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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

Major Achievement! Scientists Take The First-Ever Image of Black Hole

At the press conference, researchers told the story about how it was much quicker to take the data by plane to the various supercomputers being used to analyze the information.

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Black Hole
An image of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times that of the sun. VOA

Using eight radio telescopes literally spanning the globe, scientists have taken the first-ever photograph of a black hole.

The supermassive black hole is at the center of a huge galaxy called M-87, which is 55 million light-years from Earth.

The picture, the result of decades of work by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHTC), isn’t much to look at. It’s a fuzzy orange and yellow donut floating in space, but the implications for physics, and the incredibly intricate way that researchers got the picture, is science at its best.

The picture is exactly what scientists, particularly the late Albert Einstein, predicted it would look like. There is the eponymous center black hole where gravity is so powerful even light cannot escape, and a circular area of superheated energy rotating around the celestial entity at nearly the speed of light, called the event horizon.

“We now know that a black hole that weighs 6.5 billion times what our sun does exists in the center of M-87,” EHTC scientist Shep Doeleman announced at a press conference Wednesday in Washington. “And this is the strongest evidence that we have to date for the existence of black holes.”

This picture is so important because while scientists have been seeing the effects that black holes have on the structures around them, they have never actually seen one, and this photo in effect proves their existence, as well as one of the foundational principles of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

200 scientists

At its center, the black hole is so big that even though it’s a long distance away, scientists reasoned it was likely to be the largest such structures viewable from Earth. For that reason, M-87 was chosen for the experiment.

More than 200 scientists worked for about a decade to link the global network of eight radio telescopes, using atomic clocks. One by one in an exact sequence, the instruments were pointed at M-87 at what was, in effect, the same time, back in April 2017.

When the experiment was over, the researchers had five petabytes — or a million gigabytes — of visual information to review. At the press conference, researchers told the story about how it was much quicker to take the data by plane to the various supercomputers being used to analyze the information. They said this was easier than trying to transfer that much data into the cloud.

photo
The supermassive black hole is at the center of a huge galaxy called M-87, which is 55 million light-years from Earth.Pixabay

It took two weeks for a group of supercomputers to analyze the data and begin to form all the collected information into the modest photo that scientists released Wednesday.

Also Read: Chinese Researchers Reveal Mechanism of Chronic Stress Promoting Breast Cancer Development

And once that photo was collected, the researchers waited two years to publish their data while scientists from all over the world checked their work and signed off on the idea that what was photographed was actually a black hole.

What happens now?

The team isn’t done, though. They already are planning to create even bigger telescopes than the Earth-sized one they used by incorporating space telescopes like the Hubble and the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope. This should allow researchers to take photos of dozens of other black holes. (VOA)