Milky Way’s Black Hole Munches On Supercooked Gas

It’s a simple menu, but smoking hot. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is sucking in ultra-hot molecular gas, as seen through the eyes of the Herschel space telescope.

“The biggest surprise was quite how hot the molecular gas in the innermost central region of the galaxy gets. At least some of it is around 1000ºC [1832º F], much hotter than typical interstellar clouds, which are usually only a few tens of degrees above the –273ºC [-460ºF] of absolute zero,” stated the European Space Agency.

Herschel, which is out of coolant and winding down its scientific operations, will continue producing results in the next few years as scientists crunch the results. The telescope has found a bunch of basic molecules in the Milky Way that include water vapour and carbon monoxide, and has been engaged in looking to learn more about the gas that surrounds the massive black hole at our galaxy’s center.

In a region called Sagittarius* (Sgr A*), this huge black hole — four million times the mass of the sun — is thankfully a safe distance from Earth. It’s 26,000 light years away from the solar system.

At left, ionized gas in the galaxy as seen in radio wavelengths; at right, the spectrum at the center seen by Herschel. Credit: Radio-wavelength image: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Very Large Array (courtesy of C. Lang); spectrum: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE/J.R. Goicoechea et al. (2013).
At left, ionized gas in the galaxy as seen in radio wavelengths; at right, the spectrum at the center seen by Herschel. Credit: Radio-wavelength image: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Very Large Array (courtesy of C. Lang); spectrum: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE/J.R. Goicoechea et al. (2013).

Trouble is, there’s a heckuva lot of dust blocking our view to the center of the galaxy. Herschel got around that problem by taking pictures in the far-infrared, seeking heat signatures that can bely intense activity in and around the black hole.

“Herschel has resolved the far-infrared emission within just 1 light-year of the black hole, making it possible for the first time at these wavelengths to separate emission due to the central cavity from that of the surrounding dense molecular disc,” stated Javier Goicoechea of the Centro de Astrobiología, Spain, lead author of a paper reporting the results.

The science team supposes that there are strong shocks within the gas (which is magnetized) that help turn up the heat. The shocks could occur when gas clouds butt up against each other, or material shoots out Fast and Furious-style between stars and protostars (young stars.)

“The observations are also consistent with streamers of hot gas speeding towards Sgr A*, falling towards the very center of the galaxy,” stated Goicoechea. “Our galaxy’s black hole may be cooking its dinner right in front of Herschel’s eyes.”

Source: ESA

Historic Comet Smashup Brought Water to Jupiter’s Stratosphere

A large comet that peppered Jupiter two decades ago brought water into the giant planet’s atmosphere, according to new research from the Herschel space observatory.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 astounded astronomers worldwide when its 21 fragments hit Jupiter in June 1994. The event was predicted and observatories were trained on Jupiter as the impact occurred. The dark splotches the comet left behind were even visible in small telescopes. But apparently, those weren’t the only effects of the collision.

Herschel’s infrared camera revealed there is two to three times more water in the southern hemisphere of the planet, where the comet slammed into the atmosphere, than in the northern hemisphere. Further, the water is concentrated in high altitudes, around the various sites where Shoemaker-Levy 9 left its mark.

It is possible, researchers acknowledged, that water could have come from interplanetary dust striking Jupiter, almost like a “steady rain.” If this were the case, however, scientists expect the water would be evenly distributed and also would have filtered to lower altitudes. Jupiter’s icy moons were also in the wrong locations, researchers said, to have sent water towards the massive planet.

Internal water rising up was ruled out because it cannot penetrate the “cold trap” between Jupiter’s stratosphere and cloud deck, the researchers added.

“According to our models, as much as 95 percent of the water in the stratosphere is due to the comet impact,” said  Thibault Cavalié of the Astrophysical Laboratory of Bordeaux, in France, who led the research.

Eight impact sites from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are visible in this 1994 image. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
Eight impact sites from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are visible in this 1994 image. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

While researchers have suspected for years that Jupiter’s water came from the comet — ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory saw the water there years ago — these new observations provide more direct evidence of Shoemaker-Levy 9’s effect. The results were published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Herschel’s find provides more fodder for two missions that are scheduled for Jupiter observations in the coming few years. The first goal for NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is en route and will arrive in 2016, is to figure out how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Additionally, ESA’s Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission is expected to launch in 2022. “It will map the distribution of Jupiter’s atmospheric ingredients in even greater detail,” ESA stated.

While ESA did not link the finding to how water came to be on Earth, some researchers believe that it was comets that delivered the liquid on to our planet early in Earth’s history. Others, however, say that it was outgassing from volcanic rocks that added water to the surface.

Conventional theory dictates ice was in our solar system from when it was formed, and today we know that many planets have water in some form. Last year, for example, water ice and organics were spotted at Mercury’s north pole.

Mars appeared to be full of water in the ancient past, as evidenced by a huge, underground trench recently discovered by scientists. There is frozen water at the Martian poles, and both the Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity rover missions have found evidence of flowing water on the surface in the past.

The outer solar system also has its share of water, including in all four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and (in ice form) on various moons. Even some exoplanets have water vapor in their atmospheres.

“All four giant planets in the outer solar system have water in their atmospheres, but there may be four different scenarios for how they got it,” added Cavalié. “For Jupiter, it is clear that Shoemaker-Levy 9 is by far the dominant source, even if other external sources may contribute also.”

Source: European Space Agency

Ancient Galaxy ‘Bursting’ with Stars

Most of the early galaxies that astronomers have been able to observe are small with a low-to-moderate amount of star production. But now the Herschel Space Observatory has found a massive dust-filled galaxy churning out stars at an incredible rate, with all of this taking place back when the cosmos was a just 880 million years old. The galaxy is about as massive as our Milky Way, but produces stars at a rate 2,000 times greater, prompting the researchers to call it a “maximum-starburst” galaxy.

The astronomers involved in its discovery say its mere existence challenges our theories of galaxy evolution.

“Massive, intense starburst galaxies are expected to only appear at later cosmic times,” says Dominik Riechers, currently an assistant professor at Cornell. “Yet, we have discovered this colossal starburst just 880 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was at little more than 6 percent of its current age. Riechers is the first author of the paper describing the findings in the April 18 issue of the journal Nature.

The prevailing thought on early galaxy and star formation has been that the first galaxies to form were relatively small and lightweight, containing only a few billion times the mass of our Sun. They form their first stars at rates of a few times that experienced by the Milky Way today, and the galaxies would grow by merging with other small galaxies. In theory, galaxies as massive as the newly found galaxy – named HFLS3 — should not be present so soon after the Big Bang.

HFLS3 appears as little more than a faint, red smudge in images from the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES).
The extreme distance to HFLS3 means that its light has travelled for almost 13 billion years across space before reaching us. We therefore see it as it existed in the infant Universe, just 880 million years after the Big Bang or at 6.5% of the Universe’s current age.

This artist's impression shows the "starburst" galaxy HFLS3. The galaxy appears as little more than a faint, red smudge in images from the Herschel space observatory. Image credit: ESA-C. Carreau.
This artist’s impression shows the “starburst” galaxy HFLS3. The galaxy appears as little more than a faint, red smudge in images from the Herschel space observatory. Image credit: ESA-C. Carreau.

Even at that young age, HFLS3 was already close to the mass of the Milky Way, with roughly 140 billion times the mass of the Sun in the form of stars and star-forming material. After another 13 billion years, it should have grown to be as big as the most massive galaxies known in the local Universe.

“Looking for the first examples of these massive star factories is like searching for a needle in a haystack; the Herschel dataset is extremely rich,” said Riechers.

Tens of thousands of massive, star-forming galaxies have been detected by Herschel as part of HerMES and sifting through them to find the most interesting ones is a challenge.

“This particular galaxy got our attention because it was bright, and yet very red compared to others like it,” said co-investigator Dave Clements of Imperial College London.

While the discovery of this single galaxy isn’t enough to overturn current theories of galaxy formation, finding more galaxies like this one could challenge those theories, the astronomers say. At the very least, theories will have to be modified to explain how this galaxy formed, Riechers says.

“This galaxy is just one spectacular example, but it’s telling us that extremely vigorous star formation was possible early in the universe,” says Jamie Bock, professor of physics at Caltech and a coauthor of the paper.

Read the team’s paper: A Dust-Obscured Massive Maximum-Starburst Galaxy at a Redshift of 6.34

Sources: ESA, JPL, Caltech

Herschel Spacecraft Won’t “Bomb” the Moon, But GRAIL Will

Artist concept of Ebb and Flow, the two GRAIL spacecraft in orbit of the Moon. Credit: NASA

The Herschel space telescope is slated to be decommissioned next March as the observatory’s supply of cryogenic helium will be depleted. One idea for “disposing” of the spacecraft was to have it impact the Moon, a la the LCROSS mission that slammed into the Moon in 2009, and it would kick up volatiles at one of the lunar poles for observation by another spacecraft, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, that idea has been nixed in favor of parking Herschel in a heliocentric orbit. But don’t be disappointed if you were hoping for a little lunar fireworks. There will soon be a double-barreled event as the twin GRAIL spacecraft will impact the moon’s surface on December 17, 2012.

NASA will be providing more information about the GRAIL spacecrafts’ impacts at a briefing on Thursday, but the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) team said last week that they were still formulating ideas for the impact scenario, and looking at the possibility of aiming the crashes so they are within the field-of-view of instruments on LRO. The two spacecraft are running out of fuel – Principal Investigator Maria Zuber said they have to do three maneuvers every day to keep the spacecraft from slamming into the Moon on their own – and earlier this year the duo were lowered from their prime mission orbit of 55 kilometers above the Moon to 23 km, and this week were lowered to 11 km to enable even higher resolution data.

The two spacecraft have been providing unprecedented detail about the Moon’s internal structure as they send radio signals to each other and monitor any changes in distance between the two as they circle the Moon. Changes as small as 50 nanometers per second have been measured, and last week the team detailed how they were able to create the most detailed gravity map of the Moon, as well as make determinations that the Moon’s inner crust is nearly pulverized.

We’ll provide more information about the GRAIL impacts when it becomes available, but preliminary details are that the impacts will take place on Dec. 17 at 19:28 UTC (2:28 p.m. EST).

The impact by LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) confirmed the presence of water ice and an array of volatiles in a permanently shadowed crater at the Moon’s South Pole, and it is expected GRAIL would be targeted for similar observations.

Artist’s concept of Herschel at the L2 libration point one million miles from Earth. Credit: ESA

The Herschel team had said earlier this year that because the cryogenic superfluid helium coolant is running out — and the spacecraft needs to be at temperatures as low as 0.3 Kelvin, or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit to make its observations — one idea of getting rid of the spacecraft would be to impact it on the Moon. This week, they posted on the Herschel website that ‘the lunar impact option is feasible, but carries an additional cost on top of that of the heliocentric orbit option. The ESA Executive has decided that the Herschel spacecraft will be “parked” indefinitely in heliocentric orbit.”

The Herschel operational large halo orbit around L2 is unstable, and so the orbit needs regular “maintenance,” and consequently, after end-of-helium (expected in March 2013), the spacecraft will need to be “parked” somewhere else with no need of orbit maintenance.

Herschel team member Chris North told Universe Today that the mission operators needed to get some engineering tests done to determine if the Moon impact was feasible. “Basically they hand it over to engineers who do things that are considered too risky during the scientific mission itself – e.g. test the attitude control to its limits to see what it can withstand!” North said via email. He added that most people he had spoken with were all for the impact, — having it “go out in a blaze of glory.”

But, surprisingly, the costs for impact are greater than leaving it in a parking orbit for a few hundred years. It’s orbit may have to be maintained again in the future, as some estimates put it at potentially impacting Earth at some point in several hundred years.

And for anyone worried that a lunar impact by the GRAIL spacecraft will “hurt” the Moon, one look at the Moon shows that it has been hit in the past and continues to get impacted by asteroids and meteoroids, with no adverse affect to its orbit.

As LCROSS principal investigator Tony Colaprete said about the LCROSS impact, “What we’re doing with the Moon is something that occurs naturally four times a month on the Moon, whether we’re there or not. The difference with LCROSS is that it is specifically targeted at a certain spot, Cabeus crater,” and that the laws of physics mean there will be a miniscule perturbation.

Even though the Centaur rocket stage that hit the Moon was expect to kick up about 350 tons of lunar regolith, “The impact has about 1 million times less influence on the Moon than a passenger’s eyelash falling to the floor of a 747 jet during flight,” Colaprete said.

The two GRAIL spacecraft are about the size of washing machines, much smaller than the Centaur rocket, so will have less of an impact.

Herschel Telescope Peers into the Glow of Cygnus X

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In infrared, Cygnus-X is a glowing star nursery, and the Herschel space observatory has captured this beautiful new view showing an extremely active region of big-baby stars. It is located about 4,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. The image highlights the unique capabilities of Herschel to probe the birth of large stars and their influence on the surrounding interstellar material.

The bright white areas are where large stars have recently formed out of turbulent clouds, especially evident in the chaotic network of filaments seen in the right-hand portion of the image. The dense knots of gas and dust collapse to form new stars; the bubble-like structures are carved by the enormous radiation emitted by these stars.

In the center of the image, fierce radiation and powerful stellar winds from stars undetected at Herschel’s wavelengths have partly cleared and heated interstellar material, which then glows blue. The threads of compact red objects scattered throughout the image shows where future generations of stars will be born.

See larger versions of this image at ESA’s website.

Frantic Comet Massacre Taking Place at Fomalhaut

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There may be some frantic activity going on in the narrow, dusty disk surrounding a nearby star named Fomalhaut. Scientists have been trying to understand the makeup of the disk, and new observations by the Herschel Space Observatory reveals the disk may come from cometary collisions. But in order to create the amount of dust and debris seen around Fomalhaut, there would have to be collisions destroying thousands of icy comets every day.

“I was really surprised,” said Bram Acke, who led a team on the Herschel observations. “To me this was an extremely large number.”

Fomalhaut is a young star, just a few hundred million years old, about 25.1 light years away and twice as massive as the Sun. It is the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus and one of the brightest stars in our sky, visible in the southern sky in the northern hemisphere in fall and early winter evenings.

Fomalhaut’s toroidal dust belt was discovered in the 1980s by the IRAS satellite. It’s been viewed several times by the Hubble Space Telescope, but Herschel’s new images of the belt show it in much more detail at far-infrared wavelengths than ever before.

The narrow and asymmetrical properties of the disk are thought to be due to the gravity of a possible planet in orbit around the star, but the existence of the planet is still under study.

Hubble's view showing a possible exoplanet Fomalhaut b (NASA/HST)

Acke, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, and his team colleagues analyzed the Herschel observations and found the dust temperatures in the belt to be between –230 and –170 degrees C, and because Fomalhaut is slightly off-center and closer to the southern side of the belt, the southern side is warmer and brighter than the northern side.

Those observations collected starlight scattering off the grains in the belt and showed it to be very faint at Hubble’s visible wavelengths, suggesting that the dust particles are relatively large. But that appears to be incompatible with the temperature of the belt as measured by Herschel in the far-infrared.

While observations with Hubble suggested the grains in the dust disk would be relatively large, the Herschel data show that the dust in the belt has the thermal properties of small solid particles, with sizes of only a few millionths of a meter across. HST observations suggested solid grains more than ten times larger.

To resolve the paradox, Acke and colleagues suggest that the dust grains must be large fluffy aggregates, similar to dust particles released from comets in our own Solar System. These would have both the correct thermal and scattering properties.

However, this leads to another problem.

The bright starlight from Fomalhaut should blow small dust particles out of the belt very rapidly, yet such grains appear to remain abundant there.

So, the only way to explain the contradiction is to resupply the belt through continuous collisions between larger objects in orbit around Fomalhaut, creating new dust.

This isn’t the first time that evidence of cometary collisions have been seen around another star. Last year, astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope detected activity resembling a ‘heavy bombardment’ type of event where icy bodies from the outer solar system are possibly pummeling rocky worlds closer to the star.

At Fomalhaut, however, to sustain the belt, the rate of collisions must be remarkable: each day, the equivalent of either two 10 km-sized comets or 2,000 1 km-sized comets must be completely crushed into small, fluffy dust particles.

In order to keep the collision rate so high, scientists say there must be between 260 billion and 83 trillion comets in the belt, depending on their size. This is not unfathomable, the team says, as our own Solar System has a similar number of comets in its Oort Cloud, which formed from objects scattered from a disc surrounding the Sun when it was as young as Fomalhaut.

“These beautiful Herschel images have provided the crucial information needed to model the nature of the dust belt around Fomalhaut,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist.

Source: ESA

New Image Shows Beautiful Violence in Centaurus A

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The mysterious galaxy Centaurus A is a great place to study the extreme processes that occur near super-massive black holes, scientists say, and this beautiful new image from the combined forces of the Herschel Space Observatory and the XMM-Newton x-ray satellite reveals energetic processes going on deep in the galaxy’s core. This beautiful image tells a tale of past violence that occurred here.

The twisted disc of dust near the galaxy’s heart shows strong evidence that Centaurus A underwent a cosmic collision with another galaxy in the distant past. The colliding galaxy was ripped apart to form the warped disc, and the formation of young stars heats the dust to cause the infrared glow.

This multi-wavelength view of Centaurus A shows two massive jets of material streaming from a immense black hole in the center. When observed by radio telescopes, the jets stretch for up to a million light years, though the Herschel and XMM-Newton results focus on the inner regions.

At a distance of around 12 million light years from Earth, Centaurus A is the closest large elliptical galaxy to our own Milky Way.

“Centaurus A is the closest example of a galaxy to us with massive jets from its central black hole,” said Christine Wilson of McMaster University, Canada, who is leading the study of Centaurus A with Herschel. “Observations with Herschel, XMM-Newton and telescopes at many other wavelengths allow us to study their effects on the galaxy and its surroundings.”

Find more information on this image at ESA’s website.

The Eagle Nebula as You’ve Never Seen it Before

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Here’s a stunning new look deep inside the iconic “Pillars of Creation.” As opposed to the famous Hubble Space Telescope image (below) — which shows mainly the surface of the pillars of gas and dust — this composite image from ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory in far-infrared and XMM-Newton telescope in X-rays allows astronomers to peer inside the pillars and see more detail of the structures in this region. It shows how the hot young stars detected by the X-ray observations are carving out cavities, sculpting and interacting with the surrounding ultra-cool gas and dust.

But enjoy the view while you can. The sad part is that likely, this beautiful region has already been destroyed by a supernova 6,000 years ago. But because of the distance, we haven’t seen it happen yet.

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula
Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI, Hester & Scowen (Arizona State University)

The Eagle Nebula is 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens. It contains a young hot star cluster, NGC6611, which is visible with modest back-yard telescopes. This cluster is sculpting and illuminating the surrounding gas and dust, resulting in a huge hollowed-out cavity and pillars, each several light-years long.

The Hubble image hinted at new stars being born within the pillars, deep inside small clumps known as ‘evaporating gaseous globules’ or EGGs, but because of the obscuring dust, Hubble’s visible light picture was unable to see inside and prove that young stars were indeed forming.

The new image shows those hot young stars are responsible for carving the pillars.

The new image also uses data from near-infrared images from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope at Paranal, Chile, and visible-light data from its Max Planck Gesellschaft 2.2m diameter telescope at La Silla, Chile. All the individual images are below:

M16 seen in several different wavelengths. Credits: far-infrared: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium; ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/XMM-Newton-SOC/Boulanger; optical: MPG/ESO; near-infrared/VLT/ISAAC/McCaughrean & Andersen/AIP/ESO

Earlier mid-infrared images from ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer, and the new XMM-Newton data, have led astronomers to suspect that one of the massive, hot stars in NGC6611 may have exploded in a supernova 6,000 years ago, emitting a shockwave that destroyed the pillars. But we won’t see the destruction for several hundred years yet.

Source: ESA

Herschel Observatory Detects ‘Oceans’ of Water Around Distant Star

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There’s enough water in a planet-forming disk around a distant star to fill several thousand Earth oceans, according to new observations with the Herschel space observatory. Astronomers have found evidence of water vapor originating from ice on dust grains in the disc around a young star, TW Hydrae. The star is between 5-10 million years old, so is in its final stages of formation.

“The detection of water sticking to dust grains throughout the disc would be similar to events in our own Solar System’s evolution, where over millions of years, similar dust grains then coalesced to form comets,” said Michiel Hogerheijde of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who led the study. “These comets we believe became a contributing source of water for the planets.”

Herschel has found water around other stars, such as an old red giant star CW Leonis, and other telescopes like Spitzer have also observed abundant water in nascent planet forming regions around other stars.

But scientists say this latest research from Herschel breaks new ground in understanding water’s role in planet-forming discs and gives scientists a new testing ground for looking at how water came to our own planet.

“With Herschel we can follow the trail of water through all the steps of star and planet formation,” said Göran Pilbratt, Herschel Project Scientist at ESA.

Scientists think the water vapor signature is produced when the ice coated dust grains are warmed by interstellar UV radiation.

Read more on this discovery at the ESA Herschel website.

Best Evidence Yet That Comets Delivered Water for Earth’s Oceans

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The idea isn’t new that Earth’s oceans originated from comets bombarding our planet back in its early days. But astronomers have now found the best evidence yet for this scenario. The Herschel infrared space observatory detected that comet Hartley 2, which originates from the distant Kuiper Belt, contains water with the same chemical signature as Earth’s oceans.

“Our results with Herschel suggest that comets could have played a major role in bringing vast amounts of water to an early Earth,” said Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-author of a new paper in the journal Nature, published online on Oct. 5. “This finding substantially expands the reservoir of Earth ocean-like water in the solar system to now include icy bodies originating in the Kuiper Belt.”

Previous looks at various other comets showed water content different from Earth, with deuterium levels around twice that of Earth’s oceans, but those comets came from the Oort Cloud. Scientists theorized that if comets of this kind had collided with Earth, they could not have contributed more than a few percent of Earth’s water.

The Deep Impact spacecraft successfully flew past Comet Hartley 2 in November 2010 and is an example of the type of comet that the UCLA scientists describe in their research. Image: UPI/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD.

But Herschel’s observations of Hartley 2 are the first in-depth look at water in a comet from the Kuiper Belt — home of icy, rocky bodies that includes dwarf planets and innumerable comets — and it showed a surprising difference.

Using HIFI, a highly sensitive infrared spectrometer, Herschel peered into the comet’s coma, or thin, gaseous atmosphere, and found that Hartley 2 possessed half as much “heavy water” as other comets analyzed to date. In heavy water, one of the two normal hydrogen atoms has been replaced by the heavy hydrogen isotope known as deuterium. The ratio between heavy water and light, or regular, water in Hartley 2 is the same as the water on Earth’s surface.

“Comet Hartley’s deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio is almost exactly the same as the water in Earth’s oceans,” says Paul Hartogh, Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, who led the international team of astronomers in this study.

The amount of heavy water in a comet is related to the environment where the comet formed, and by comparing the deuterium to hydrogen ratio found in the water in Earth’s oceans with that in extraterrestrial objects, astronomers were hoping to identify the origin of our water.

Astronomers know Hartley 2 comes from the Kuiper Belt, since they can track its path as it swoops into Earth’s neighborhood in the inner solar system every six-and-a-`half years. The five comets besides Hartley 2 whose heavy-water-to-regular-water ratios have been obtained all came from the Oort Cloud, an even more distant region in the solar system. This region is 10,000 times farther away than the Kuiper Belt, and is home to the most documented comets.

The team is now using Herschel to look at other Kuiper Belt comets to see whether they, too, carry the same type of water.

“Thanks to this detection made possible by Herschel, an old, very interesting discussion will be revived and invigorated,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist. “It will be exciting to see where this discovery will take us.”

Paper: “Ocean-like Water in the Jupiter-family Comet 103P Hartley”

Sources: JPL, ESA