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Comet ISON Hosted A Rare Kind Of Nitrogen, Hinting At Reservoirs In Young Solar System

Spectacular photo of Comet ISON taken Nov. 15 from Charleston, Rhode Island, USA showing the recent outburst. Click to enlarge. Credit: Scott MacNeill

Photo of Comet ISON taken Nov. 15 from Charleston, Rhode Island. Credit: Scott MacNeill

Comet ISON — that bright comet last year that broke up around Thanksgiving weekend — included two forms of nitrogen in its icy body, according to newly released observations from the Subaru Telescope.

Of the two types found, the discovery of isotope 15NH2 was the first time it’s ever been seen in a comet. Further, the observations from the Japanese team of astronomers show “there were two distinct reservoirs of nitrogen [in] the massive, dense cloud … from which our Solar System may have formed and evolved,” stated the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Besides being pretty objects to look at, comets are considered valuable astronomical objects because they’re a sort of time capsule of conditions early in the universe. The “fresh” comets are believed to come from a vast area of icy bodies called the Oort Cloud, a spot that has been relatively untouched since the solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Spying elements inside of comets can give clues as to what was present in our neighborhood when the sun and planets were just coming to be.

“Ammonia (NH3) is a particularly important molecule, because it is the most abundant nitrogen-bearing volatile (a substance that vaporizes) in cometary ice and one of the simplest molecules in an amino group (–NH2) closely related to life. This means that these different forms of nitrogen could link the components of interstellar space to life on Earth as we know it,” NAOJ stated.

You can read more details about the finding at the NAOJ website, or in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • jsbrooks February 21, 2014, 8:49 PM

    I find every astronomical premise that resorts to a belief in a big bang, or some other origin myth, deeply flawed; so this article and many other articles on astronomical topics lose my attention when they resort to such origin myths. The formation processes that made the asteroids, comets, earth, the sun, the rest of the solar system, galaxy and physical universe are on-going, and continuous. Thus, postulating that comets and asteroids are all a left over “time capsule of conditions early in the universe,” is absurd.

  • Stuart21 February 21, 2014, 9:18 PM

    Sorry JS, scientists go with the evidence. & when the evidence contradicts the theory, you modify it till it does or discard it & find a new one.

    What is the evidence for your ‘astronomical premise’? How do you reconcile red shift?

  • InTheory February 22, 2014, 2:12 AM

    It’s a shame that creationists can’t appreciate the grandeur of creation when it’s dropped in their laps. Retreating into bronze age mythology when new discoveries are made is not a healthy way of coping with reality.

    • mewo February 22, 2014, 5:35 AM

      I think JS is pushing the eternal universe hypothesis, not creationism. Under most versions of this world view, matter is continually coming into existence at a constant rate that exactly balances the recession of the galaxies; in order that the density of the universe stays the same. New galaxies form between the old ones from the newly created gas. In this way you can postulate a universe that has existed forever, had no beginning, and has always been the same overall.

      This world view is demonstrably wrong, for many reasons. The most obvious is that the galaxies at high redshift are quite obviously different in morphology, star formation rates and chemical composition than the ones in the nearby universe.

      But even if we accept the eternal universe idea for the sake of argument, JS’s objection still doesn’t make a lot of sense. Because even if the universe overall is eternal and unchanging, individual galaxies, stars and solar systems are not. It would still make sense to talk about the early days of our Solar System.

      • InTheory February 22, 2014, 2:34 PM

        I don’t think so. The equivalence made between the birth of the universe and the birth of the solar system convinces me otherwise. An eternal universe hypothesis would not need a Big Bang but would have no problem with the formation of a solar system.

        Even so, I believe eternal universe hypothesis is just another name for the tattered remnants of the Steady State Theory which breathed its last upon the discovery of he Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and the final nail in the coffin was the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating.

        I’m sure there are a few holdouts, but they’re fading into a vociferous background that contains believers in the aether, a geocentric universe and a hollow or even flat earth. Great fodder for YouTube but unworthy of a place on a science based site like this as anything more than a footnote.

        • mewo February 23, 2014, 2:16 AM

          Yes, “Steady State” is what I meant, but I for some reason I couldn’t remember the name. Thanks.

      • Jean R. February 23, 2014, 1:30 PM

        [S]hame that creationists can’t appreciate the grandeur of creation…” Quite the contrary: More than Evolutionist, those who prism “grandeur of creation” through a Maker, can have a GREATER appreciation of its splendor. (For reasons I will spare you.)

        – “Retreating into bronze age mythology”? Time-worn MISstatement. Try, Bronze & Iron Age revelation – and History. For which Archeology gives supporting witness (to BOTH aspects), refuting what is often MIScharacterized as “mythology”. Rocks of time do not spin myths of line (though features therewith imprint) – but weight of objective testimony from unearthed evidence (when allowed to speak).

        Dawn of Western Man, Science awakened from Dark Age span, seemed to cope quite well in morning light, when, from Book’s accessible pages, to Science lens and Technology’s forge, freed for unfettered flight. Britain and America, from family hearth’s open door, rose to Global Commonwealth and Great Nation heights, from foundational principles of bedrock Book (Queen Victoria recognized its World-importance for Empire Britannia). Evils were brought to heel, scourges subjugated, under its inspiration (Slavery’s broken bonds, f.g. – origin of “Amazing Grace”, the hymnal song).

        A very “healthy way of coping with reality”, I’d say, for yesterday – and today.

        – As for hypothetical concept of “Steady State” Universe, illumination-points of Science, not groundless opinion of bias, shelved that secular concept.

        21st Century spectra from Cosmic Dawn, beautifully verify one “Bronze Age” statement old:
        “In the beginning…”

        • InTheory February 24, 2014, 3:01 AM

          > Jean R. February 23, 2014 at 1:30 PM [S]hame that
          > creationists can’t appreciate the grandeur of creation…”
          > Quite the contrary: More than Evolutionist, those who prism
          > “grandeur of creation” through a Maker, can have a GREATER
          > appreciation of its splendor. (For reasons I will spare
          > you.)

          Thanks, I have a bible here and I’ve read it.

          > – “Retreating into bronze age mythology”? Time-worn
          > MISstatement. Try, Bronze & Iron Age revelation – and
          > History. For which Archeology gives supporting witness (to
          > BOTH aspects), refuting what is often MIScharacterized as
          > “mythology”. Rocks of time do not spin myths of line (though
          > features therewith imprint) – but weight of objective
          > testimony from unearthed evidence (when allowed to speak).

          One man’s myth is another man’s religion is another man’s belly laugh.

          No traces of a world engulfing flood were found, however many prior religions (mostly developed in flood prone regions) have similar flood myths. Some are believed to be the inspiration for the bible’s flood story.

          > Dawn of Western Man, Science awakened from Dark Age span,
          > seemed to cope quite well in morning light, when, from
          > Book’s accessible pages, to Science lens and Technology’s
          > forge, freed for unfettered flight. Britain and America,
          > from family hearth’s open door, rose to Global Commonwealth
          > and Great Nation heights, from foundational principles of
          > bedrock Book (Queen Victoria recognized its World-importance
          > for Empire Britannia). Evils were brought to heel, scourges
          > subjugated, under its inspiration (Slavery’s broken bonds,
          > f.g. – origin of “Amazing Grace”, the hymnal song).
          >
          > A very “healthy way of coping with reality”, I’d say, for
          > yesterday – and today.

          If you study discoveries made back then, you’ll see that they were made in spite of religion, not because of it. (See Galileo’s punishments as just one example.) And if you want to throw slavery into the mix, there were just as many people using the bible to promote it as to promote its abolition.

          > – As for hypothetical concept of “Steady State” Universe,
          > illumination-points of Science, not groundless opinion of
          > bias, shelved that secular concept.

          Defunct theory. Twice, once by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson who detected the Cosmic Microwave Radiation in 1964 which was predicted by the Big Bang Theory in the 40s, and in the 90s by the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

          > 21st Century spectra from Cosmic Dawn, beautifully verify
          > one “Bronze Age” statement old: “In the beginning…”

          Cosmic Dawn (Imaged by Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope) is about 13 billion years ago and 13 billion lightyears away. Not exactly supportive of the young earth/universe theology. Fascinating area to study early galactic and stellar evolution.

          Just look at the fact that the universe is expanding and cooling, run that backwards and what do you see? A universe contracting and heating. What conclusion do you come up with? Magic and miracles or the laws of physics in action?

          Why would a god need to tinker and interfere whith an elegant process that did every thing on it’s own without someone constantly fiddling with it? God wasn’t smart enough to get it right the first time?

          • Jean R. February 24, 2014, 11:06 PM

            Greetings.

            Read the Bible? Then no stranger to its pages. Understanding themes, not so easy.

            – “One man’s myth is another man’s religion is another man’s belly laugh.” <– One man's scope, filters another man's lens (or something like that).

            “No traces of a world engulfing flood were found” <– That's debatable. Evidence dramatic of massive Martian floods, episodes past, surface-recorded, seen from above. Examine Earthly satellite vistas, hydrology-sculpted terrain, similar in watermark scale. No, that does not, as line of evidence, prove there was a Global Flood here below. But raises tide-marks of interest, Comparative Planetology trace.

            Flood Stories: “…many prior religions (mostly developed in flood prone regions) have similar flood myths.” <– Borrowed myth spun from fiction? It seems not to occur to those who this assert, truth may float in current of reverse: common sea-bed experience, memory's universal imprint. From catastrophe's wake, point of migration receded, outflow ripples of memory, generations saturated, ancient-world overspread. Lasting myths can hold buried seeds of hidden reality.

            From haze of distance, common waters drawn, depth of shared experience, flood-stories told. Memory followed waves of humanity, land populating flows of family.

            – Religion vs. Science: “If you study discoveries made back then, you’ll see that they were made in spite of religion, not because of it.” <– True enough in Dark Age context. I did write “Book's accessible pages”, ignorance unbound, superstition unchained, translations OPENed.

            – Regarding Slavery: If men used Scripture to promote brutal subjugation of fellow man, then they were NOT true to its teachings in hand. Those who sought to live them, where instrumental in abolishing that (England and America)! Lincoln, a man of the Book; saner abolitionists, Judeo-Christian values stood.

            – Cosmic Dawn, “13 billion years”, journey of light: “Not exactly supportive of the young earth/universe theology.” <– A “theology” that saddens me. Discredits otherwise admirable instruction in Science, “Creationist” works embedded. A concept NOT all subscribe to: Ancient Universe, and Old-PLANET, are Scripture-supportable. ….

            “Fascinating area to study early galactic and stellar evolution.” <– Translate “evolution” as development (key word relating to “tinkering…fiddling” line below), and I agree.

            “Just look at the fact that the universe is expanding and cooling, run that backwards and what do you see? A universe contracting and heating. What conclusion do you come up with? Magic and miracles or the laws of physics in action?” <– What do I see in that film? One worldview conclusion – origin inexplicable (conjecture spins threads of thought). Whence volume of Spacetime “inflated” (inconceivable orders of magnitudes “exploded”), laws of Physics entwined, expanded Energy-Matter matrix sublime. Incomprehensible fusion of Space-Time! An Event that appears, well – supernatural! Yet, Science-impressed. From that break of morning, I see a Blacksmith's dynamic Forge: Heat of fire in “metal”-work, sparks emerged glow, forms of creation being made, stages of hammered purpose forged, on anvil cold: energy's matter cast in early Space.

            – The “the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe” (21st Century Science) is not unbiblical. Though termed in “Bronze Age” poetic expression, not cold-technical Space-Age equation.

            Electromagnetic-Spectrum illuminates evidence of “beginning”: Big Bang background radiation? Afterglow imprint of Creation? (As in so many fields of science, strip-away worldview speak, and labels, and hard data lies unchanged: or can it transform in new light, loosed from constricting frame?) Light streams fact, but how read lines? Bands carry knowledge, but how interpret meanings?

            – “Why would a god need to tinker and interfere with an elegant process that did every thing on it’s own without someone constantly fiddling with it? God wasn’t smart enough to get it right the first time?” <– Though not sure of reading, I perceive assumption. Partly addressed: “development” building-process. Uncertain inventor tinkers; master engineer erects (land-anchor foundations to suspension-bridge towers).

            Elegant symmetry, exquisite beauty, compositional harmony, orchestral symphony: something more shines, from glowing data streams of time. – Regards.

  • ethanol February 22, 2014, 2:47 PM

    The press release itself could have been more clear, but just to clarify, 15NH2 is not an isotope. It is a functional group containing the isotope 15N /chemicalpedantmode

    • InTheory February 23, 2014, 12:04 AM

      I agree, the author was referring to Amine made with a rare but stable isotope of Nitrogen and the article could have been more clear on that, at least used superscript and subscript to write the formula, but surprisingly this site doesn’t seem to support superscript.

  • Richard Kirk February 23, 2014, 4:38 AM

    I just looked up Nitrogen Isotopes on Wikipaedia, to see how much there is, and what it’s half-life was. It is stable and is about 0.3% of terrestrial nitrogen.

    And…

    The ratio of 15N/14N in an organism can give clues about its diet, as movement up the food chain tends to concentrate the 15N isotope, by 3–4‰ with each step of the food chain.

    Eeeep! Comet ISON is an apex predator!

    ;)

    • InTheory February 24, 2014, 3:19 AM

      Interestingly, I used to work in a lab that used carbon and hydrogen isotope ratios to determine the level of adulteration of Cinnamomum cassia oil (an ingredient of Coke and other food flavors). The major constituent was cinnamic aldehyde which thanks to nuclear testing would show great differences in isotope ratios depending on whether the cinnamic aldehyde was naturally produced by the plant or synthetically produced in a plant.

  • Aqua4U February 24, 2014, 11:21 AM

    Well then, Comet ISON wasn’t a total dud… we DID get some science out of it! (And a little dust?) Live and learn!

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