis Ikonomou, reported Vima newspaper. The spacecraft have been prepared to go only 200 km away from the comet and to study it. This is the second comet caught by the lens of Stardust since 1999 when it was launched.
The space station visited closely the comet Wild 2 in 2004, and managed to collect dust cells which were sent in a metal capsule back to earth two years later to be analyzed by scientists. They tried to draw conclusions for the initial stages of formation of the solar system, studying the primary dust of comets and asteroids that come from the beginning of the creation of the Sun and the planets.

Now Stardust is preparing to finish its second mission assigned by NASA and to approach the comet Tempel 1 which was first approached by NASA’s space ship Deep Impact in 2005. An explosion was caused in the comet when the ship fired a shell of aluminum and copper weighing 370 kg. It created a crater in order more material to be collected, but failed to shoot it because of the huge dust cloud that formed.

This time Stardust hoped to have better luck and take photographs of a high analysis of the crater, if it turned out that it was at the right side of the comet. The idea was to measure the size and composition of the dust cells and the scientists wanted to see whether the comet had shifted from its orbit around the sun which it made for about 5 years and a half. There is no second metal capsule on the spacecraft to collect dust and send it back to earth, so it will make only pictures and measurements. Besides, its fuel is almost over and probably it will not be able to take another mission in the future.

But after the meeting between the comet and the spacecraft, instead of enjoying scientists were wondering why they had not received most of the images. Stardust approached the comet at a distance of 180 km late on Monday and managed to make dozens of images. NASA wanted to impress the audience by showing the images in reverse chronological order, but the first image presented the comet as a dot. "We can not understand yet why it didn’t happen the way we expected it," said Chris Jones - deputy director of the NASA Laboratory, managing the mission.

But inspired by the event itself and the celebration of Valentine’s Day, a love couple working together in the team announced they were engaged. During his presentation, Steve Chesley of NASA added another PowerPoint slide saying "Will you marry me?" The question was addressed to Jana Pitichova from the University of Hawaii who jumped into the arms of his beloved. The astrologer gave her a ring bought from the jeweler's company named Stardust.

The main machine that scientists have used and is located at Stardust is a device for collecting data and measuring the flow of dust from comet cells. The apparatus was designed by Henry Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago under the guidance of Thanasis Ikonomou. The Greek scientist together with his team has undertaken to compare the data for Tempel 1 with those sent by Deep Impact years ago. Ikonomou was the "brain" behind the first mission of Stardust to approach the comet Wild 2.

Thanassis Ikonomou was born in 1937 in the village of Zyakas in the mountain area Gravena. He left Greece in 1948 along with other children during the civil war in the country. He studied nuclear physics at Charles University in Prague and at the beginning of his career he worked in Czechoslovakia. He left to USA after 1964 and worked as a researcher at the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research at the University of Chicago. From 1997 until today he is the chief researcher at the Henry Farms Institute.  

Ikonomou specialized in the creation of spacecraft even in the 1960s by working with his early mentor and a chemistry professor Anthony Turkevich. The Greek scientist is the designer of the sets (Alpha Proton X-Ray Spectrometer) for the Mars Pathfinder probe which successfully made the first chemical analysis of rocks on Mars. Besides the Stardust mission, Ikonomou cooperates with NASA for the missions to probe-study Mars, and the mission of the ship Cassini on Saturn. He works for the establishment of an observatory in Orliaka near the Greek town of Grevena where are his roots. The project for the creation of an observatory in Orilaka is implemented in cooperation with the University of Thessaloniki and is expected to change the image of Gravena and to highlight the city on the world map. Professor Ikonomou himself gave the name of Orliaka to an area on the planet of Mars, because he had spent his childhood years in the "earth" Orliaka.

Tags: NewsSpaceScientistSpacecraftCometValentine's Day
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