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Inquiring Minds

Inquiring Minds - Ice Lab

Matt Bovyn, left, NAU physics major and NASA Spacegrant intern, Stephen Tegler, center, professor of physics and astronomy and Will Grundy an astronomer from Lowell Observatory work with the ice chamber in the lab.

By Bonnie Stevens

Flagstaff, AZ – There are only a handful of ice labs in the entire world and one of them is on the NAU campus. It's the closest astronomers like Stephen Tegler may ever get to the outer reaches of the solar system.

This is Inquiring Minds. . .insights from the campus of Northern Arizona University.

Astronomer Stephen Tegler is growing ice crystals in a ice garden of sorts. At 390 degrees below zero, this may well be one of the coldest places on Earth. And the closest place on Earth to the icy surface of Eris. . .a massive, gassy object way beyond Pluto in the Kuiper belt.

Eris is the largest known dwarf (or minor) planet. Fittingly named after the Greek goddess of discord and strife, Eris has been stirring up trouble. She was responsible for bumping Pluto out of major planetary status.

Ever since her discovery in 2003, Tegler and a team of researchers have been curious about the surface of this planet that never fully formed. So in his the frozen environment of the NAU ice lab, he's grown ice samples - mostly out of methane and nitrogen.

By examining what happens to light when it passes through ice crystals, Tegler says scientists can chart the chemical fingerprints of molecules and atoms. They can keep mixing the percentages of the gases until, like a detective at a crime scene, they can match the fingerprints with those reflected in the sunlight from the surface of Eris itself.

Scientists believe 90 percent of the surface is methane ice, a lot like Pluto. Replicating this atmosphere is quite a feat -- Eris is about 95 times farther from the sun than we are.

Tegler's ice crystals may be just the tip of the iceberg leading to a greater understanding of how planets are formed.