Scientists in charge of the Rosetta spacecraft have made an unprecedented discovery as they have found that the atmosphere of Comet 67P contains chemicals of life.
Researchers have discovered that the comet’s coma contains glycine, in addition to smaller molecules like hydrogen, cyanide and hydrogen sulfide and phosphorus, a key component in DNA.
Scientists of the Rosetta Mission have made an unprecedented discovery as they have found the building blocks of life in the cloud of dust and gas around comet 67P.
Accordig to researchers this unprecedented discovery backs up the theory that comets could have been involved in the creation of life on our planet. For decades, researchers have debated over the possibility that similar extraterrestrial objects crashed into our planet transporting crucial elements for the emergence of life.
“It shows that even the very primitive bodies like comets contain a complex chemical soup, independent of [the] sun and Earth,” said Kathrin Altwegg, lead author of the research from the University of Bern. “They contain everything needed for life – except energy.”
In the journal Scientific Advances, a team of researchers from the United States and Europe described how they studied the data obtained from Rosina – a mass spectrometer aboard the Rosetta Spacecraft—recorded as the comet sped towards its closest approach to the sun last summer.
The results revealed fascinating details: the cloud of dust and gas located around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko contains the amino acid glycine, in addition to the chemicals needed for its formation: methylamine and ethylamine. Moreover, the group of scientists discovered the presence of other elements such as hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide, and most importantly phosphorus, which is a key component of DNA.
In previous searches, scientists discovered glycine in material from comet Wild-2 in 2006. However, this discovery marks the first time glycine was spotted in space originating from a comet’s coma.
According to Altwegg, the glycine spotted on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko fomred billions of years ago in thin layers of ice that surround dust grains in the interstellar medium, or even possibly material that eventually created the solar system –protostellar nebula.
Interestingly, Altwegg states that Earth may not have been the only planet that benefited from the impact of similar celestial bodies. “They could have sparked life on Earth by impacting on an ocean,” she said. “But even nicer is the idea that we have shown that amino acid is ‘universal’. Its formation can happen in any protosolar nebula and then maybe spark life somewhere else.”
But in order to understand more about these celestial bodies, it is imperative to bring some of their parts back to Earth. Jason Dworkin, chief of astrochemistry at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center agrees saying: “These are the simplest, smallest biologically relevant compounds,” he said of the latest results. “To say more, and to look at the details of the chemistry, we need to look at a sample. We need to go to a comet, get a sample, bring it back to Earth and study it in a laboratory.”
The Rosetta spacecraft will surely provide an abundance of data for researches to analyze in the coming years, even though the mission itself will end in September of 2016 when the spacecraft will be moved towards a collision course with the comet.