A team of researchers directed by the University of Bern has, for the first time, observed an unexpected richness of complicated organic molecules at a comet. This was attained because of the data obtained during ESA’s Rosetta mission at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also called Chury. Delivered to the early Earth through influencing comets, these organics may have assisted in kick-starting carbon-based life.
Presently, the high-resolution mass spectrometer ROSINA, a Bern-led instrument onboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, obtained data for comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also called Chury, between 2014 and 2016. These data now enable the researchers to explain for the first time the complex organic budget of Chury.
The astrophysicist Prof. em. Dr. Kathrin Altwegg, Principal Investigator of the ROSINA instrument and co-author of the new study, explains, “Due to the extremely dusty conditions, the spacecraft had to retreat to a safe distance of a bit more than 200 km above the cometary surface in order for the instruments to be able to operate under steady conditions.” Thus, it was possible to discover species composed of more than a handful of atoms that had earlier been covered in the cometary dust.
Understanding such complex data is challenging. Yet, the Bernese team of researchers successfully observed a number of complex organic molecules. “We found for instance naphthalene, which is responsible for the characteristic smell of mothballs. And we also found benzoic acid, a natural component of incense. In addition, we identified benzaldehyde, widely used to confer almond flavor to foods, and many other molecules. These heavy organics would apparently make Chury’s scent even more complex, but also more appealing,” Hänni says.