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Comets: The harbingers of life on earth?

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Rosetta

 

By K.S.Jayaraman

Bengaluru: Did a comet strike jump-start life on Earth? The findings of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission tend to suggest this possibility.

An instrument on board the Philae Lander of Rosetta Mission has identified 16 organic molecules on the surface of a comet that are potentially “prebiotic”, or necessary for life, the mission scientists have reported in a recent issue of the journal Science.

“These are the first organic molecules to be ever reported directly, from in-situ analyses, from the surface of a comet,” Chaitanya Giri, a co-investigator of Cometary Sampling and Composition Experiment (COSAC) of the Rosetta Mission and one of the authors, told IANS.

On November 12, 2014, Philae Lander became the first space probe to soft land on the surface of a comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Besides COSAC, Philae carried several scientific experiments on board, with each trying to decipher the nature of the comet.

COSAC – which is a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer – aimed to study the surface ‘organic’ chemical composition of the comet, said Giri, a post-doctoral research scientist in the Department of Planets and Comets at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Gottingen, Germany.

According to the report, the Philae Lander bounced off the comet’s surface multiple times after the touchdown before coming to rest. The dust cloud kicked up from the bounces entered the COSAC instrument, which analysed the dust. “The entire COSAC team studied the mass spectra data generated by it,” Giri said.

The COSAC team, led by Fred Goesmann, involved scientists from France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. Giri, the only Indian on board, has been part of the team for the past five years in various capacities, beginning as a trainee doctoral student.

According to the Science report, as many as 16 molecules were identified by the experiment. Twelve of these had been reported earlier from remote ground-based telescopes and fly-by missions whereas COSAC has reported four novel molecules that have never been reported earlier, Giri said.

These new molecules are acetamide, methyl isocyanate, propionaldehyde and acetone. Other re-reported molecules include hydrogen cyanide, formamide and glycolaldehyde.

“All these molecules are of great significance for triggering pre-biotic chemistry – the precursor processes towards the formation of life,” Giri said. These are the same molecules that are known to be the building blocks for the origin of life on Earth and are major constituents of known molecular biological processes, he said.

For instance, Glycolaldehyde is known to play a crucial role in the prebiotic synthesis of sugars. Hydrogen cyanide is a known and important precursor for synthesis of amino acids and nucleobases. Formamide and acetamide are known to play a crucial act in the formation of nucleobases and phosphorylation of nucleosides to nucleotides. Within their chemical structure they also contain the so-called “CONH” bond that is the only known way to polymerize amino acids into peptides and further into proteins.

“For centuries, comets have been regarded as omens of destruction,” Giri said. “Our findings have revolutionized human perception of comets. The COSAC-reported potentially prebiotic molecules now point to the likely role of comets as harbingers of life on Earth.”

However, many important questions yet remain unanswered and further exploration of comets and other small bodies is indicated, he added.

“Rosetta is an icon of international co-operation, public support and state-of-the-art science and technology. Such missions are crucial prerequisites for human advancement in outer space. The knowledge gained through Rosetta urges us to explore even further,” he said.

(IANS)

Next Story

Air Pollution From Oil and Gas Industries Visible From Space: Study

Air pollution from oil, gas production sites visible from space

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Oil gas industry
Researchers have seen a significant increase in the release of the lung-irritating air pollutant nitrogen dioxide and a more-than-doubling of the amount of gas flared into the atmosphere. Pixabay

Oil and gas production has doubled in some parts of the United States in the last two years, as researchers have seen a significant increase in the release of the lung-irritating air pollutant nitrogen dioxide and a more-than-doubling of the amount of gas flared into the atmosphere.

“We see the industry’s growing impact from space, we really are at the point where we can use satellite data to give feedback to companies and regulators, and see if they are successful in regulating emissions,” said study lead author Barbara Dix from University of Colorado Boulder in the US.

For the study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers set out to see if a suite of satellite-based instruments could help scientists understand more about nitrogen oxides pollution (including nitrogen dioxide) coming from engines in US oil and gas fields.

Combustion engines produce nitrogen oxides, which is a respiratory irritant and can lead to the formation of other types of harmful air pollutants, such as ground-level ozone, the research said.

Oil gas industry
On oil and gas drilling and production sites, there may be several small and large combustion engines, drilling, compressing gas, separating liquids and gases, and moving gas and oil through pipes and storage containers. Pixabay

According to the researchers, on oil and gas drilling and production sites, there may be several small and large combustion engines, drilling, compressing gas, separating liquids and gases, and moving gas and oil through pipes and storage containers.

The emissions of those engines are not controlled.

“Conventional ‘inventories’ meant to account for nitrogen oxides pollution from oil and gas sites are often very uncertain, underestimating or overestimating the pollutants,” said study co-author Joost de Gouw.

“And there are few sustained measurements of nitrogen oxides in many of the rural areas where oil and gas development often takes place,” Dix said.

So the research team turned to nitrogen dioxide data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on board a NASA satellite and the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TropOMI) on a European Space Agency satellite.

They also looked at gas flaring data from an instrument on the NOAA/NASA Suomi satellite system.

Between 2007 and 2019, across much of the US, nitrogen dioxide pollution levels dropped because of cleaner cars and power plants, the team found, confirming findings reported previously.

Also Read- Study Says, World’s Oceans Were Warmest in 2019

The clean air trend in satellite data was most obvious in urban areas of California, Washington and Oregon and in the eastern half of the continental US.

However, several areas stuck out with increased emissions of nitrogen dioxide: The Permian, Bakken and Eagle Ford oil and gas basins, in Texas and New Mexico, North Dakota, and Texas, respectively, the study said. (IANS)