Oxygen Found around Comet May Make Us Rethink Our Entire Solar System

By Hinckley, Story | The Christian Science Monitor, October 29, 2015 | Go to article overview

Oxygen Found around Comet May Make Us Rethink Our Entire Solar System


Hinckley, Story, The Christian Science Monitor


The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft detected molecules of oxygen surrounding the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, reports a study published Thursday in the journal Nature.

Although molecular oxygen has been detected on similarly icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, it has "has remained undetected in cometary comas," until now, the study authors wrote. This discovery could challenge current theories about the formation of our solar system, because it defies the conditions predicted in current solar system models.

"It is the most surprising discovery we have made so far," Kathrin Altwegg of Switzerland's University of Bern, a Rosetta team member, told National Geographic. "The first time we saw it, I think we all went a little bit into denial because it is not expected to be found in a comet."

The researchers were surprised to find evidence of oxygen because it usually reacts quickly with other chemicals and is rarely found in its molecular form of O2, the breathable form that fosters life on Earth. Although oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, it is rare to find the element in its simplest form. "Scientists had previously assumed that almost all oxygen in a comet would come in the form of water (H2O), carbon monoxide (CO), or carbon dioxide (CO2)," explains the Associated Press.

Not only was pure O2 detected in the comet's atmosphere, but it was also the fourth most common gas. …

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