Thursday, November 5, 2015

Discovery of Oxygen at a Comet an Excellent Result, Says ESA Scientist Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist. Credit: ESA

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft made the headlines last week when it discovered oxygen molecules outgassing from the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This surprising finding could help us understand the evolution process of the universe. “This detection is yet another excellent Rosetta result in terms of solar system evolution! Yes, it’s great that we have to re-think how things were at the beginning, or before the beginning,” Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist, told astrowatch.net.

Prior to the last week’s findings, molecular oxygen (O2), despite its detection on other icy bodies such as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, has remained undetected in cometary comas. It was hard to track it down, even in star-forming clouds, because it is highly reactive and readily breaks apart to bind with other atoms and molecules.

Analyzing more than 3,000 samples collected around the comet, the research team determined an abundance of 1 to 10 percent relative to H2O, with an average value of 3.8 percent - higher than predicted.

“The value is a few percent of water,” Taylor noted.

The scientists that made the detection suggests that primordial O2 was incorporated into the nucleus during the comet’s formation, which is unexpected given the low upper limits from remote sensing observations. They note that current solar system formation models do not predict conditions that would allow this to occur.

Comets contain complex organic molecules - the elements which make up nucleic acids and amino acids, the essential ingredients for life as we know it. They are considered the primitive building blocks of the solar system, and likely helped ‘seed’ the Earth with water, and maybe even life. Rosetta may help us to find the answers about the origin of life and about the history of our solar system. 

“That is one of the key goals of Rosetta - looking at the origins of comets and hence the solar system,” Taylor said.

Since August 2015, the Rosetta spacecraft has been moving away from the Sun with the comet and will continue collecting scientific data with its 11 instruments for another year, until late September 2016. The mission will end possibly by attempting to land the spacecraft on the comet's surface.

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