Wednesday, December 10, 2014

ESA Rosetta: Earth's Water Came from Asteroids, Not Comets

ESA Rosetta’s navigation camera obtained the four images in this mosaic on Dec. 7, 2014, from a distance of 12.2 miles (19.7 km) from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Asteroids, not comets, may have delivered most of Earth's water to the planet when the solar system was young, new data from the ESA Rosetta probe orbiting comet 67/P suggests.

Comets are some of the solar system's most primitive building blocks, with many dating to soon after its formation.

Scientists think that these dirty snowballs probably helped seed Earth with key ingredients for life, such as organic compounds.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is helping scientists learn more about the role these icy nomads have played in the evolution of the solar system and life on Earth by analyzing the composition of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

In August, Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, and in November, its Philae lander became the first probe to make a soft touchdown on a comet's surface.

Rosetta is also the first mission to escort a comet as it travels around the sun.

Now, Rosetta has helped solve a mystery about how Earth became the watery world it is today.

Before Rosetta began orbiting Comet 67P/C-G in August, it was using an instrument known as ROSINA (short for Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis) to analyze the chemical fingerprint of gases in the comet's fuzzy envelope.

Scientists focused on data from the instrument regarding water to help uncover whether asteroids or comets delivered the water in Earth's oceans.

Rosetta has provided data from Comet 67P/C-G, another Kuiper Belt comet.

However, Rosetta has discovered that this comet possesses an even higher deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio than seen in Oort Cloud comets, three times the amount of heavy water compared to normal water as Earth has.

If Earth's water had come from Kuiper Belt objects, even if most of them were like comet 103P/Hartley 2, and if only a small fraction were like Comet 67P/C-G, Earth's deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio would be significantly higher than it is today.

"This probably rules out Kuiper Belt comets from bringing water to Earth," Altwegg said. Instead, most of Earth's water was probably delivered by asteroids, Altwegg said.

"Today's asteroids have very little water, that's clear," Altwegg added. "But that was probably not always the case. During the Late Heavy Bombardment 3.8 billion years ago, at that time, asteroids could have had much more water than they could now."

The asteroids seen now "have stayed in the vicinity of the sun for 4.6 billion years," Altwegg said.

"They've lost water due to the sun, due to heat. But to start with, they might have had much more water than they have now."

Future analysis of ice-rich bodies in the asteroid belt could shed light on whether Earth's water really did come from there, Altwegg said.

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