Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Comets Forge Organic Molecules in Their Dusty Atmospheres, ALMA Confirms

13.08.2014

An international team of scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has made incredible 3D images of the ghostly atmospheres surrounding comets ISON and Lemmon. These new observations provided important insights into how and where comets forge new chemicals, including intriguing organic compounds.

Comets contain some of the oldest and most pristine materials in our Solar System. Understanding their unique chemistry could reveal much about the birth of our planet and the origin of organic compounds that are the building blocks of life. ALMA's high-resolution observations provided a tantalizing 3D perspective of the distribution of the molecules within these two cometary atmospheres, or comas.


Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA/ESA Hubble; M. Cordiner, NASA, et al.

Approximate location of Comet ISON in our Solar System at the time of the ALMA observations.


Visualization by Brian Kent (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

This rotating 3-D ALMA map shows how HCN molecules (made of one hydrogen, one carbon and one nitrogen) are released from the nucleus of comet Lemmon and then spread evenly throughout the atmosphere, or coma. But, similar maps revealed that HNC and formaldehyde are produced in the coma, rather than originating from the comet's nucleus.

“We achieved truly first-of-a-kind mapping of important molecules that help us understand the nature of comets,” said team leader Martin Cordiner, a Catholic University of America astrochemist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The critical 3D component of the ALMA observations was made by combining high-resolution, two-dimensional images of the comets with high-resolution spectra obtained from three important organic molecules – hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen isocyanide (HNC), and formaldehyde (H2CO). These spectra were taken at every point in each image. They identified not only the molecules present but also their velocities, which provided the third dimension, indicating the depths of the cometary atmospheres.

The new results revealed that HCN gas flows outward from the nucleus quite evenly in all directions, whereas HNC is concentrated in clumps and jets. ALMA’s exquisite resolution could clearly resolve these clumps moving into different regions of the cometary comas on a day-to-day and even hour-to-hour basis. These distinctive patterns confirm that the HNC and H2CO molecules actually form within the coma and provide new evidence that HNC may be produced by the breakdown of large molecules or organic dust.

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

“So, not only does ALMA let us identify individual molecules in the coma, it also gives us the ability to map their locations with great sensitivity,” said Anthony Remijan, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a study co-author.

The observations, published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, were also significant because modest comets like Lemmon and ISON contain relatively low concentrations of these crucial molecules, making them difficult to probe in depth with Earth-based telescopes. The few comprehensive studies of this kind so far have been conducted on extremely bright comets, such as Hale-Bopp. The present results extend them to comets of only moderate brightness.

Comet ISON (formally known as C/2012 S1) was observed with ALMA on November 15-17, 2013, when it was only 75 million kilometers from the Sun (about half the distance of the Earth to the Sun). Comet Lemmon (formally known as C/2012 F6) was observed on June 1-2, 2013, when it was 224 million kilometers from the Sun (about 1.5 times the distance of the Earth to the Sun).

"The high sensitivity achieved in these studies paves the way for observations of perhaps hundreds of the dimmer or more distant comets,” said Goddard’s Stefanie Milam, a study co-author. “The findings suggest that it should also be possible to map more complex molecules that have so far eluded detection in comets.”

This research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute through the Goddard Center for Astrobiology and by NASA’s Planetary Atmospheres and Planetary Astronomy programs.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan.

Contact Information

Charles Blue
cblue@nrao.edu
Phone: 434-296-0314
Mobile: 202-236-6324

Charles Blue | newswise
Further information:
http://www.nrao.edu

Further reports about: Astrobiology Astronomy Atmospheres Molecules Observatory Organic Planetary clumps comets observations

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Streamlining accelerated computing for industry
24.08.2016 | DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

nachricht Lehigh engineer discovers a high-speed nano-avalanche
24.08.2016 | Lehigh University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Streamlining accelerated computing for industry

PyFR code combines high accuracy with flexibility to resolve unsteady turbulence problems

Scientists and engineers striving to create the next machine-age marvel--whether it be a more aerodynamic rocket, a faster race car, or a higher-efficiency jet...

Im Focus: X-ray optics on a chip

Waveguides are widely used for filtering, confining, guiding, coupling or splitting beams of visible light. However, creating waveguides that could do the same for X-rays has posed tremendous challenges in fabrication, so they are still only in an early stage of development.

In the latest issue of Acta Crystallographica Section A: Foundations and Advances , Sarah Hoffmann-Urlaub and Tim Salditt report the fabrication and testing of...

Im Focus: Piggyback battery for microchips: TU Graz researchers develop new battery concept

Electrochemists at TU Graz have managed to use monocrystalline semiconductor silicon as an active storage electrode in lithium batteries. This enables an integrated power supply to be made for microchips with a rechargeable battery.

Small electrical gadgets, such as mobile phones, tablets or notebooks, are indispensable accompaniments of everyday life. Integrated circuits in the interiors...

Im Focus: UCI physicists confirm possible discovery of fifth force of nature

Light particle could be key to understanding dark matter in universe

Recent findings indicating the possible discovery of a previously unknown subatomic particle may be evidence of a fifth fundamental force of nature, according...

Im Focus: Wi-fi from lasers

White light from lasers demonstrates data speeds of up to 2 GB/s

A nanocrystalline material that rapidly makes white light out of blue light has been developed by KAUST researchers.

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

The energy transition is not possible without Geotechnics

25.08.2016 | Event News

New Ideas for the Shipping Industry

24.08.2016 | Event News

A week of excellence: 22 of the world’s best computer scientists and mathematicians in Heidelberg

12.08.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Symmetry crucial for building key biomaterial collagen in the lab

26.08.2016 | Health and Medicine

Volcanic eruption masked acceleration in sea level rise

26.08.2016 | Earth Sciences

Moth takes advantage of defensive compounds in Physalis fruits

26.08.2016 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>