Comets and Interstellar Objects Could be Exporting Earth Life Out into the Milky Way

For over a century, proponents of Panspermia have argued that life is distributed throughout our galaxy by comets, asteroids, space dust, and planetoids. But in recent years, scientists have argued that this type of distribution may go beyond star systems and be intergalactic in scale. Some have even proposed intriguing new mechanisms for how this distribution could take place.

For instance, it is generally argued that meteorite and asteroid impacts are responsible for kicking up the material that would transport microbes to other planets. However, in a recent study, two Harvard astronomers examine the challenges that this would present and suggest another means – Earth-grazing objects that collect microbes from our atmosphere and then get flung into deep-space.

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Images are Starting to Come in of the New Interstellar Comet

On August 30th, amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov spotted a comet of extrasolar origin passing through our Solar System. This is the second time in as many years that an interstellar object has been observed (the last being ‘Oumuamua 2.0 in 2017). Thanks to the Gemini Observatory, we now have pictures of this comet, making it the first object of its kind to be successfully imaged in multiple colors!

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An Astrophotographer Noticed a Chunk of Ice Orbiting Comet 67P in Rosetta’s Photos

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission spent two years at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. At the end of September 2016, its mission was ended when the spacecraft was sent on a collision course into the comet. During its time at comet 67P, it captured a vast amount of images.

The ESA made all those images freely available at their Rosetta website, and now an astro-photographer working with those images has found something interesting: a chunk of ice travelling through space with 67P.

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Pluto is What You Get When a Billion Comets Smash Together

Pluto has been the focus of a lot of attention for more than a decade now. This began shortly after the discovery of Eris in the Kuiper Belt, one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that led to the “Great Planetary Debate” and the 2006 IAU Resolution. Interest in Pluto also increased considerably thanks to the New Horizons mission, which conducted the first flyby of this “dwarf planet” in July of 2015.

The data this mission provided on Pluto is still proving to be a treasure trove for astronomers, allowing for new discoveries about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere, and even formation. For instance, a new study produced by researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (and supported by NASA Rosetta funding) indicates that Pluto may have formed from a billion comets crashing together.

The study, titled “Primordial N2 provides a cosmochemical explanation for the existence of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Icarus. The study was authored by Dr. Christopher R. Glein – a researcher with the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division – and Dr. J. Hunter Waite Jr, an SwRI program director.

The first Kuiper Belt is home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL

The origin of Pluto is something that astronomers have puzzled over for some time. An early hypothesis was that it was an escaped moon of Neptune that had been knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s current largest moon, Triton. However, this theory was disproven after dynamical studies showed that Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. With the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, the true of origin of Pluto began to become clear.

Essentially, while Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, it is similar in orbit and composition to the icy objects that surround it. On occasion, some of these objects are kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and become long-period comets in the Inner Solar System. To determine if Pluto formed from billions of KBOs, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr. examined data from the New Horizons mission on the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia.

This large glacier forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface (aka. Pluto’s “Heart”). They then compared this to data obtained by the NASA/ESA Rosetta mission, which studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) between 2014 and 2016. As Dr. Glein explained:

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation. We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This research also comes up against a competing theory, known as the “solar model”. In this scenario, Pluto formed from the very cold ices that were part of the protoplanetary disk, and would therefore have a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun. In order to determine which was more likely, scientists needed to understand not only how much nitrogen is present at Pluto now (in its atmosphere and glaciers), but how much could have leaked out into space over the course of eons.

They then needed to come up with an explanation for the current proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto could only be explained by burial in surface ices or destruction from liquid water. In the end, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr.’s research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, which was created by comets, was modified by liquid water, possibly in the form of a subsurface ocean.

“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Dr. Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”

While the research certainly offers an interesting explanation for how Pluto formed, the solar model still satisfies some criteria. In the end, more research will be needed before scientists can conclude how Pluto formed. And if data from the New Horizons or Rosetta missions should prove insufficient, perhaps another to New Frontiers mission to Pluto will solve the mystery!

Further Reading: SwRI, Icarus

Astronomy Cast Ep. 492: Comets, Asteroids and KBO’s

Another topic with plenty of updates. Since we started Astronomy Cast we’ve visited many smaller objects in the Solar System up close, from Ceres and Vesta to Pluto, not to mention a comet. What have we learned?

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70,000 Years Ago a Nearby Star Messed With the Orbits Of Comets and Asteroids in our Solar System

70,000 years ago, our keen-eyed ancestors may have noticed something in the sky: a red dwarf star that came as close as 1 light year to our Sun. They would’ve missed the red dwarf’s small, dim companion—a brown dwarf—and in any case they would’ve quickly returned to their hunting and gathering. But that star’s visit to our Solar System had an impact astronomers can still see today.

The star in question is called Scholz’s star, after astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz, the man who discovered it in 2013. A new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by astronomers at the Complutense University of Madrid, and at the University of Cambridge, shows the impact Scholz’s star had. Though the star is now almost 20 light years away, its close approach to our Sun changed the orbits of some comets and asteroids in our Solar System.

When it came to our Solar System 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s star entered the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a reservoir of mostly-icy objects that spans the range from about 0.8 to 3.2 light years from the Sun. Its visit to the Oort Cloud was first explained in a paper in 2015. This new paper follows up on that work, and shows what impact the visit had.

“Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come.” – Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, Complutense University of Madrid.

In this new paper, the astronomers studied almost 340 objects in our Solar System with hyperbolic orbits, which are V-shaped rather than elliptical. Their conclusion is that a significant number of these objects had their trajectories shaped by the visit from Scholz’s star. “Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come,” explains Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, a co-author of the study now published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They found that there’s a cluster of these objects in the direction of the Gemini Constellation.

A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

“In principle,” he adds, “one would expect those positions to be evenly distributed in the sky, particularly if these objects come from the Oort cloud. However, what we find is very different—a statistically significant accumulation of radiants. The pronounced over-density appears projected in the direction of the constellation of Gemini, which fits the close encounter with Scholz’s star.”

There are four ways that objects like those in the study can gain hyperbolic orbits. They might be interstellar, like the asteroid Oumuamua, meaning they gained those orbits from some cause outside our Solar System. Or, they could be natives of our Solar System, originally bound to an elliptical orbit, but cast into a hyperbolic orbit by a close encounter with one of the planets, or the Sun. For objects originally from the Oort Cloud, they could start on a hyperbolic orbit because of interactions with the galactic disc. Finally, again for objects from the Oort Cloud, they could be cast into a hyperbolic orbit by interactions with a passing star. In this study, the passing star is Scholz’s star.

In this image the blue is a hyperbolic orbit while the green is a parabolic orbit. Image: By ScottAlanHill [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
The timing of Scholz’s star’s visit to the Oort Cloud and our Solar System strongly coincides with the data in this study. It’s very unlikely to be coincidental. “It could be a coincidence, but it is unlikely that both location and time are compatible,” says De la Fuente Marcos. In fact, De la Fuente Marcos points out that their simulations suggest that Scholz’s star approached even closer than the 0.6 light-years pointed out in the 2015 study.

The one potentially weak area of this study is pointed out by the authors themselves. As they say in their summary, “…due to their unique nature, the orbital solutions of hyperbolic minor bodies are based on relatively brief arcs of observation and this fact has an impact on their reliability. Out of 339 objects in the sample, 232 have reported uncertainties and 212 have eccentricity with statistical significance.” Translated, it means that some of the computed orbits of individual objects may have errors. But the team expects the overall conclusions of their study to be correct.

The study of minor objects with hyperbolic orbits has heated up since the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua made its visit. This new study successfully connects one population of hyperbolic objects with a pre-historic visit to our Solar System by another star. The team behind the study expects that follow up studies will confirm their results.