Nav: Home

Does the organic material of comets predate our solar system?

September 06, 2017

The ESA's Rosetta mission, which ended in September 2016, found that organic matter made up 40% (by mass) of the nucleus of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a.k.a. Chury. Organic compounds, combining carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, are building blocks of life on Earth. Yet, according to Jean-Loup Bertaux and Rosine Lallement--from the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (CNRS / UPMC / Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines) and the Galaxies, Étoiles, Physique et Instrumentation department of the Paris Observatory (Observatoire de Paris / CNRS / Université Paris Diderot), respectively--these organic molecules were produced in interstellar space, well before the formation of the Solar System. Bertaux and Lallement further assert that astronomers are already familiar with much of this matter.

For 70 years, scientists have known that analysis of stellar spectra indicates unknown absorptions, throughout interstellar space, at specific wavelengths called the diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs). DIBs are attributed to complex organic molecules that US astrophysicist Theodore Snow believes may constitute the largest known reservoir of organic matter in the Universe. This interstellar organic material is usually found in the same proportions. However, very dense clouds of matter like presolar nebulae are exceptions. In the middle of these nebulae, where matter is even denser, DIB absorptions plateau or even drop. This is because the organic molecules responsible for DIBs clump together there. The clumped matter absorbs less radiation than when it floated freely in space.

Such primitive nebulae end up contracting to form a solar system like our own, with planets . . . and comets. The Rosetta mission taught us that comet nuclei form by gentle accretion of grains progressively greater in size. First, small particles stick together into larger grains. These in turn combine into larger chunks, and so on, until they form a comet nucleus a few kilometers wide.

Thus, the organic molecules that formerly populated the primitive nebulae--and that are responsible for DIBs--were probably not destroyed, but instead incorporated into the grains making up cometary nuclei. And there they have remained for 4.6 billion years. A sample-return mission would allow laboratory analysis of cometary organic material and finally reveal the identity of the mysterious interstellar matter underlying observed absorption lines in stellar spectra.

If cometary organic molecules were indeed produced in interstellar space--and if they played a role in the emergence of life on our planet, as scientists believe today--might they not also have seeded life on many other planets of our galaxy?
-end-


CNRS

Related Solar System Articles:

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system
Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high.
What a dying star's ashes tell us about the birth of our solar system
A UA-led team of researchers discovered a dust grain forged in a stellar explosion before our solar system was born.
What scientists found after sifting through dust in the solar system
Two recent studies report discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system: a dust ring at Mercury's orbit, and a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with Venus, supplying the dust in Venus' orbit.
Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed
A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our solar system.
Discovery of the first body in the Solar System with an extrasolar origin
Asteroid 2015 BZ509 is the very first object in the Solar System shown to have an extrasolar origin.
First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system
A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our solar system.
A star disturbed the comets of the solar system in prehistory
About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids.
Scientists detect comets outside our solar system
Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets -- comets outside our solar system -- orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.
Does the organic material of comets predate our solar system?
The Rosetta space probe discovered a large amount of organic material in the nucleus of comet 'Chury.' In an article published by MNRAS on Aug.
Tracking a solar eruption through the solar system
Ten spacecraft, from ESA's Venus Express to NASA's Voyager-2, felt the effect of a solar eruption as it washed through the solar system while three other satellites watched, providing a unique perspective on this space weather event.
More Solar System News and Solar System Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.