≡ Menu

Some Of Comet ISON’s Organic Materials Arose In An Unexpected Place

While Comet ISON’s breakup around Thanksgiving last year disappointed many amateur observers, its flight through the inner solar system beforehand showed scientists something neat: it was carrying organic materials with it.

A group examined the molecules surrounding the comet in its coma (atmosphere) and, along with observations of Comet Lemmon, created a 3-D model that you can see above. Among other results, this revealed the presence of formaldehyde and HNC (hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon). The formaldehyde was expected, but the spot where HNC was found came as a surprise.

Scientists used to think that HNC is produced from the nucleus, but the research revealed that it actually happens when larger molecules or organic dust breaks down in the coma.

“Understanding organic dust is important, because such materials are more resistant to destruction during atmospheric entry, and some could have been delivered intact to early Earth, thereby fueling the emergence of life,” stated Michael Mumma, a co-author on the study who is director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology. “These observations open a new window on this poorly known component of cometary organics.”

Comet ISON was one of the two comets studied by scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The diagram shows where it was located in the solar system at the time of observations. 3-D images of its coma (atmosphere) revealed organic compounds. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA/ESA Hubble; M. Cordiner, NASA, et al.

Comet ISON was one of the two comets studied by scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The diagram shows where it was located in the solar system at the time of observations. 3-D images of its coma (atmosphere) revealed organic compounds. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA/ESA Hubble; M. Cordiner, NASA, et al.

Observation were made possible using the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The array of 66 radio telescopes in Chile allows astronomers to map molecules and peer past dust clouds in star systems under formation, among other things. ALMA was completed last year and is the largest telescope of its type in the world.

The array’s resolution allowed scientists to probe for these molecules in moderately bright comets, which is also new. Previously, these types of studies were limited to “blockbuster” visitors such as Comet Hale-Bopp in the 1990s, NASA sated.

The study, which was led by the Goddard Center for Astrobiology’s Martin Cordiner at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The research is also available in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: NASA

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.

  • Manu August 12, 2014, 3:06 PM

    “HNC (hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon)”: it’s called hydrogen cyanide.

    • muffie1801 August 12, 2014, 3:43 PM

      Strictly speaking, HNC is Hydrogen Isocyanide.

      • Manu August 12, 2014, 10:03 PM

        I stand corrected; read and posted too fast. Thanks!

  • Jeffrey Boerst August 13, 2014, 1:48 AM

    Thanks to Elizabeth for posting it as the three separate elements, thus deftly illustrating the IMPORTANT part here: that Hydrogen, Nitrogen and Carbon were detected… …and making it clear to non chemists (who don’t have the information regarding Hydrogen Isocyanide’s constituent breakdown already ‘known’) immediately at-a-glance.

hide