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Why comets appear black? Indian-led scientists’ group finally finds answer

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Dr. Chaitanya Giri, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research
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Bengaluru: A study by an international team from Europe and the US led by an Indian planetary scientist has resolved one of the mysteries that baffled astronomers.

Astronomical studies have shown that several small bodies – Centaurs and Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) – in the outer solar system are having surfaces that are extremely dark but the origin of this color had remained unclear.

Centaurs estimated to number around 44,000 are minor planets with diameters larger than one kilometer. And TNOs are similar objects at a distance farther than Neptune, the most distant planet in the solar system.

Now, in a report published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, Dr. Chaitanya Giri, who led the research from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, and co-workers claim to have found why these objects appear dark.

They say they have obtained experimental evidence that the darkness of these objects is due to presence on their surfaces of highly ‘carbonized’ organic material analogous to ‘Titan tholin’ — a substance first synthesized in the late 1970s in the laboratory of Carl Sagan and another Indian scientist Bishun Khare at Cornell University to simulate the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon ‘Titan’.

“We investigated the chemical structure and composition of ‘Titan tholin’ using multiple analytical techniques such as laser desorption, mass spectrometry, Raman spectroscopy, and field-emission scanning electron microscopy,” Giri told IANS in an email.

“The investigation led to the discovery of novel graphitic structural components within the larger macromolecular structure of Titan tholin,” he said.

“Like the dark appearance of coal, our research indicates that the graphite within the Titan tholin-like material on Centaurs and TNOs contributes to their extreme darkness.”

According to Giri, since Centaurs and TNOs are progenitors of comets, “the darkness of the comet’s surface can also be attributed to similar material.”

For instance comet “67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko”, which was visited by Europe’s Rosetta space mission in 2014, “was extremely dark,” said Giri, who was a co-investigator on the mission.

Giri, who is currently with Japan’s Earth Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, says the findings of this research will have far-reaching implications.

“For astronomers and planetary scientists, the prospect of complex organic material present on several objects in our Solar System is striking,” he said.

Astronomers might further use “Titan tholin” to study the surfaces of exoplanets (that are planets beyond our solar system) and planetary scientists could probe into the role of tholin-like material in shaping up organic-rich atmosphere and geology of several solar system objects.

“Chemists could further explore the exotic conformations in which ultra-complex organics exist in the universe and biologists would further probe whether such organics play any role in the origin of life on Earth,” he added.

Giri noted that in the past few years, interest in the small Solar System bodies had been on an ascent.

“Besides Europe’s Rosetta mission, NASA’s Dawn mission to dwarf planet Ceres and the New Horizons mission to dwarf planet Pluto all have given us glimpses to our yet unexplored and enormously diverse Solar System.”

Giri said the “Titan tholin” for his study was synthesized at the NASA Ames Research Center while chemical investigations were carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and at the Universities of Maryland (US), Nice (France), and Goettingen (Germany). (IANS)(Photo: chaitanyagiri.com)

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Number of Students Opting for Science or Tech Are On Rise in India

India leads the world in the number of students getting bachelors degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

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Sydney-based University of New South Wales (UNSW) has instituted 61 scholarships to attract
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India leads the world in the number of students getting bachelors degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Of about 5 million students who received their bachelor’s degrees in 2012 in STEM subjects worldwide, 29.2 per cent were from India, UNCTAD’s Technology and Innovation Report 2018 released on Tuesday said.

China came next with 26 per cent of the STEM graduates. The EU accounted for 9.5 per cent of STEM graduates that year and the US for 6 per cent, the report said.

The report used statistics from 2012 and said the total number of bachelors-equivalent degrees awarded that year was 20 million.

The wide gulf in the numbers of students graduating in STEM explains why the US relies on such a large number of foreigners, especially Indians, to fill its technology workforce needs.

“Many countries are witnessing skills shortages in the fields of digital technologies and many employers report difficulties in filling high-skill vacancies,” UNCTAD said, citing a 2016 worldwide survey by ManpowerGroup on talent shortage that found that 40 per cent of employers reported difficulties in filling positions.

So, if your child is preparing for IIT-JEE or NEET from any of the reputed centres like Aakash Institute, as a parent, it's your responsibility to help your child find the right study time
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According to India’s University Grants Commission, 10.7 million students were studying science, engineering/technology or computer science in 2016-17, although it did not give a breakdown between undergraduate and postgraduate levels or by year of study.

They made up 36 per cent of those studying in universities and colleges, UGC statistics showed.

Looking to the future, UNCTAD cautioned that “there were indications that educational institutions were not keeping pace with technological advances during the current transition period”.

It urged educational institutions to “react with agility” to the rapid pace of technology and the labour market changes and said this may require “significant transformations” in the education and training systems.

With the widespread use of artificial intelligence and robots looming on the horizon, the report said that “rapid technological progress required the labour force to develop a broader range of skills, focusing on humans’ comparative advantage, to increase employability”.

Also Read: India-Trained ‘Wrongly Educated’ Monks Banned by China

UNCTAD called for broadbasing education and said: “In the new technological landscape, there is a need for generic, core or fundamental skills such as literacy, numeracy and academic skills, together with basic financial and entrepreneurial skills and increasingly, basic digital and even coding skills.” (IANS)